Friendswood ISD faculty and staff came piling in through the doors of the Friendswood High School auditorium on Thursday, Aug. 9 to listen to Houston Kraft, motivational speaker and founder of CharacterStrong, speak words of inspiration for the new school year. Kraft has spoken globally to promote his message of building strong character within school systems in order to create a more united world.
Kraft began his speech by telling the audience a story about a woman who sat beside him on a plane many years ago. Her name was Helga and she struck up a conversation with him as they flew. In their conversation, Kraft told her all about his strong belief in showing kindness to the world. This brought Helga to tears. She said the last time she had been on a plane was three years earlier when she learned her dad had passed away. When the plane landed, Helga was overcome with emotion and collapsed on the ground in the airport. Stricken with grief, she sat there crying for two hours as she watched nearly 3,000 people walk past her without saying a word.
“Not one person stopped,” Kraft said. “All of those people and not a single person stopped to ask if she was okay. I believe the world is all about relationships, but we’re in a time where relationships are lacking. Students can have 10-15 conversations online, but they can’t go up to a stranger and introduce themselves.”
Kraft said building these relationships and showing empathy and kindness are things that have to be explicitly taught. He emphasized the importance of teaching “the whole child” and not just teaching what is needed to pass a test.
“Especially in education, it’s possible to meet all of our responsibilities in our job, and still not be very good at it,” Kraft said. “More than ever, students need [teachers] to curate information. They have access to it all online, so education is no longer about being transactional. Now, we have to show students how to be relational.”
This idea of character development in classrooms is something directly associated with Social-emotional learning (SEL), one of the main initiatives of FISD during the 2018-2019 school year. SEL is defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” FISD already teaches a character education with six pillars of character traits in place: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. In unison with CharacterStrong, it is the belief of FISD that teaching these traits to students will help them develop a stronger identity of purpose in the classroom and in their lives outside of school.
“Character plus intelligence creates compassionate, capable people,” Kraft said. “The more opportunities young people have to practice kindness, the more likely they are to build the habit of kindness. Students with strong character and a good education are the ones who go on to change the world.”
Kraft went on to give his listeners examples of how to implement kindness and character building into their work environment through his program he calls the CharacterStrong Gym. Teachers were given the opportunity to learn about how to teach kindness so they can pass it along to their students.
Kraft ended his speech where he started it.
“Going back to that day on the plane, there was something Helga said to me that really made me think. She said kindness isn’t normal,” Kraft said. “The pathway to a more kind world is to teach it.”
Many audience members said they were touched by Kraft’s words. Among them was Joel Estrada, FHS Spanish teacher.
“I love the message. I could relate to what he was saying. We need to focus on teaching our students about character,” Estrada said. “I practice it in my classroom: one of the things I always do is talk about how we should treat others and help others.”
Estrada also agreed with Kraft’s message on how character building will enhance students’ education.
“If we teach them to be kind to others, then they will be able to be open, and when they’re more open, then they’re more willing to learn,” Estrada said.
Diane Myers, assistant superintendent of secondary curriculum & instruction, said she believes the focus on SEL will help with the safety of schools as well.
“The district safety committee recognized the importance of social emotional well-being as one of the most important layers in helping to make schools a safe place, so the decision was made to bring in a speaker who could address that area,” Myers said. “The message from CharacterStrong will reinforce the importance of relationships, respect for others, empathy, self-worth and how all those components help to make schools a place of safety and growth.”