February 24-26 Seminar Will Outline the Success Story in Tulare County, Calif.

Tulare County Flyer for Character Development SeminarThe Tulare County Office of Education would like to share its recipe for building a character-development initiative that forges strong school-community partnerships, produces impressive quantifiable results and spans two decades.

Actually, if you attend the February 24-26 Character Development Seminar in Visalia, California, you will get more than the recipe. You’ll see firsthand how CHARACTER COUNTS! has transformed schools and communities in the district.

Check out the flyer that our friends in Tulare created. It includes some impressive stats that attest to their program’s success.

The big photo you see there is “Pillar Square,” a manifestation of the community’s commitment to CHARACTER COUNTS! and the Six Pillars of Character.

Leading the February seminar is longtime trainer John Forenti, a veteran teacher in the district who was instrumental in making CHARACTER COUNTS! such a big success there. Read more about John in this Q&A that we ran a few years ago.


If you paint it, they will grow.

West Putnam alumni touch up their mural. Photo by Reneh Agha, Porterville Reporter

Murals on school walls are a great way to keep students mindful of the Six Pillars and the importance of good character.

Last year, sixth-grade students and teachers from the West Putnam School in Tulare County, California began working on a CHARACTER COUNTS! mural for their school. Last week, some of those students came back to put the finishing touches on “The Pillars of Character.”

As Esther Avila reports in The Porterville Recorder, the mural depicts Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. Students will see the mural every day when they line up for lunch. (We anticipate zero foodfights at West Putnam School this year.)

For more details, read the story here.

Photo by Reneh Agha, The Porterville Recorder

CC! Trainer John Forenti Q & A


John Forenti

John Forenti, a former Tulare County Teacher of the Year, is one of Josephson Institute’s most distinguished speakers and faculty members. Certified to lead our seminars in three disciplines – character development, sportsmanship, and workplace ethics – he has given training sessions to more than 3,000 educators, parents, and community members since 1996.

To inspire returning and new teachers for the year ahead, we asked Forenti what’s the biggest myth about character education, how come sportsmanship has deteriorated so much, and why teaching is like running a marathon.

CHARACTER COUNTS!: What do you tell teachers who say they have “more important priorities” than character education?
John Forenti: I stress that education is not to make smarter people but better people. There are a lot of smart people who are in prison or under indictment. Ken Lay, the late CEO of Enron, had a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Houston.

Schools and teachers who only prepare students intellectually while ignoring character are preparing their students for possible indictment. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Intellect is not enough. Intelligence plus character, that’s the goal of true education.”

CC!: What’s the biggest myth about character education?
Forenti: That it’s the sole responsibility of families and faith communities. Educators and youth-development organizations also have a responsibility to develop character. As stated in the Aspen Declaration, “this is best achieved when these groups work in concert.”

CC!: Tulare County has one of the most successful character-development programs in the country. What are you doing that other communities aren’t?
Forenti: I get asked that a lot. I invariably respond by saying, “You don’t want our program. You want our County Superintendent of Schools, Jim Vidak.”

Great programs without great people are just programs. They generally fade away after the initial glow has gone dim. What Vidak did was institutionalize it throughout the community:

    1. He sponsored four CHARACTER COUNTS! trainings in three years for educators, business-community members, faith-community members, law enforcement, and the media. That inclusive strategy paid tremendous dividends.

    2. He created the full-time position of CHARACTER COUNTS! coordinator at the Tulare County Office of Education.

    3. He networked with other public officials to promote it, making it much easier for the coordinator to involve them in community efforts.

    4. He built a permanent structure in a centrally located county park with the help of community organizations. It’s called The Pillar Square Monument. People get married there.

    5. He facilitated the “Kid of Character” feature in the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance Register newspapers. Since December 1999, a Kid of Character from one of Tulare County’s schools (over 200) has been featured in those newspapers. That’s not only about institutionalization; it’s now about the community’s legacy. It’s going to be pretty difficult for the next superintendent not to embrace CHARACTER COUNTS! Sustainability indeed!

CC!: A teacher’s background and prejudices can affect how he or she teaches. Is that why character-education training is often more important for teachers than students?
Forenti: Absolutely. Often people have personal values they believe in so strongly that they become what Michael Josephson calls “ethical imperialists” (everyone must be and think just like me). That’s a problem.

Others ascribe to “indiscriminate non-judgmentalism” (I promise not to judge you if you promise not to judge me). That’s asking for an exchange of moral blank checks. The result is an absurd state in which the values of Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler are equally acceptable. That’s also a problem.

The solution for the “ethical imperialist” is to understand that while their values may be important, it’s disrespectful to impose them on others. The solution for the “indiscriminate non-judgmentalist” is to understand that while they should be allowed as much leeway as possible with regard to values, it’s necessary to establish common ground with others that will transcend personal differences.

CC!: Why is a values-based ethical system better at implanting character than a rules-based compliance system?
Forenti: Rules-based compliance systems only establish extrinsic behaviors. Often those behaviors are described as minimal compliance behaviors. If we picture minimal compliance as being the outer ring of the ethical target, aiming at the outer ring means we constantly run the risk of missing the target completely. Values-based systems are intrinsic. They encourage us to aim for the middle of the ethical target. Much better.

CC!: Youngsters respond to games and lessons about character, but the topic’s uncool to teens. What strategies can teachers use with older kids without turning them off?
Forenti: Make it real. Concrete. Teens are faced with difficult choices. Let them set the scene. Engage in Socratic dialogue. Question them about the choices they would make without being accusative.

However, don’t let them get away with “I don’t know.” Ask, “When will you know? How much more information do you need?” Then wait until you get an answer. That may mean minutes, days, or years.

We can’t expect kids to change before our eyes. It doesn’t work that way. But they will change. They nearly always do. And teachers are often the decisive factor that determines the nature of that change.

CC!: You taught high school kids who were on probation. Did you find it easier or harder to strengthen character in them?
Forenti: In some respects, it was easier. Because my students came from pretty tough social environments, the concept of self-sacrifice was familiar ground to them. Clearly, the hill they had to climb was much steeper than the one for students with a more mainstream social environment. But I noticed that because the hill was steeper, when my students finally got to the top, they were stronger climbers.

CC!: Who was your most unforgettable student and why?
Forenti: Having taught for 36 years, that’s a tough one. I’d have to say Jesse Segura. Jesse was a tough kid who got into more than his share of scrapes. When he finally left my class, it wasn’t under the best of circumstances. But I liked him, and we had a relationship based on heavy doses of honesty and mutual respect.

About 10 years later, I was driving on a rural country road when a car zoomed past me and slammed on the brakes. The driver threw the door open and started toward my car. Needless to say, I was more than a bit apprehensive. As the stocky young man got closer, I recognized the familiar gate and crooked half smile of Jesse.

“Mr. Forenti, do you remember me?”

I replied, “Yes, Jesse. I do.”

“Well, I remember you, too,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you I’m married now with two kids and have a good job. Thanks, Mr. Forenti.” He turned around, went back to his car, and drove off.

For a teacher, it doesn’t get better than that.

CC!: What’s the secret to being an unforgettable teacher?
Forenti: Remembering that teaching your subject is not nearly as important as teaching your students.

CC!: Sportsmanship seems to have deteriorated over the years and parents seem more out of control. Why do you think this is?
Forenti: Because we’ve allowed them to be. And because we’ve allowed it, we’ve encouraged it. Refuse to allow winning to become the prime goal of athletic competition. Don’t hire coaches and/or athletic directors who do, and counsel coaches on staff to change. If they don’t, get rid of them. It may be unpopular, but so are athletic programs that hurt kids by embracing a win-at-all-costs mentality.

Understand, though, that I don’t subscribe to the notion that “it’s only a game.” As a teacher/coach, that annoys me greatly as it denigrates the importance of honorable athletic competition. John Naber, Olympic gold-medalist swimmer and spokesperson for the Pursuing Victory With Honor effort, states that the meaning of competition comes from the Latin word competere meaning “to seek together.” It would seem dreadfully shortsighted to think what competitive athletes are seeking is simply to find out who won. It would also do a terrible injustice to those who’ve sought valiantly and lost.

CC!: Coaches can serve as a pivotal adult to many teens. If you could instill one message to coaches, what would it be?
Forenti: That our players remember us long after we’ve forgotten them. In the documentary Hoop Dreams, one of the young men trying to make it as a basketball player recounts a conversation he had with his coach. The coach asks if the young man will remember him if he makes it to the NBA. The player says, “Yes…but will you remember me if I don’t?”

Very few players will make it as college or pro athletes. They’ll make it as something else. We have to ask ourselves, “What do I want these young men or women to say I taught them?” Surely not how to shoot a jump shot or hit a pitched ball.

Amos Alonzo Stagg, the great football coach at the University of Chicago, was once asked by a reporter, “Coach, was this your most successful team?”

His reply for the ages was: “I won’t know for another 20 or 30 years.”

CC!: You’re a long-distance runner and coach. Can any aspects of running be applied to teaching youth or building character?
Forenti: You bet! Perseverance was my greatest asset. Talent certainly wasn’t. It took me five years to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I ran over 10,000 miles in that time and failed in my first two attempts. The distance of the marathon is 26 miles, 385 yards. That represents .0026 percent of the 10,000 miles I ran in preparation for the race.

Character development occurs over a person’s lifetime. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.