Making School Like Home Sweet Home: A Counselor’s Journey in Character Education

As we draw closer to the Character Education Partnership’s annual conference (Oct. 30 – Nov. 2 in Washington, D.C.), we’re featuring guest posts from educators who represent a CEP-designated National School of Character. In today’s post, Barbara Gruener, Counselor and Character Coach at Westwood-Bales Elementary in Friendswood, Texas, looks back on her journey as a character-education advocate. Barbara is also the author of What’s Under Your Cape? Superheroes of the Character Kind, which recently received a Mom’s Choice Gold Award.

(Learn more about the CEP conference and save your spot at

By Barbara Gruener

I no longer have that bumper sticker I designed 13 years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. I had left secondary education to work at the elementary level and I was attending a three-day Student Development Workshop (SDW) (formerly called CDS) to learn more about CHARACTER COUNTS!. The task was to create a bumper sticker to encapsulate our thoughts about the Six Pillars of Character.

On my bumper sticker, I drew a picture of a house, followed by the word “sweet,” followed by another house. Home sweet home. I couldn’t help but think that character has to begin in the home, and I wasn’t sure what all of that had to do with me. Nor was I ready for how it would change my life as it activated my moral compass. Upon further reflection following that training, I decided that I could make a difference by taking the Six-Pillar framework back to my school to help create a caring climate that would make it feel like our home.

Westwood Elementary was already a nice, comfortable school with very involved parents and a supportive community. People were warm and welcoming. But some rough spots just prior to my arrival had found our state scores declining and staff morale at an all-time low. It seemed like a good time for our district to refresh and revitalize the character-education initiative that had been introduced by some community members back in 1987. I had learned in the seminar that an important part of CHARACTER COUNTS! is making the Six Pillars a common language, so I started small by displaying those six words around the campus.

BarbaraG-SixPillarsA fundamental part of the CHARACTER COUNTS! approach is embodied in the TEAM acronym — Teach, Enforce, Advocate, Model — so I taught, enforced, advocated for and modeled those six values the best I could. But, as the expression goes, there is no “I” in TEAM, so it wasn’t long before it became clear that I couldn’t grow a sustainable character education program by myself.

Fortunately, our school family seemed hungry for positive change, and I was eager to serve. We formed a “Character Crew,” consisting of a representative from each grade level joined by a few community stakeholders, our administrators, two paraprofessionals and me. Using the Character Education Partnership’s (CEP) Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education, we developed a strategy to grow our initiative and propel us forward.

We started with staff training. It was at the start of the 2003-2004 school year that we gathered off campus on our first day back with a retreat-style workshop day so that we could set our campus improvement goals together and bond as a team. Soon afterward, we created our vision statement: Dynamically Shaping Hearts and Minds for the Future. At that same meeting, we wrote a mission statement:

Westwood’s students are valued and valuable. Guided by core character principles, they are well-mannered, respectful citizens who possess a strong academic foundation which fuels a continual passion for learning. 

We put some programs in place that would put meat on the Six-Pillar skeleton: Kelso’s Choices to empower students with problem-solving skills while reducing peer cruelty, and Capturing Kids’ Hearts to help staff nurture self-managing classrooms for all students.

We earned two Promising Practices from CEP; one for our Hometown Heroes mentorship partnership with Friendswood High School, the other for our Warm Up, America! knitting club.

Our attendance went up, our discipline referrals went down, and state test scores were at an all-time high. We were enjoying the academic as well as the social-emotional success that seemed to flow naturally from an increasingly strong character education program.

In 2007, the CEP named us the inaugural Texas State School of Character and a National School of Character (NSOC) finalist. But we weren’t there yet. We had a site visit that year and the next year. Neither time were we selected as an NSOC, but both times we received valuable feedback that would serve to strengthen and grow our program.

We focused more on empowering and engaging students by giving them voice and choice. We kept working to connect our students through morning meetings. And we gave our program a better shot at sustainability when I handed over the reins to our music teacher who became head of the Character Crew.

In the spring of 2009, we welcomed our third set of NSOC visitors and, sure enough, because of how we’d carried out the suggestions that took us deeper rather than wider, our ever-improving character program met the standard and we were named a National School of Character.

BarbaraG-WizardofOzIn the fall of 2009, a group of us from the Westwood family headed to the CEP’s National Forum on Character Education in Washington, D.C. Dressed as the crew from the Wizard of Oz, we told attendees the story of our journey down Character Road.

It was at that National Forum that we planned our NSOC Open House, scheduled for February of 2010. We welcomed 33 educators from other Houston-area schools and spent the day showcasing our best practices. I think we planted some seeds, as two of those schools have now become National Schools of Character: North Pointe Elementary (2013) in Clear Creek ISD and Southside Elementary (2014) in Angleton ISD. It is so rewarding to have been able to mentor them, and we are proud of what they’ve done to cultivate those seeds and reap the harvest.

Shortly after receiving our NSOC distinction, I was invited to serve as an NSOC site visitor. This gave me the opportunity to work with dozens of remarkable character education programs which, in turn, gave me ideas and inspiration to strengthen our own program.

Four years ago, things changed again for Westwood Elementary when we merged with the school next door and became the preK-5th grade school community now known as Westwood-Bales. We now get to keep our students for two more years, allowing for additional cross-age mentoring opportunities as we continue to bond, united as one, with the school next door.

This October, I’ll be returning to the National Forum in Washington, D.C. I’ve attended 12 times before, presenting breakout sessions, walking across the stage to accept two Promising Practices and an NSOC award, and serving as emcee for an NSOC awards luncheon.

But this time, I’m filled with a new excitement, as I’ll be delivering the opening keynote. I’m psyched about my topic: “Kindness Is the Real Global Warming.” And I’m jazzed that it will be on Halloween — another chance to dress for success as I work to plant more seeds in the hearts and minds of even more people.

Won’t you join us in learning how to make your school or organization a home sweet home away from home? I hope to see you there!

Barbara Gruener is a school counselor in Texas who regularly contributes to this blog, in addition to maintaining her own blog, The Corner On Character. Her new book, What’s Under Your Cape? Superheroes of the Character Kind, recently received a Mom’s Choice Gold Award. The book is available on her blog as well as on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.