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Character-Inspired Organization

This month I had the honor to talk to Dr. Vicki Zakrzewski, the Education Director for the Greater Good Science Center, based at the University of California, Berkeley. The Center studies the science of well- being and shares with educators the skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.

Dr. Arthur Schwartz, President, Character.org

Every organization has its own genesis story. Share with us how the Education Program at the Greater Good Science Center came to be.

The history of the GGSC began in 2001. Two UC-Berkeley alumni, Thomas and Ruth Ann Hornaday, wanted to create a center that was dedicated to inner and inter-personal peace. Dr. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley was invited to start the center and one of his first hires was Jason Marsh. Jason came up with the idea that beyond conducting research, the Center should also publish a print magazine that translates the science of empathy, compassion, gratitude, etc.—what we call the “science of a meaningful life”—  into practical ways people can use this science in their lives. About 10 years ago the Center decided to expand beyond its journalistic mission to support educational professionals. Their first step was to hire an Education Director and I was hired.

Let’s imagine that one of our readers is just learning about GGSC’s Education Program. What’s your elevator pitch?

We offer educational professionals insights, tools, and strategies on the science of a meaningful life. How classroom teachers and principals can use the tools of Social-Emotional Learning, Mindfulness, and Character Education, not just for student well-being, but also for their own well-being. We also believe these tools can help school leaders create a positive school climate.

What’s one tool that teachers and school leaders seem to really appreciate?

The gratitude tools we’ve developed, such as how to establish a circle of gratitude in your classroom or for staff meetings. Gratitude is such a powerful and easy way to build connection and trust.  I also think our educators appreciate our emphasis on well-being and our belief that if we want to be effective teachers we have to attend to our own well-being. 

Share with our readers your own professional journey.

It started when I was 13 and wrote in my diary that “I want to teach people how to be happy.” Since that somewhat prescient moment, I started on this journey first as a classroom teacher and then as head of a small private school. But the whole time I was working in schools, I always felt that there was something missing in education. It shouldn’t be all about academics. And then, after trying to juggle full-time teaching while also head of school, I came very close to burning out. So I left the classroom and entered a Ph.D. program in education at Claremont Graduate University. In my second year, Claremont started the first Ph.D. program in Positive Psychology in the world. I had been following the Positive Psychology field from the beginning because I felt that this was part of what was missing in education. So I added Positive Psychology to my Ph.D. During my doctoral work, I had an epiphany when I took a graduate class in positive organizational psychology. I immediately realized that this is what school leaders need to create schools where students and staff thrive. Soon after graduating, I learned that the Greater Good Science Center was looking for an Education Director.

Early on, what was one of your first “shining moments”’ when you knew that the GGSC’s Education Program was making a difference?

It came after our first Summer Institute for Educators in 2013. One of the participants, who was a high school teacher, wrote me that she had set up a table in the back of her class with writing and art supplies. She wanted to create a calming space for her students. That moment made me realize that our Summer Institute was really about empowering teachers to use this science of a meaningful life in creative ways that works for them and their students. Here were 100 or so teachers coming together from all over the world, every single one of them with an interest in making a difference in students’ lives. They spend a week together—it was like summer camp for adults they said—learning about happiness, gratitude, kindness, and sharing ideas on how to bring these ideas into the classroom. They inspired and learned more from one another than anything we could have taught them. We just gave a few ideas and then stood back and watched them fly. There is a lot of power in bringing educators together.

Is there something about character development that you know now that you didn’t know before launching the Education Program at the Greater Good Science Center?

I had spent almost five years digging into the science of Positive Psychology, Social-Emotional Learning, and Character Development. I also have been practicing a type of meditation that is somewhat similar to mindfulness for 30 years. What I didn’t know is how these areas inform and support each other. Character development emphasizes the sort of person we want to become—gives us an ethical framework, in other words. SEL teaches the skills we need to put character into action, and mindfulness is the practice that helps us embody the SEL skills so that we can use them to act with character. Each of these fields really does support the others.

What is the vision for future growth for GGSC’s Education Program?

Our plan is to build content for the moral and civic areas of our work, articles and mini-courses on compassion and humility as well as on integrity and responsibility. We also want to develop communities of practice that meet once a month to explore ways to embed moral and civic content into the classroom and school culture.

Vicki, is there one core value that is your personal “superpower”?

I’m fascinated by humility, not only because I think our culture needs it, but also because I love it when I experience it in others. A humble person makes you feel seen, heard, and accepted for who you are, which is one of the greatest gifts we can give to another person. So, I’m very interested in discovering the different paths to humility. How can we recognize our weaknesses and have a realistic picture of who we are? How can we look at ourselves honestly and ground ourselves in the innate dignity of being a human being, and also to see the dignity of others? How can I be who I am and not harshly judge myself? How can humility help me give the gift of being seen, heard, and valued to another human being?

To learn more about Greater Good in Education, visit their website.