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Character-Inspired Organization

It was my honor to talk with Dr. William Trusheim, a long-time educator who is currently the president of the New Jersey Alliance for Social, Emotional, and Character Development.

Dr. Arthur Schwartz, President, Character.org


Q: Bill, every organization has its own genesis story. Share with us how the NJASECD came to be.

Well, to begin, we are an all-volunteer nonprofit organization. The Rutgers Center for Social and Character Development used to run the Schools of Character Program as well as other initiatives and grant projects, but when funding for the Center dried up, a group of us asked: Where do we go from here? Phil Brown led that group along with Rebecca Sapora-Day, Maurice Elias, Eileen Dachnowicz, and others. We decided to start a volunteer organization to take on the work of the center. I remember a very robust discussion about naming the organization. Should it focus on Character Education, Social-Emotional Learning or what? Maurice and Phil always believed in the strong connection between SEL and Character Development, so we chose a name centering on SECD. Looking back, this was such a good choice.

Q: Let’s imagine that one of our readers is just learning about NJASECD. What’s the organization’s elevator pitch?

We run the Schools of Character program in New Jersey. We work hard to support any school or educator in New Jersey who wants to model and teach the social-emotional skills and core ethical values that lead to good character. The key to our success is how we encourage schools to mentor each other. Even during Covid-19, we are still finding ways for schools to connect and support each other even though it has had to be through remote connections.

Q: How many schools in New Jersey are involved with NJASECD?

About 200 schools have been recognized as state or national schools of character as well as emerging and honorable mention schools. Before the pandemic, we held an annual statewide conference to appropriately recognize these schools. We start the day by recognizing our National and State Schools of Character followed by over 30 breakout sessions that school leaders can attend. I can’t say enough about how our conference serves to inspire everyone, including our NJASECD volunteers without whom none of this would be possible.

Q: Bill, share with our readers a bit about your own professional journey.

I started out as a teacher and band director. Music was the vehicle I used to teach what I thought was important, and for me, establishing positive relationships with my students was most important. I am still in touch with students I taught 50 years ago.

I then became an assistant middle school principal in charge of discipline and behavioral issues. This can be a daunting task with middle school students.  Like most assistant principals, I started to communicate to students the different school infractions and the consequences. But I soon realized there is a difference between the child and the child’s behavior. I was not disciplining with dignity. I went back to my band director experience when I understood the difference between making kids do something because I was a taskmaster and wanting them to realize that it was up to them to want the band to be great. In this regard, self-regulation was the key. This insight continued to guide me as I became a principal and superintendent.

Q: Early on, what was one of your first “shining moments” when you knew that your commitment to SEL and Character Development was making a difference?

It was 2006. That was the first year that Character.org began to recognize State Schools of Character. My school was one of the first to be recognized. I still remember going to Rutgers with my school team and being part of the recognition ceremony. Support from the Rutgers Center and New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) made this ceremony possible. Another milestone occurred when we became partners with the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association (NJPSA) who got involved with helping us with our annual conference. Our relationships with NJEA and NJPSA have been important in our success.

Q: Bill, is there something about fostering and cultivating character that you know now that you didn’t know when you were a classroom teacher and band director?

How important the “soft skills” are. I’ll never forget one student. I first met him when he was in third grade. Even back then his one goal was to be the class valedictorian. He was really intelligent, but he didn’t always fit in. He did graduate near the top of his class, but when he went off to college, he was being challenged academically for the first time in his life. He didn’t have the skills to cope. He had to take a semester off to get it together. My point is that teaching academics alone is not enough. We need to teach resilience and other core values as well.

Q: What is NJASECD’s vision for future growth?

Remember, we are an all volunteer nonprofit. Nobody is being paid. Most of us are retirees. We are involved because NJASECD gives us purpose and meaning. We make a great team and working together so well has led to our success. Our number one challenge is to identify and support younger school leaders. That’s why we’re investing so much time and energy in working with schools through our three Regional Networking Centers. We know it’s getting to be time for us to pass the baton to the next generation who are as committed as we are to SEL and character development and we are looking to get them more actively involved in our organization.

Q: I know how important service learning is to you. Can you share with our readers why?

It’s all about student empowerment and engagement. Service learning helps students to become active learners – to take charge of their own learning. Service learning helps kids connect to the content and do something significant with it. When this happens, the content becomes personally relevant. I really believe that kids can make a real difference in the world and there is no better lesson for them to learn!

Q: Bill, is there one core value that could be described as your personal “superpower”?

I always asked the members of my school – students and adults alike – to think about what kind of school they would want to go to. Everyone always says it should be a school characterized by mutual respect. So RESPECT is #1 for me.