Sam Vanderplas considers ways to nurture the virtues in a school.
Reading Time: 10 minutes

When I settle down for bedtime reading with my boys, we frequently return to one of our favorite stories from Frog and Toad Together, in which Toad, after admiring Frog’s garden, plants seeds of his own. Eager for his seeds to grow, Toad tells them to begin.

“Now seeds,” said Toad, “start growing.”
Toad walked up and down a few times. The seeds did not start to grow.
Toad put his head close to the ground and said loudly, “Now seeds, start growing!”
Toad looked at the ground again. The seeds did not start to grow.
Toad put his head very close to the ground and shouted, “NOW SEEDS, START GROWING!”

Again, there is no response, and Toad, frustrated, is left to reconsider his methods. He cannot command growth. But perhaps he can encourage it.

Selecting the Seeds: Which Virtues?

Beans and broccoli require different care regimens. Beans are planted anytime after the last spring frost, for example, whereas broccoli is started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost, then transplanted outside 4-6 weeks later. If a gardener tries to grow beans on a broccoli care plan, they may not survive the transplanting.

Similarly with the virtues, it makes sense to decide which virtues to plant before planning their care regimen. A clear vision of which virtues one intends to encourage is a prerequisite for encouraging them.

It is good to cultivate desire for the virtues that are most central to a well-lived life so that one’s efforts to live well are productive. A misplaced emphasis on a non- central virtue can undermine one’s whole pursuit of arete. This point is illustrated in Aesop’s fable of the miller, his son, and the donkey, in which the trio prove overly deferent to counsel. On the road, they are criticized by passersby first for not riding the donkey, then for making the young son walk, then for leaving the elderly father to walk, and then for overburdening the donkey. After each critique, they adjust their traveling formation, and finally, after the miller and his son tie the donkey’s feet to a pole and carry it between them, it kicks two feet free, falls into a river, and drowns.


The miller was practicing the virtues of humility and openness to counsel, but he fell short in more central virtues: prudence and temperance. Because he emphasized non-central virtues, he fell short of excellent living.

The virtues are all bound together. They are like a large branch that I saw my son Jack trying to relocate one day during his outdoor play. He tried once to pick it up, but failed, as part of the branch dragged on the ground. He tried again, gripping it at a different spot, but failed for the same reason. Finally, he grasped the branch at its most substantial point, the point most central to its balance, and was able to lift it with ease.

Like Jack’s branch, a life of excellence, including the minor virtues, is attainable to one who practices the central virtues. Because these central, or cardinal, virtues are so vital to excellent living, the great minds of the West have long labored to identify them. Plato named the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance in The Republic and added a fifth, piety, in Protagoras. The four cardinal virtues were affirmed in Aristotle’s Rhetoric along with five others, and they were affirmed on their own by Cicero in De Inventione and De Officiis, by Augustine of Hippo in De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae, and by others counted among our great thinkers.

Each of the virtues is a habit. They are not features of one’s personality, although some temperaments favor certain virtues, nor can they be acquired once and for all in this life. Rather, acquisition of the virtues is like acquisition of mastery in baseball or chess.

The most central virtue, prudence, is the habit of practical wisdom. It encompasses both assessing situations and making good decisions. The next, justice, is the habit of giving to each his due. The next, fortitude, is the habit of acting with enterprise in deciding to pursue a worthy goal, with courage in overcoming fear and obstacles to success, and with endurance in pursuing the goal despite tedium or difficulty. Finally, temperance is the habit of controlling one’s impulses.

Planning the Garden

In one of my first gardens, I expended great effort in digging up the earth, preparing the soil, and planting my seeds, but I realized several weeks after planting that I had left too little room between my plants. They were sprouting too closely together, and the garden held too little water and nutrients to nourish them all. I tried to make up for the mistake by picking excess plants to reestablish adequate spacing, but the damage had been done, and the growth of all the plants had been stunted. Because I did not plan the garden with the right conditions for my plants to thrive, by the end of the growing season, they had produced only miniature vegetables.

Like my garden, a school brings forth fruit most abundantly when it is planned with the right conditions for virtue to thrive. Some preliminary conditions are whether the school’s branding, policies, and curriculum reflect and support its goals for encouraging virtue. Does the school crest or logo incorporate the virtues, and do teachers, parents, and students hear the explanation of its meaning? Do the virtues figure prominently in the school’s mission? Is the dress code designed well enough to temper inclinations toward undesirable attire? Is the dress code itself temperate in that it does not exceed a manageable level of complexity? Are disciplinary procedures commensurate to infractions? Are they prudent in that they are practical and likely to redirect students toward appropriate behavior? Does the academic program highlight and praise paragons of virtue? Does it, especially in English and history, nourish the moral imagination? As Vigen Guroian says in Tending the Heart of Virtue, “stories, especially fairy tales, are invaluable resources for the moral education of children” (33).

It is good for a school’s teachers to reflect and support its goals in educating for virtue. One of a headmaster’s most effective methods for keeping a school true to its mission is the hiring of excellent teachers who model and love the virtues and are driven by a desire to pass on virtue to students.

In examining a prospective teacher’s college transcript, especially if the teacher has graduated recently, one can look for serious courses and high marks in them. It takes prudence to select serious courses, and to excel in them it takes fortitude in study and temperance in other activities.

In a phone interview, one can listen for habits of speech and ask prudent questions. Does the teacher speak with dignity and eschew base language? Does he show temperance and avoid overstatement? One can ask the teacher to resolve a hypothetical classroom-discipline scenario. His answer here can attest to any or all of the cardinal virtues. What is he reading, and does the selection display prudence?

In examining a writing sample, one can look for precision of thought. Does the teacher avoid hyperbole? It takes temperance to restrain exaggeration, and it takes justice to give each idea its due. Does the teacher exercise prudence in staying on topic and progressing logically from one point to another?

In watching a sample lesson, one can look for virtues. Does the teacher temper the passions of the class? Has the teacher worked diligently (with fortitude) to prepare the lesson? Does he treat ideas, events, and students with justice? Does he exercise prudence in engaging students, ensuring that they understand key points and modifying his lesson on the fly as appropriate?

In checking references, one can gather information about the teacher’s virtues. Does the teacher make prudent decisions? Does he treat students equitably? Does he assign homework and grades in a just manner? Does he work diligently? Does he devote his time to worthy projects? Does he see tasks to completion? Does he restrain the passions and behave with moderation?

Even excellent teachers, however, who have shown themselves supportive of the school’s mission, benefit from training that gives them a thorough knowledge of the mission and the school’s methods of implementing it. Explanation and discussion of the school’s mission, rules, and procedures is worthy of significant summer training time, as is detailed study of the curriculum, in light of the mission. Summer training is a valuable time in which administrators can set the tone, communicate the vision, and help teachers structure their classes to support the mission.

Preparing the Soil: What Seeds Should Parents and Students Expect?

It is good for the school to devote significant time to prospective parents, encouraging them to participate in school tours that include thorough information on the school’s mission, curriculum, and methods. If the parents do not support the mission, it is best for them to discover it before they apply or enter, before the time of the teachers and the resources of the school have been expended.

The headmaster can communicate the school’s vision and set expectations for current parents by promulgating messages on topics of benefit to the community. While these letters can address day-to- day matters too, it is good both to keep them to a readable length and to reserve a significant portion for communication of vision.

He can also communicate the school’s vision by holding talks with parents during the school year. These talks can take the form of a mini-lecture on a facet of virtue, classical education, or the school’s mission, followed by discussion. The talks may draw only a fraction of the school’s parents, but parents that care enough to attend are likely to be very involved in the activities of the school and influential in shaping the opinions of others. The school will benefit from their informed support.

In school furnishings, one can emphasize what is meaningful, noble, specific, and subtle. In quotations and posters, rather than banalities such as “math is fun,” for example, one can select meaningful and cherished words such as, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Instead of cheap or gaudy illustrations, one can select noble images from nature, history, and fine art that are consistent with one’s goals in educating for virtue. Finally, in some cases, and especially for the upper grades, instead of posters that heavy-handedly shout the names of virtues, one can select subtle images such as Cincinnatus surrendering his commission. Allow the minds of students to rise to the occasion of subtle art.

Cultivating the Virtues

David Isaacs, in the invaluable Character Building: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, notes that a teacher can cultivate prudence by staging activities in such a way that both reading comprehension and listening comprehension are essential, training students to gather and retain information in a way that leads to accurate assessment of a situation. He can insist on memorization and accuracy to teach students the practice of retaining important facts accurately. Especially in essays, he can help students analyze their criteria for judging moral dilemmas (196-198).

To cultivate justice, Isaacs notes that a teacher can help students appreciate the reasons for rules and insist that students adhere to them, make amends when necessary, and consider each person’s circumstances (173-177). Perhaps most importantly, he can teach them to temper justice with mercy. As Portia says in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, “consider this, / That, in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy.”

A teacher can cultivate fortitude by motivating students to strive for excellence, assigning challenging work, holding students to high standards, and encouraging them by word and example to endure discomforts such as challenging study sessions for the sake of a worthy cause. It is good to keep sight of an important precursor to acts of fortitude: belief that a cause is worthy of pursuit. Greathearted acts spring from convictions of the worthiness of a cause.

One prerequisite for prudent decisions is the restraint of one’s impulses. Isaacs notes that temperance includes distinguishing between what is reasonable and what is self-indulgent. A teacher can insist that children control themselves and behave in an orderly manner.
He can teach them to practice temperance in the use of their time—both an opportunity to grow in virtue and an important study skill. He can teach children to avoid the trap of perfectionism and know when they have studied with appropriate time and focus. He can also teach children that temperance is not rightly associated with a dour or ascetic disposition, but with an order and balance that brings health and joy to its practitioner (115-124).

Teachers can take advantage of the special role of literature and history in cultivating the moral imagination. They can lift up the examples of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance shown, for example, by Gandalf, Atticus Finch, Lucy Pevensie, and Jean Valjean, by Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Winston Churchill, and Fabius Cunctator.

Classroom management and discipline is an essential baseline, but cannot be taken for granted. It is a good habit for teachers to regularly and gracefully remind their students of their expectations for classroom behavior. When correction becomes necessary, one good approach
is for the teacher to minimize the loss of class time and, as appropriate, speak with the student after class, taking care to speak with kindness and taking care that the student understands the reason for the discipline and agrees with its justice. Some of a teacher’s most effective moments in educating for virtue can take place in helping a student understand why an action is undesirable or a consequence is just.

One of the most important daily jobs of the headmaster is sitting in on classes and offering feedback for teachers. This is how the headmaster improves the quality of the school’s instruction in both content and virtue. He can take notes both on the teacher’s delivery, classroom management, and methods, as well as on students and any potential problem spots in terms of content or virtue. It may be most edifying for the teacher if they meet the same afternoon, while the memory of the class is fresh for each of them, to offer insights in a collegial and productive manner and, as fitting and necessary, consider possible solutions together.

It is also helpful to encourage teachers to observe each other’s classes and share resources and assessments from time to time, especially but not exclusively for teachers of the same course. We can learn a great deal from our colleagues. This practice will give teachers recourse to a steady flow of new ideas for training in virtue.

The headmaster is also the guardian of class time. A vibrant school will offer a variety of edifying extracurricular activities. These are good for students, and it is good to encourage them. In some cases, however, the headmaster may need to defend the greater good by keeping the tide
of extracurricular demands, insofar as it is possible and reasonable, from washing over class time, which can disrupt the daily labor of the liberal arts and stunt the growth of fortitude.

In the Frog and Toad story, after his initial frustration, Toad begins a different kind of seed-growing program. He reads stories and poems to the seeds, sings to the seeds, plays music for the seeds, and finally falls asleep, exhausted. When he wakes up, lo and behold, little green leaves are poking up through the earth of his garden. The seeds have finally sprouted.

To assess the growth of virtue in the short term, of course, one can attend to the behavior of students, which gives evidence of whether the intellect grasps and the will desires the virtues. The words of Christ apply: “You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Matt. 7:16) When thorns or thistles are brought forth, teachers can discern whether the problem is one of intellect or will and prepare themselves to make a persuasive, attractive case for the virtue in need of nourishment.

We should also note, however, that the seeds sprouted while Toad slept and that the activities in Toad’s seed-growing program did not actually cause the growth. Like Toad, who slept while his seeds sprouted, we may not observe the seeds of virtue sprouting after students have left our purview. And like Toad, we cannot cause students to embrace virtue. We can, however, leave a beautiful icon in their minds to fire the moral imagination in years to come. A seed of virtue planted by a teacher’s example or a story from history or literature may be choked by weeds, and a plant that flourished early may wither. Conversely, a seed that lay dormant, never breaking through the soil, may in the teacher’s absence take root, thrive, and produce a crop many times that which was sown.