My CharacterStrong Pilgrimage - One Teacher’s Journey to Build Character


Written By: Andy DiDomenico

When I was a teenager, my ninety-two-year-old grandfather came to live with my family. He was born in the nineteenth century, worked as a lawyer at New York City’s infamous Tammany Hall, and was a man of his times. By the 1990s, much of his perspective on the world was outdated. His views were intolerant, biased and, sometimes, bigoted. I accepted him for what he was: a grumpy, old man. But one event changed my worldview and, in retrospect, my life forever.

One afternoon, I was bounding up the stairs when I stopped before my front door to hear my father scolding my grandfather. My dad was instructing him there was an impressionable teenager in the house and his behavior had to stop. The lessons from that brief interaction stuck with me to this day. Prejudice and intolerance are not acceptable. We must not judge people by race, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation but, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “by the content of their character.”  My journey into manhood and into the education profession has been focused on creating inclusiveness, personal relationships, and character culture.

Fast forward to 2006, I accepted the head football coaching position at my high school alma mater. The program had fallen on hard times. It was a mess practically, philosophically, and culturally. From the outset, our staff embarked on building a program of character and an organization of which our families, school, and community would be proud.

We committed weekly practice time to character education lessons centered on love, commitment, grit, humility, and service to others. The positive impacts were felt immediately.  Our program flourished on the field and in the school community. By 2013, along with a world-class athletic director, Dr. Liam Frawley, our football and athletic programs were recognized locally, regionally, and nationally culminating with the National Public High School Athletic Program of Excellence awarded by Coach and Athletic Director magazine. Building on our athletic successes, Dr. Frawley and I looked to extend the character focus and infusion of core values into the classroom.

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This is where our progress stalled. We compiled research and anecdotal evidence in support of introducing a character and leadership class.  Yet, even with years of reading, professional development, and conference attendance, we were unequipped to implement a comprehensive, intentional character development curriculum at the high school level. That’s when the Twitterverse intervened.

In February 2016, I stumbled across a tweet by John Norlin containing the Greek word, agape.  Agape is deliberate, selfless, unconditional love and care for the well-being of others. This one word was my hook. I dove into John’s tweets to learn more about his philosophy, mission, and vision for bringing social-emotional learning to young people. The more I read about John and the CharacterStrong team, the more I knew I had to bring the CharacterStrong curriculum back to New York.

In August 2016 my wife and I flew to Seattle for a five-day vacation culminating in a full day CharacterStrong training. As soon as I met John and walked into the room full of like-minded educators I knew I had found the answer. The why, what, and, most importantly, the how was so evident and the CharacterStrong curriculum has become the connective tissue of our social-emotional program. Enrollment in our character leadership class has quadrupled in just three years as students gravitate to relationship-building, servant-leadership, and intentionally practicing our core values.

While that day in the early 90s changed my worldview forever, our CharacterStrong pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest gave me the tools to bring my vision for a more just world to life - in my classroom and beyond.  


About the Author:
Andy DiDomenico is a History and Leadership teacher at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg, NY, Sprint Football coach at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and advocate for building character culture and social-emotional wellness in schools and education based athletic programs. He has had the opportunity to share his mission and vision with educators nationally, most recently at the Character.org National Convention in Washington, DC, and recounts his character journey in his blog titled My CharacterStrong Pilgrimage.