Our Moral Responsibilities as Teachers

Our Moral Responsibility

Given the tumultuous state of our society right now, I have found myself thinking a lot lately about a basic question:  What can we educators do to make our world a better place during these challenging times? 

Recently an old debate has resurfaced in the English Language Arts world with a fierce new urgency:  What books should students be asked to read in schools?  It’s a perennial question, but given the country’s changing demographics, strained political discourse, and growing social activism, it’s an especially important question to ask right now.  It’s also complex — it’s not just about which books students should read, but which authors, from which backgrounds, centering on which themes, about which types of characters, from which cultures or eras?

It is also, I believe, an important question for all of us to ask right now — even if we don’t teach English Language Arts.  Because it’s a question that is about more than just reading.  It’s a debate about how we choose curriculum.  Actually, it’s a debate about how we determine our educational goals.  What’s the guiding philosophy that should shape our work?  Given the state of our country, I think it’s vitally important that we all ask this question of ourselves.  

Consider — to what extent should our goals for students be shaped by:

  • The scholarly knowledge within our disciplines?  
  • The utilitarian demands of the marketplace or higher education (“college and career readiness”), or even the utilitarian necessities of living on your own?  
  • The passions and interests of individual learners?
  • The social, moral, and even political vision that we have of what makes a good society populated by good democratic citizens and good human beings?

When I ask myself what I can do as an educator to improve our world, it is this last bullet that I find myself thinking about.  But the more I think about it, the more I realize how much discussion of that goal happens underground, in an unsystematic, uncoordinated way.

Given the context of our educational environment, that’s not surprising.  Both the accountability movement (which thankfully seems to be winding down) and the standards movement (from which Proficiency-Based Learning [PBL] derives) — seem to me to center on the first two bullet points above.  PBL is largely oriented toward college and career readiness — a phrase closely associated with the Common Core, from which many of our PBL standards originate, or perhaps even toward “cradle to career education,” as our last two governors have deemed it (a rather dark view of a career, with its echoes of “cradle to grave,” as a place where one “ends up” — one hopes not for eternity!).  But beyond the broader context of educational movements, there are even more fundamental reasons the social, moral, and political goals are mostly left out of the official language of standards.

For one thing, they’re hard to measure.  Both the accountability movement (with its punitive reliance on standardized testing and official sanctions) and the standards movement (with its behavioristic interest in the precise articulation of what students can demonstrate) have been fixated on assessment, the ability to measure learning.  But social, moral or civic values are notoriously difficult to measure.  Certainly many schools write such goals into their transferable skills — emphasizing values like empathy, tolerance, or appreciation — but rarely do transferable skills carry the same influence as content standards (if any at all).

Another reason the civic dimension doesn’t make it into the official content language in anything but the most bland fashion is that it’s controversial.  When you start talking about what students as human beings need to be exposed to, you’re bound to have strong disagreement.  Do you read Huck Finn, or Between the World and Me?  Is To Kill a Mockingbird framed as a heroic story of fighting injustice, or as a problematic white savior narrative?  (Or is it simply a coming-of-age novel?)  What if that new tenth grade teacher wants to get rid of the month-long Shakespeare unit to do a unit on race and privilege?  Too often it’s awkward enough to broach these conversations with coworkers at all, let alone to imagine coming to a common understanding about the social or moral goals a curriculum should pursue.

That’s why in English Language Arts the Common Core standards are basically just a list of content-neutral skills: “Determine two or more themes and analyze their development.” Yes, but which themes?  “Participate effectively in discussions on grade 11-12 topics, texts, and issues.” Fine, but which topics and which issues?  The implication for teachers is, “It doesn’t matter what books you teach, so long as you give students a chance to practice reading skills and . . .   administer to any other cultural, social, or moral needs as you see fit.  Good luck!” Schools have so many competing priorities, the ones we don’t explicitly articulate or prioritize usually get short shrift.  We spend so much time talking about what skills a graduate needs that we don’t focus on what moral or civic questions a graduate needs to think about.  Often we allow our materials — novels that work well with students, textbooks that are clear and systematic — to determine this content for us.  To me, we’re missing a vital opportunity to be conscious and coordinated about our efforts to foster the development of good human beings and good citizens.

So here is what I propose for teachers next year.  

Determine your philosophy and goals:  I propose that schools make time for teachers to get together in their departments or teams to flesh out their philosophy, goals, and values.  First, what is your guiding philosophy as a department?  What approach shapes your goals for students?  There are lots of philosophy of education frameworks you can use; the one I like is the four bullets up above.  

Then, based on the philosophies that should guide your work, ask what are your goals for students?  Who is the ideal graduate in your department?  What should that person be able to understand, accomplish, or articulate?  Do these goals change based on the state of your society or community?  What’s the balance or hierarchy among these goals?

Develop a Mission Statement:  Once you’ve clarified philosophy and goals, I would advise codifying it into a mission statement for your department or team.  Even if your school has a mission statement already, I think it’s important to create one at more “local” levels.  Frankly, it’s easy to feel as though school- or district-wide goals are overly broad or remote from your daily work.  But team or department goals I think are much more effective for getting everyone on the same page.

Review Curriculum:  Then, start tracing out how you can best achieve these goals.  Review the existing curriculum and see if your actual work is in line with your values.  This is especially important, I believe, with the social, moral, and political dimension of curriculum.  Bring this underground work up into the light of day and reexamine what you’re doing and why.  Are your materials (books that you teach, for instance) supporting your content goals, or are they driving them?  Which themes or issues are students studying during which years?  Are they the right themes, given your departmental goals for students?  What big questions are your units asking students to wrestle with — and are they the right ones?  To what extent are your efforts coherent across grades 9-12?  Are students studying similar themes or topics year after year?  Or are there gaps — important themes that are not studied?

Lastly, consider the “hidden curriculum” in your department.  What are the unstated messages sent to students, and how can you be conscious about ensuring these messages are in line with your values?  There are plenty of good resources to aid in this sort of review.

It’s easy to feel paralyzed at a time like this.  The problems in our society sometimes feel insurmountable, our resources scarce, the time to address these problems short.  While I am always wary of hanging too much responsibility on schools, I do believe that schools are an important tool in improving society.  I think most of us became educators in order to make a difference — not only in individual students’ lives, but in our collective future.  I believe one way we can do this is by working together to clarify our goals for students — especially, during this tumultuous time, our moral and civic goals — and to coordinate our methods for achieving these goals.

A student once asked me why I became a teacher.  Being an English major, I quoted William Wordsworth.  I became a teacher, I said, because I saw such power in each of my students representing “something evermore about to be,” the awesome potential of the future innovator, the future creator, the future advocate in the long arc toward justice — sitting in our classrooms, just waiting to be shown the path.  In that magical, mysterious possibility of each young person before us lies the key to a better, more just future.  We owe it to them to be as conscious and as deliberate in our efforts as possible — especially at a time like now.

Have a great summer, everyone.

Alden Bird teaches English at U-32 High School, where he has worked since 2011.  He is a 2018 Rowland Fellow.  He lives with his wife and 18 month-old son in Vermont.  This is noteworthy because, until last summer, he lived in New Hampshire and commuted 65 minutes each way to work.  He is excited to no longer be doing that.

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