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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Ethical Prerogative: Teacher as Social Agent Confronting the Pandemic

two people sitting at table with a laptop computer

two people sitting at table with a laptop computer

Sara Garcia, Ph.D.

Photo: Unsplash

Sara Garcia is an associate professor with the School of Education and Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University and a Faculty Scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.


Critical thinking leads us to honesty which is the presumed result of critical analysis. When we encourage critical thinking skills, we do not tell our students what not to believe but encourage a focus on thinking about their own environments. A high school teacher from our local ethnically diverse community was asked to comment on his fear in starting the academic year under the duress of uncertainty due to emergency precautions as a result of the pandemic. In an atmosphere of constant and spurious decisions made about how we will conduct our educational process for the academic year, it is important to heed the testimony of teachers working in the frontlines and document how we can support constant unpredictable change, especially in the preparation of educators.

Traditionally, most secondary teachers were not encouraged to think critically through their own education and rarely are able to examine and use critical reflection as part of their content teaching. As professionals, their thinking as teachers has been shaped by the State of California credentialing process. Typically, they have not had an opportunity to understand how external and internal forces shape their lives. Many classroom teachers have not exercised critical reflection in their own education. Yet, in today’s classrooms we encourage teachers to question the achievement motivation of their students. We expect students, especially in secondary classrooms, to be self-motivated to learn without building a platform for critical analysis in everyday thinking.

Scholars advocate the use of self-reflections on an ongoing basis: what do I feel and why, what am I doing and why, and for what purpose? Teacher educators encourage constant awareness of constructivist principles. Often we use de-constructivist notions of process to encourage a re-construction of knowledge gained from process. This set of skills and concepts which are less often recognized and valued, envision open-ended, generative, imaginative, and experimental thinking in all activities. The realities of working under continual change due to the pandemic crisis affecting schools are microcosms that mirror and often magnify our social realities. Reflection and critical analysis of everyday events are crucial in order to improve the dynamics of educational goals, not only from the perspective of the teacher but also the respect and guidance that teachers provide the students in the learning process. Schooling as the pinnacle of social, political, and cultural representation of society is central to our future.

The cognitive development of adolescents in our local schools is a prime canvas for encouraging probing for learning with the immediate environment and as an extension to students’ own communities. Moreover, as teachers preparing for certifications complete an intense academic program, it is imperative to develop a collaborative disposition. As agents of change, both new professionals and experienced classroom teachers, often are committed to teach in communities of underprivileged students, as well as to meet the challenges of teaching ethnically and linguistically diverse students with care and respect. Educators working toward change foster an inclusive environment to confront the social and cultural realities of schooling. As they develop a sense of self, and a belief in their capabilities as professionals who appreciate the histories as well as the dispositions and multicultural perspectives of communities in which they teach, praxis is central.

As critically conscious educators, teachers understand the social reality of their students relative to the world and thus together are able to help transform it—not only for the improvement of students’ lives but also for the quality of their families, and the communities they serve. This critical perspective potentially transforms a teacher from the traditional role model to social change agent. All of our theoretical goals for preparing teachers to work as social justice conscientious educators are being tested by the pandemic environment. Teachers as agents, are catapulted into dealing directly to serve students through process, expected to integrate the co-creation of values and constantly use diligent and skillful use of reason in all aspects of teaching.

As teachers navigate their conduct on moral and social priorities, learning as an everyday process, must focus on the importance of personal decision making, conduct, and belief. Since most schools are currently functioning online in order to practice social distancing, for the health and safety of students, teachers face new realities dealing directly with students in their efforts designing protocols for teaching and learning.

Covid-19 poses challenges that require all educators to prioritize the health of their communities. As we rapidly reconfigure our approach to education, high schools are dealing with many social and moral issues that teachers simply are not prepared to confront or simply not able to predict prior to making contact. A recent testimony of a ten-year veteran teacher from a high-performance San Jose high school, was asked to testify after his first day of teaching. This teacher represents a community with a diverse multiethnic population of two thousand students. His testimony highlights the most immediate crucial concerns of a practicing teacher that cares about the welfare of all students. Responding to the question, “What was your worst fear when starting the school year? The following are his responses:

How do I keep students engaged? It’s a whole new set of instincts again, day in and day out—being able to read students’ body language, the tone of their voice, and … understanding their level of engagement—that is all gone. Now finding a huge learning curve—zoom bombing—it’s a whole new element to contend with.

You can't have people coming into your room, bullying, sexually harassing people, putting up pornographic images, saying things to you that are just utterly offensive, racist—that's being said to me. Where's the support? I know we're all trying to figure this out, but I think that safety should have been a priority. 

How are we going to keep kids safe in the room? Because let's be real, when you're behind a screen[students] start saying things that…. they never would say in front of the teacher or group. Then other students start to feed off it in the chat and it becomes … this beast that should never happen because of one toxic little seed. There must be a plan in place for the safety of your students … period. I think we're being reckless. 

Two girls got literally victimized in the room and I needed admin to, at least have my back by telling me, hey, try this next time. I had to go out on my own and just learn. And it was honestly so defeating as a teacher. You come into the first day, already nervous, not knowing if you can do this and you're excited and your first day is sabotaged.  

The testimony provided by this teacher is only partially reported in this essay. Issues of honesty, student diversity, approaching the community, roles of administrative leadership, collaborative agency, and social justice are addressed within the transcribed protocol. Along with the excitement of the first week of the school year, both experienced teachers and new professionals are facing dilemmas that have not been predicted due to not being able to have person-to-person contact. Teaching online has many challenges that will require experience before new demands, especially with the use of technology, are adequately addressed and ameliorated. All aspects of our present pandemic situation affect our commitment to our ethical prerogative and our agency toward providing our students with a just and equitable education. 

Sep 1, 2020