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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Ethics of Teaching

woman writing on a whiteboard

woman writing on a whiteboard

Brian Buckley

Thought Catalog/Unsplash

Brian Buckley is a senior lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, Co-Chair of the Provost's Adjunct Faculty and Lecturers Council, and a Faculty Scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?
Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.”

--“A Man for All Seasons”

Unfortunately, the year 2020 has forced decisions in reaction to changing events. From the virus, to the lockdowns, to George Floyd, to the California fires, to closed schools, people have managed their lives with the greatest patience and strength imaginable. But they are managing, not winning. Until the vaccine and election, life seems at best to be riding out the turbulence, trying to steer wherever possible. With such pressures, it is hard to be reflective and purposeful in our decision making. Most philosophers, however, believe that ethics must be anchored by moral principles that prevent case-by-case or reactive decision-making. Ethics, for example, requires consistency and reciprocity—where like cases are decided alike and I do not do to others what I would not have done to myself.

Self Reflection

Teachers are not immune from pressures to jump from case to case or impulsively manage their lives. They too experience confusion, depression, and exhaustion. Excellence, however, requires adherence to moral goods. And, reflective pause in a time of tragedy and uncertainty to examine her ethical role as a teacher is essential. Such an approach is central to the character ethics tradition, exemplified most notably in the work of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. This tradition relies on self-examination about our good and bad habits because only through examination may we determine who we are and where we fail. Baltasar Gratian, the Spanish Jesuit, said, “There are mirrors for the face, but the only mirror for the spirit is wise self-reflection.” This is akin to Socrates’ idea, spoken at his defense, that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Who we are most intimately, and the source of our actions, is the good and bad habits we have. We must therefore take the time to pause, be mindful, and through self-examination know what they are.

For a teacher, there are at least three elements that speak of good character in chaotic times. They are habitual commitments to Students, Community, and Subject. The three may be understood as interlocking, so that improving in one means improving in the others. And, like justice, they are the habitual commitment to serve the common good, but through teaching.

Serving as an Example

Most obviously, a teacher has a duty to her students, and the good teacher has made such a commitment second nature. Teaching is student-directed, where it takes its end in educating others. The preparation, clarity, expectations, and empathy that are necessary to promote learning in pupils must be adhered to. For example, examination is necessary now to contemplate personal weaknesses toward technology if that technology is how best to impart knowledge, etc., to the students online.

In addition, professionalism requires reflection on being a good example, a role model. Students have many needs, and certainly one of the more important ones is to be led toward the good. So, whether or not a professor takes her job seriously in Zoom presentations, office hours, listening, and carefully prepared documents all “argue” to the students. Henri Amiel said, “Every life is a profession of faith, and exercises an inevitable and silent influence…Every man is a priest, even involuntarily; his conduct is an unspoken sermon, which is forever preaching to others.” Teachers cannot choose to be examples or modelers of schoolwork; they are, regardless of choice. Every small and great work is watched by students and is a silent argument for how they should behave. So, persevering in these times to show up, on time, prepared, and excited to teach reminds students of the importance of their education. Both Aristotle and Augustine note that education takes place within the student. The teacher facilitates the growth of knowledge by pushing each student to achieve their potential, just as a great coach does so to an athlete. The coach does not create or even impart the athletic ability; they instead help actualize it. And they may do so by a commitment to being a good example.

Dedicated Stewards

Engaging in good teaching means also taking your place in a school community alongside others who are conscious of being good examples too and who, with different groups and in different subjects, represent the mission of the school. The university depends on each teacher to do their job, especially in difficult times, and thereby promote its mission. Universities do not simply admit undergrads; they craft curricula that are meant to guide the student through certain subjects that the faculty, administration, and trustees have determined are necessary toward a particular college education. Completing these expectations well requires dedication. Furthermore, the outside community relies on teachers to help educate students who may take up their place in the pursuit of a more perfect union. And this need does not decrease in the time of viruses. In fact, when one contemplates the role of a citizen and the need to vote, for example, at such a time, the education of socially involved, critical thinkers, in a local environment committed to excellence will serve the common good.

The university community relies on teachers to be committed to their subject. This is especially true in undergraduate studies for the reasons given above about curriculum. The student in a certain class is there because he needs the course to fulfill a core requirement or to fulfill a major requirement. In either case, the teacher of a course acts as a steward, a trustee of sorts, holding the course in her hand, but knowing it is never hers alone. Even in tough times, she is the caretaker of the subject and must thereby commit to assigning the material and accompanying assessments necessary to provoke the learning of that subject. This is the case even when, for instance, the technology necessary is daunting. For she knows that when this is done well, it reiterates to the student that mastering material is important to a worthwhile college education. And the teacher who does this, even in the time of COVID, more than manages crises; she transforms lives by modeling a moral excellence they too may adhere to.

Aug 27, 2020