Theory Teacher's Blog

The Ethics of Teaching: Some Small Advice for New Teachers

A few weeks ago, a bunch of my older students from classes past started their secondary-education student teaching, and so I decided to try and write something that might be useful for them. This blog post will attempt a fun and practical distillation of my advice for teachers, based on personal experience, with a bit of theory about ethics thrown in. In a nutshell, my advice is rather simple — a question of priorities. In order, my priorities are these:

(1) care for yourself
(2) care for your students
(3) care for your subject

This might seem pretty simple and obvious in the abstract, but in practice it’s not. Once upon a time, the subject matter was perceived to be priority number one, and even now, as everyone knows, a mastery of the subject is the primary goal of all the testing that the controversial No Child Left Behind Act mandated in 2001. And back in the olden days — before such things as computers, information highways, and even regular concrete interstate highways — classroom pedagogy tended to be centered around the lecture. Against this lecture model, starting in the 1960s and 70s a variety of social and intellectual movements (including Paolo Friere’s famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed) prompted educators to imagine a more “learner-centered” approach to teaching. The learner-centered approach encourages students to take an active role in their own education and also stresses that people learn better by actively doing and creating than they do by passively consuming and regurgitating information. These days the learner-centered approach is pretty common, but it wasn’t always. So, we can see a movement from the priority being the subject to the priority being the student. But why I am suggesting that the priority should actually be the teacher?

Let me put it in practical, common-sense terms before I start bringing in the theory and reflecting on ethics. I’ll start with the bottom priority and work my way up. You ought to care about your subject. If you don’t, then you’ll be bored and so will the students. (This, by the way, is one of the problems of the No Child Left Behind Act, because its definition of what should be tested and how skills should be measured is so narrow and dreary.) So choose subjects that you personally think are interesting and worthwhile, not subjects that others think are interesting and worthwhile. And if you don’t have full control over your subject matter and find yourself having to teach things that the government, parent-teacher association, or school principal thinks are important, then find ways to relate what you have to teach to the stuff you really care about and love (or at least find amusing.)

But what’s more important is to care about the students. After all, it’s their education, right? Why should they be learning this stuff? If students suspect that you don’t like them, then they are less likely to learn from you no matter how much you care about the subject. (And this is doubly true if the subject you are teaching is politically controversial, e.g., the subject of teaching itself.) And sometimes something as simple as a smile or a laugh can go a long way. Students need to know that you are on their side even if they are wrong about something or if they are making some bad decisions or if they are pissing you off. And they especially need to know this if you happen to disagree with them about something reasonable people can disagree about (e.g., whether a senator or a short story is any good.) And really, you should be on their side, because it’s your job to help them learn and grow. Just because their personal qualities don’t coincide with your own expectations for the class doesn’t mean you can’t find pleasure in the qualities they do have. The students are more important than the class, after all.

However, if you are too much on their side, they will think they are the boss, when actually you are the boss. You are the one with a ton of knowledge at your disposal, not them. You are the one who has to answer to the principal of the school, not them. So, that’s why you should care about yourself most. And there’s an even more practical dimension as to why caring for yourself should be priority number one. If you are too tired and stressed out, then you won’t do as good of a job teaching. And if you get so stressed out that you start to get sick, then how is that good for the students? And if you are too worried about what the students think of you, how can you keep sight of what you know is right? (And the fact is, you never know what the students are really thinking.) So, get a good night’s sleep, exercise regularly, play sports, spend time with your family, hang out with your friends at a bar, watch a movie, make love to your significant other, write in your journal/blog… etc., etc…. In other words, do whatever you enjoy doing. If you don’t, you’ll start to hate your job and the students will sense that… and then…. Feh.

Easier said than done. It’s obviously easier to state these priorities than it is to actually juggle them. After all, preparing lessons and grading papers takes a lot of time, so it’s natural to prioritize finishing the work rather than (let’s say) working out at the gym or going to a movie with your friends. But if you don’t make time for yourself and insist on taking that time, then you’ll never have it, because the responsibilities of a teacher are endless. You can always devote more time to students, always make more of an effort to prepare for class, always learn more about your subject, always spend more time on students’ papers, always devote more time to your colleagues and the community around your school. It can feel overwhelming sometimes, and the giving of yourself to others can be exhausting. In fact, a common mistake many first-time teachers make (including myself) is over-preparing, and over-preparing often leads to frustrating disappointment if the meticulously planned lesson doesn’t go as planned. (And I am right now imagining my former students reading this paragraph and laughing, because they know that I don’t over-plan my lessons now!!!)

Now for the theory and ethics stuff. In the early 1980s, Michel Foucault explored different possibilities for what it might mean to be an ethical and free person in relation to the real world — in particular, check out his book The Care of the Self, his essay “Technologies of the Self,” and an interview “The Ethics of the Concern for the Self as a Practice of Freedom.” There, Foucault observed that the dominant tradition of Judeo-Christian ethics in particular and modern European ethics in general have tended to characterize virtue as caring for others. In this somewhat ascetic tradition, civic virtue and personal pleasure are understood as opposites unless one feels good about being selfless. Also in this tradition, philosophers have tended to emphasize ethical dilemmas or choices between conflicting obligations or between which good work is the most good. This sort of ethics is almost self-punishing in demanding that we reflect on our own worth and our decision-making ability, measured against some imaginary, idealized standard of transcendent excellence. And of course first-time teachers often agonize over whether the students like them or whether they are even learning anything. This agony is natural and common, and everyone feels it, but it is ultimately a dead end.

Foucault argues against the Judeo-Christian mandates to know thy self and attend to others as the starting point of ethics; instead, he suggests that care for oneself is a better starting point, and then knowledge of self and others will follow from a genuine and reflective practice of self care. Foucault rediscovers this lost tradition of self care in ancient Greek texts about ethics and government, such as the philosopher Xenophon who stated, “If you do not care for yourself you will make a poor ruler.” And for Foucault, this includes enjoying simple bodily pleasure, finding your source of empowerment, and using the technologies of self-government as a daily practice of freedom and ethics. Foucault goes further to argue that this self-empowerment is not just something that happens inside our souls. Rather, it is our relationship to technologies, tools, organizations, administrative bodies, social bodies, commercial businesses, etc., that will always channel our energies and regiment our lives. These technologies and social organizations can oppress us but they can also be resources of power and freedom. And for Foucault, the technologies and practices of self care include the technologies and practices of the body (e.g., the gym and sex). And hence, Foucault’s ethics differ greatly from the sort of ethics that emphasize a denial of the body’s desires and an examination of one’s soul or intellect. So, while ethics traditionally conceived emphasizes big choices and our interior, bodiless selves, Foucault’s ethics emphasizes the small habits of everyday life, the ways we care for and enjoy our bodies, and our access to the technologies and social networks that empower us both psychologically and materially. In other words, you don’t have to go it alone; there are other people and technologies that will help you. True ethics is not an individual act, but a social, cultural activity.

So, coming back to teaching, there’s always more to being a good teacher than the teaching itself. Take care of yourself. It’s not just your labor and good works that are valuable. You are valuable. To give an example, I know I became more confident in the classroom after I started exercising regularly. Is there a rational connection between jogging and teaching? No, of course not, but there it is. And incidentally Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography strongly agrees with me and Foucault on this point. And I remember when I started teaching I would worry about whether students liked and respected me, but as Xenophon suggests, how could anyone respect a ruler who doesn’t take care of his or herself? How could anyone respect a teacher who has no life outside the classroom and no self respect? And how could students like a teacher who doesn’t like them back? And how could students like a teacher who doesn’t enjoy the subject? 

Again, easier said than done.

What’s even better is when you can find lines of connection between what you enjoy (e.g., for me, writing this blog) and your job. This blog is a technology and a sort of playful fun space that helps me create myself and practice my writing, and I feel that it has made me a better teacher, a better writer, and a better person. One of the facts of life that Foucault (and also theorists Judith Butler and Simone de Beauvoir) helps us grapple with conceptually is that one is not born a teacher; rather, one gradually over time becomes a teacher. It usually takes a while; the first or second or even third year are not a true measure of the kind of teacher (or person) you might eventually become.


January 30, 2011 Posted by | teaching | 4 Comments