Ethics in the Classroom

Watch out! Your students are looking. At you. Right now.

The most important lessons educators teach do not necessarily happen when they are actually teaching. Do you treat fellow teachers, parents and students with respect? Always? Are you kind? Are you fair?

Ethical behavior is important in everyone – but crucial in teachers.

See, you are in a position of authority. And if kids realize that you can get away with anything just because you are the teacher, not only they will not respect you, they will grow up with thinking that power erases responsibility. And that is a very, very dangerous idea – both ways. On one side, it builds up feeling of helplessness, anger and resentment. On the other, it can lead up to tyranny.

Problems like bullying could be minimized or even prevented if we were always able to shape our behavior by ethics and thoughtfulness. That requires social intelligence and, above all, the capacity for self-containment.

So, how do we instill a moral compass in every student?

School culture matters. A solid framework for moral values should be in place, consistently enforced and with clear expectations. At our school, we have a published policy that reads:

In this school we all respect each other. We are kind, fair and honest. We do no harm and we make things better. We show gratitude and love”

All members of the school community need to adhere to these policies. When problems arise, it is usually because at least one person reacted to conflict by wandering away from this backbone.

It’s more important to acknowledge good behavior than to punish bad one. That said, actions have consequences –it’s a natural law. That is how we build character: by allowing our students to bear the weight of their decisions.

What happens when a student cheats, but he is not held responsible? He will likely read lack of consequences as implicit permission to break the rules or even grow a sense of entitlement – rules do not apply to him. We are not doing that student a favor: Life will take care of teaching, the hard way, the lessons we avoided to give.

We have found that mindfulness and drama are specifically great to learn about self-discipline and empathy. Regularly presenting kids with judgement problems and difficult questions to think about powers up their ethics muscles. There are many opportunities to stimulate learners with such challenges. History lessons could be twice as constructive – and twice as fun- if you not only recount the facts, but also present the moral dilemmas faced by so many people from our past –and present.

Life is unfair, difficult and unpredictable. Bad things happen to good people. Even for those considering themselves privileged, the situation could turn drastically from one day to another. Just ask Marie Antoinette.

Being aware of our own fragility can bring us closer to one another, fostering compassion and respect.

If we want our kids to develop into global citizens, whose strong values are part of the answers the world is seeking, then we need to be those people ourselves.

 

As part of the Top Global Teacher Bloggers from Cathy Rubin’s Global Search for Education, this is my answer to this month’s question: How important is teaching ethics in the classroom? How do we instill a moral compass in every student? How can we work to consistently cultivate values of thoughtfulness and empathy without directly teaching it? What roles do teachers have to play in creating kind and compassionate citizens?