What does it mean to teach with moral purpose?

So you joined the profession to change lives, says Russell Grigg – but how can you be sure you're taking young people in the right direction?

Russell Grigg
by Russell Grigg
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Why did you become a teacher? According to a survey of NQTs taken last year, the main reasons why most joined the profession were because they enjoyed working with children and young people and wanted to make a positive difference in their lives.

The latter point reflects the moral dimension of teaching. The challenge is how to sustain this commitment – the same survey [PDF] went on to report that more than half of teachers do not think they will be still teaching in 10 years’ time, with the strains associated with a heavy workload and pupils’ disruptive behaviour cited as the major reasons for leaving the profession.

In recent years, it’s become not unusual to read reports claiming that teacher morale is ‘dangerously low’ – given that inspection pressures have added to this low morale, it is ironic to see Ofsted’s outgoing Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw recently acknowledge that the profession may be witnessing a ‘teacher brain drain’’.

Here, I want to focus on what Michael Fullan calls the ‘moral purpose’ of teachers [PDF] and how this is manifested in challenging circumstances.

Challenging disadvantage

There is no doubt that all learners need teachers who care about them and who are passionate about teaching. The evidence is clear – being taught by a good teacher can make a substantial difference to how well learners achieve.

The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from low-income families and those entitled to free school meals. The Sutton Trust has previously found [PDF] that over a school year, for disadvantaged learners the difference between a good teacher and a poor one is a whole year’s learning. When children are taught by a series of mediocre or poor teachers, the difficulties are compounded and they are unlikely to catch up with their peers taught by better teachers.

The profession needs teachers with the conviction that they can do something to address the achievement gap. In 2013/14, 33.5% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved at least 5 A*–C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics. This compared to 60.5% of all other pupils. In other words, there is an achievement gap of 27 percentage points. The situation is worse for particular groups, such as white British boys and black Caribbean boys, who fall 32.7% and 25.7% behind the national average.

It is one thing to be mindful of the achievement gap, but quite another to do something about it. Ethical teachers do not accept that children from low-income families are unlikely to do well at school because of their backgrounds. Rather, they recognise the challenges and seek to do something positive about what they can control or influence – by continually seeking to improve their own teaching practices, for example. The teachers who are most successful in narrowing or closing the achievement gap:

• Believe in the potential of each child • Do not tolerate excuses for underachievement • Build on children’s prior knowledge • Make lessons interesting, challenging and relevant • Model appropriate behaviour • Provide frequent, specific, accurate and timely feedback

Leaders who act with moral purpose take a whole school, strategic approach to tackling disadvantage. They focus on developing learners’ literacy and learning skills, have a strong system of pastoral care and are committed to providing the sort of enriching experiences that more advantaged learners take for granted. They may, for example, offer a varied menu of clubs, activities and educational visits. They might use a range of sources (cohort data, lesson observations; learning walks; book scrutiny) to monitor and closely analyse the progress of groups of learners. They will employ Innovative schemes to promote pupil attendance through various rewards and incentives and maintain good parental engagement (positive phone calls home and initiatives such as ‘Dads and Lads’ reading groups).

Model behaviour

Having a strong moral purpose is not just about tackling disadvantage and inequity. While this is arguably the greatest challenge facing the educational system today, teachers’ conduct is never far from the public gaze. Recent media stories have included reports of some head teachers turning a blind eye to the absences of thousands of children whose parents boycotted the new curriculum tests for six and seven year olds.

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee has heard evidence that some secondary school teachers brush off incidents of girls being sexually harassed because of the age of boys involved. Many would agree that teaching is essentially a moral enterprise – each day teachers are faced with tensions, dilemmas and tests of their resolve. They make thousands of decisions, sometimes unaware of the full moral implications of their actions.

Ethical behaviour is difficult territory because we live in an age of moral relativism, where notions of right and wrong are continually questioned and schools are criticised for being moral vacuums. Perhaps in any discussion about the role of teachers in children’s moral development, the first question should be ‘Can moral values be taught?‘ There are philosophical objections to teaching any lessons on morality, because ‘teaching’ implies ‘expertise’ and any notion of ‘moral expertise’ is dubious.

While many would argue that schools should teach ‘universal virtues’, such as honesty, fairness and kindness, this is not always straightforward. Take the example of ‘Showing tolerance of and respect for the rights of others’, as required by the DfE’s Teachers’ Standards [PDF]. Views on intolerance around the world vary – take a woman’s right to abortion or homosexuality, for instance. Should schools focus primarily on teaching children how to think rather than what to think?

The Teachers’ Standards make it clear that teachers are expected to demonstrate consistently high standards in their personal and professional conduct. This includes treating pupils with dignity, having regard for their well-being, and ensuring that personal beliefs are not expressed in ways that exploit pupils’ vulnerability. Ethical teachers will promote and exemplify such principles as fairness, honesty and equity. They will demonstrate these and other qualities in many ways – through formal lessons, casual exchanges in the corridor, their choice of discipline methods and the general persona they project in the classroom and school environment.

When teachers think ethically, they are considering something or someone other than themselves.

Balanced views

There is considerable advice available to practitioners on how to handle tough moral and ethical questions and dilemmas. Organisations such as Oxfam, The Association for Science Education and the Historical Association provide guidance on teaching controversial issues in areas such as religion, politics, evolution, climate change and personal lifestyle.

In history lessons, for instance, it is important for learners to understand that people’s actions need to be judged by the values of the age in which they lived. In RE lessons, asking the question ‘What would I do?’ is a useful strategy to prompt learners to think about the complexities of the choices people face. It can be insightful to look at a situation from different perspectives, such as a bystander, victim, perpetrator and rescuer.

Foremost, teachers and learners need to understand why an issue is controversial. Often it is because there is a lack of consensus, the evidence to support a viewpoint is debatable, or the consequences of particular actions raise ethical or moral concerns.

Teaching with moral purpose means providing an environment that is conducive to learning and growth, but teaching within an ethical framework is challenging. Teachers must balance the needs of an individual against the class, for example, respect confidentiality and weigh up their own personal feelings regarding what’s right for children against the policies and practices of their school and government directives.

However, the vast majority of educators know that the moral dimension to what they do is fundamental to children’s all-round development. As Martin Luther King once said, the goal of true education is promoting ‘Intelligence plus character’.

Dr Russell Grigg is head of research at the Wales Centre for Equity in Education of Big Ideas in Education – What Every Teacher Should Know, published by Crown House Publishing

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