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A moment of morality

Discovering the soul of teaching

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Those of us engaged in the art of teaching live in perilous times. We are living on the edge of history – a moment that is but a fraction of humanity's time on this earth, but one that may present more change, more challenge, more uncertainty and, ironically, more opportunity, more information and more knowledge than at any other time in our existence. We are balanced on a precipice, with a bottomless chasm in front of us and a landslide bearing down behind us.


Consider the world students face. They are seduced by unlimited possibilities, yet confounded by contradictions and hypocrisies of those in whom they place their trust; confusing times indeed. Threads that for generations have been woven together to create the fabric of society continue to unravel each day: Family, religion, communities and institutions no longer provide either the certainty or the continuity to teach such fundamental dichotomies as right and wrong, good and evil or the nature of success and failure.

Students could once take comfort in a tapestry of interwoven patterns and textures focused on faith, morality and relationships. Now, they face a world governed by a technological imperative, based on compartmentalization and specialization, guided by ethical relativism and influenced by a culture of consumption and exploitation. 

Almost by default, it has fallen upon schools and teachers to pick up the fraying strands and weave this mess back together. Yet the urgency of the moment – the classroom demands of lesson preparation, classroom management, assessment and evaluation, and societal demands of standards, accountability and credibility – regularly precludes a teacher's ability to focus on the truly important lessons to be taught. When in the day do we get to even consider – let alone delve into – issues of values and virtues, of the moral nature of the individual, of understanding, love and passion?

More importantly, where do we find the time to explore that inner part of our own being – our conscience, our faith, our morality – to gain the clarity, conviction and strength that allow us to explore these fundamental questions with our students? Schools are today's greatest institutions of social change and teachers the greatest agents of that change. But to live up to this responsibility, each teacher must know his or her own heart, spirit and soul.

This reminds me of a conversation with a colleague, who asked my opinion of the movie The Emperor's Club. My response was something to the effect of, "It's a good movie that aspires to greatness but falls short. But there are some incredible moments in the film that really speak to the soul of teaching." I thought that sounded like a pretty pithy answer. Then, my colleague asked, "What is the soul of teaching?"

Good question.

In the movie, history teacher Mr. Hundert is faced with what I would call a "profound dilemma." Yet it is the type of dilemma teachers face repeatedly every day – one that ultimately defines the very essence of teaching.

Hundert, the main character, is marking the test papers that will determine the finalists in the "Mr. Julius Caesar" contest. He has just marked the paper of Sedgwick Bell, a bright but truculent, insolent student. After months of provoking both frustration and anger in Hundert, Sedgwick has finally shown that spark of interest and ability that so passionately ignites a teacher's desire to believe and re-commit (a student, no doubt, familiar to all teachers). After marking Sedgwick's paper, Hundert totals the grades and finds Sedgwick has fallen just short of making the three top spots for the finals of the contest.

The dilemma? Does Hundert go back and change the mark to ensure Sedgwick's place in the finals, thereby demonstrating his faith in the child and his own sense of compassion, understanding and flexibility? (After all, this is the kind of faith about which stories are told of changing the course of a student's life.) Or, does he stand by his principle, leave the mark and make it a learning experience for the student who started too late and needs to learn life's hard lessons? It is compassion versus integrity, right versus right. To me, that dilemma – the morality in the moment of decision – is the soul of teaching.

Teaching is much more than submerging a bunch of absorbent sponges in the well of knowledge, then squeezing them to see how much they've retained. It's about making decisions, taking courses of action that affect students' lives. It is about finding ourselves at a moment when we must make a judgment that will reveal as much about what is inside us as it does about the students' achievements.

All teachers have moments when they must stop and deeply reflect on who they are, on their character and core values, on their goals and aspirations, on what they believe. All of this is done in the context of making decisions about students and their accomplishments.

Such moments are about coming to terms with ourselves as teachers and as human beings, and about whether long-held beliefs still stand as we confront an important, difficult decision about the future of a child. They are about revealing our own characters in the actions we take regarding the children we guide. They are about the immense responsibility of teaching young minds about right and wrong, good and bad, hope and disappointment. And in this process, we confront our true inner selves. When we plunge to the depth of our beings, we find our souls.

To look into our souls is to drop the mask and come face-to-face with our own humanity, face our imperfections, expose our vulnerability. It is to undertake a journey of personal discovery, a journey where, as American writer John Schaar says, "the paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination." In so doing, we confront our inner being and put what we find to the test. In asking simple questions, we may face the bigger mysteries of our life, the truth of where we stand and the impact of our life on others' lives.

While the soul of teaching can be a deeply personal experience for a teacher, it is that last influence that speaks to the responsibility we accept and the relationship we should strive for daily in our schools – to approach each student with care, compassion and respect, and to think of each child's future and how our actions will affect his or her life.

Those defining moments can be joyful and uplifting or frightening and discouraging. But embracing each experience pushes us to be better teachers and to seek to make a difference to the lives of our children.

A teacher often may never know the full measure of the impact he or she has had. Yes, immediate gratification sometimes comes from the small "thank you" at the end of the school day; frequently, there is the deep satisfaction of seeing the light go on in students' eyes when they finally grasp a concept or receive a mark that acknowledges their effort. Occasionally, former students return to say how important a teacher was at some moment in their lives.

Most of the time, however, teachers never know how their actions have influenced a life, changed the direction of events. They never really know the good they have done. So the soul of teaching must exist within each teacher as a spark – a hope that each day brings the opportunity to be the small, quiet voice that someday changes the world.

Educator Parker Palmer writes, "The courage to teach is the courage to keep one's heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and student and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require." To me, that is "the soul of teaching."

Teachers are being called upon to guide their students along the perilous precipice of our times. Can they do so without first examining their own souls?

Teachers who have lost touch with their souls may have nothing left to give, may lack the strength or the direction to find their way, may be unable to stand up for that in which they believe. As former U.S. Chaplain Peter Marshall once said, "Give to us clear vision that we may know where to stand and what to stand for... because unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything." Teachers who know themselves at the deepest level are certain of their core values and are able to guide their students with wisdom, compassion and integrity.

Great teachers have great souls. They bring incredible depth to their students and their school. Teachers with soul can save lives and, as a result, put in motion events that can change the world. To be anything less would betray the responsibility that lies at the very core of our existence as schools.

—Peter Sturrup
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