Reclaiming the Virtues of Teaching

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In a recent Gallup poll, 43 percent of people said that they didn’t want their children to become teachers. It was 33 percent a decade earlier.

I am fearful of what that signifies for teachers and for students. Who will lead us in the future if we don’t honor the privilege of educating today’s young people? This increased pessimism has had real consequences. Fewer people are becoming teachers, and when they do, about half will quit within five years. The looming teacher shortage is a crisis that has yet to be fully felt. It’s heartbreaking to see the profession suffer from defeat and despair, especially when so many teachers are filling their classrooms with a generosity of spirit each day.

In this difficult time, it’s worth asking what has happened and what might be our best direction forward.

The Downside of Resume Building

In many ways, teaching has become less about virtues and more about results. David Brooks wrote about this divide between achievement and character in an April 2015 New York Times editorial:

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest, or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

In education, the resume virtues have become more important than the eulogy virtues. The conversation has been dominated by phrases like value-added measurement, formative assessment, teacher-quality control, and accountability standards. These edu-jargon terms stuff resumes and fill board of education meetings. But do they reflect the virtues of a good educator?

I believe they are doing more damage than good. A teacher’s entire body of work is reduced to a single statistic. If our profession continues to move toward greater polarization, we will further separate teachers from students. In my own classroom, I’ve had to fight the magnetic pull of statistics, grades, and metrics that have drawn me away from meaningful connections with my students.

“And the problem is,” Brooks added in his TED Talk on the difference between living for a resume versus living for a eulogy, “that turns you into a shrewd animal who treats life as a game, and you become a cold, calculating creature who slips into a sort of mediocrity where you realize there’s a difference between your desired self and your actual self.”

Is that what we want in our classrooms?

Teaching for Your Eulogy

We can alter the perception of teaching, returning it to an honorable, worthy profession by restoring the eulogy virtues. We can replace the cold, distancing jargon with an ethos of understanding, compassion, and love.

Here are three eulogy virtues that you can exemplify in your classroom. I encourage you to share them with your colleagues to create a school culture defined by virtue.

1. Cooperation

In her epic Edutopia post, When Teachers Compete, No One Wins, Janet Allen wrote:

I’ve taught and coached at schools where the animosity between teachers is palpable. Individuals who are otherwise truly great teachers spitefully refuse to help each other or collaborate because of a variety of perceived slights, rumors, and personal judgments. They jealously guard their best lessons and strategies, convinced that their colleagues don’t deserve to benefit from them.

Rather than uphold a toxic culture of competition, embrace the power of cooperation. Create department or grade-level Dropbox folders to share lesson plans, handouts, and resources. Form a Voxer group and talk about your best practices of the week on Fridays. Find ways to build community and overpower the possibility of isolation.

2. Honor

As a literature teacher, I’m humbled by the responsibility to teach great novels and poems. When I hand out copies of Shakespeare, Steinbeck, or Fitzgerald, I feel compelled to honor the excellence of their ideas with equally captivating lesson plans. It reminds me of the Baseball Hall of Fame speech from the great Chicago Cub, Ryne Sandberg:

I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. You make a great play, act like you’ve done it before; get a big hit, look for the third-base coach and get ready to run the bases.

If we make student learning the center of the classroom experiences, scores will take care of themselves. If, however, we make scores the center of the classroom experience, our students may not truly learn.

3. Hospitality

Teachers focused on resume virtues (scores and value-added measures) must look out for their own self-interest. They don’t see students as developing minds to be nurtured; they see them for the way in which they add to or detract from a bottom line. Sure, they work hard to create growth, but it’s often serving their own needs, not their students’ needs.

That’s sad. We can aspire to be more hospitable than that. We can welcome students into our classrooms with the possibilities of learning that lasts longer than any exam and goes far beyond the classroom walls.

As Parker Palmer wrote in The Courage to Teach:

By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend — thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.

What eulogy qualities would you add to this list? Please share in the comments section of this post.