Last year I posted here “A Letter to New Teachers,” which I was pleased to learn seems to have been passed around and possibly to have done a bit of good in spots.
It’s rather unlikely that a new teacher, or at least a teacher new to the profession, is going to find this place. Not Your Father’s School readers largely seem to be people already in the trenches, some new-ish, some (I am told) a bit more veteran. There’s far more aggregate wisdom reading this blog than its author can ever hope to amass.
But I’ve been thinking, as I do each year as I go about setting up the new teacher orientation at my school, about new teachers, and about teachers in general—not just our work but our place in the evolving cosmos of Not Our Father’s Schools. My thought for this year—I think I’ll stand by last year’s missive for the new folks—follows. I’d love to get some feedback on this. Please pass this on if it seems appropriate.
Earlier this summer I wrote a triad of posts responding to particular aspects of The Students Are Watching by Ted and Nancy Sizer—a series of meditations on the ways we teachers behave and the lessons our behavior offers to students. It’s a book for the ages, cutting through the breathless chatter about methodologies, change, and politics to the heart of what we do and who we are.
It occurred to me the other day that the book’s subtitle, “Schools and the Moral Contract,” might seem both pretty abstract and pretty intense to many readers—off-putting, in its way. What exactly is the “moral contract,” and why should an old-fashioned concept like “morality” be imposing itself on schools and teachers in some kind of absolute way? In an age of relativism, a terrible thing in the eyes of many, how dare these Old School authors from Harvard and Andover and a charter school named after an old dead white guy (progressive genius though he was) suggest that there is a moral contract?
One tendency these days is for schools to go for the easy answer here, and focus on the obvious and inarguable: the basics of sexual, fiscal, and behavioral morality, where it’s easy to make distinctions. We can draw a sharp line that sets off the kinds of bad behavior that earn headlines—abuse, drug sales, embezzlement, violent hazing. Certainly schools can’t countenance these, by staff or by students. We can impose “zero tolerance” policies for some kinds of misbehavior, freeing us from having to muck around too deeply in messy gray areas. We can’t allow bullying. Of course, in many jurisdictions we now have the cover of the law to act as a surrogate for “morality;” bullying in my state is not just immoral, at a certain level it’s criminal. So is smoking pot. It’s so much easier to call something wrong when we can tell teachers and kids they could go to jail for doing it.
There is, I think, an even deeper and more demanding moral contract, although putting it this ways feels a bit awkward and in the analysis it risks marching headlong into messy gray areas. But I’ll say it anyway: it’s not just about schools and the moral contract, it’s also about teachers and the moral contract. And the students are watching here, too.
You can tell me that teaching is just a job, and recount tales of incompetents relegated to the rubber rooms of urban districts. You can tell me about all the public school teachers proclaimed by demagogues to be overpaid freeloaders working only for their long summer breaks. But remember, I’m a hopeless Romantic, and I say, Nuts!
Good teachers—and I think that’s a vast majority, in all sectors—willingly subscribe to a moral contract that involves a rigorous personal discipline and a code of honor that’s practically monastic in its simplicity.
The first clause of this contract involves belief: belief in kids, a faith that must be virtually unshakable, capable of expanding and changing as new students offer new challenges and new lessons in the possibilities of the human spirit.
The second section involves doing the daily, gritty, unpredictable, often delightful, frequently unrewarded work of preparing, teaching, giving feedback, advising, mentoring, coaching, consoling, encouraging, and otherwise enacting that belief in kids. Teachers know that slacking is not just an abrogation, it is a failure to keep faith. Naturally, some mutuality is desirable here, and to be expected. In the best of circumstances this becomes an equal exchange of energy—and of deep learning—between students and teachers. (And in the increasingly less teacher-centered classrooms of our time, this is more and more likely to occur.)
The third article involves continuing to do whatever is required, deeply and personally, to stay excited about and invested in the work and to keep our skills sharp and up to date. Sometimes reflective, sometimes scholarly, sometimes creative, sometimes physical, this recharging is essential to good teaching, to building up the kind of energy required to do the work and keep the faith. And it’s not about vacations—it’s a strict regime, 365 days a year.
The fourth part of the teacher’s moral contract involves the teacher’s duty to the school—and the school’s responsibility to the teacher. The teacher does good work, works hard to understand and believe in and support the school’s mission and purpose, and in return the school does what it can to recognize and reward the teacher and to support the teacher’s pursuit of professional and personal growth toward a happy life and a satisfying career.
The “code” for the teacher is that kids—their needs, their interests—come first. As in the motto of the venerable Camp Dudley—“The other fellow first”—giving primacy to students is what we do. Our “me time” comes when their needs are met. My current boss likes to remind us that “School is for kids”—another elegantly concise way of stating the code.
So, there is my stab at a “moral contract” for teachers. It’s nowhere near as long as the contract you signed without reading last time you bought a mobile phone, and I don’t believe you need a lawyer to explain the gist of it.
Teaching is a deeply human activity, as we know (and as the Sizers, Parker Palmer and others have pointed out far more elegantly), and this contract is nothing more than a situation-specific version of the broader moral contract, or the Golden Rule, or whatever you wish to call it, that must guide all of our actions.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend using this contract the way we tend to use real contracts, but I hope that in our hearts and minds as teachers we can find ways to express its provisions among ourselves, to share its principles freely and kindly with the less experienced folk among us, and present it as a complement to the principles the Sizers offer us in The Students Are Watching. Whether we’re new teachers or seasoned pros, we carry our personal moral contract in our hearts every day, wherever and whenever we are working with or for our students.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)