George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Reclaiming the Virtues of Teaching

Despite the pressure to teach for measurable results like assessment and accountability standards, don’t lose sight of core virtues like cooperation, honor, and hospitality.

July 20, 2016

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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