Role Models

By Ronald A. Wolk — September 04, 1996 3 min read

You should not try to teach values as you would theorems or grammar, says English teacher Catherine Bell, you should model them. In her essay on character education on page 42, Bell concludes, “Values for educators, then, are not to teach but to have.” Like it or not, teachers are role models, and the way they act does more to shape character in the young than anything they say.

That’s a heavy load to carry--to know that everything you do may be subtly influencing children in ways that could change their lives. Humility, therefore, should be a teacher’s touchstone, Bell says, “along with the courage to embody our own values.” In the end, she adds, “the only effective way to ‘teach’ equality is to treat students as equals.”

Although it may be more urgently needed today than ever before, the modeling role is not a new one for teachers. In 1853, Horace Mann wrote, “That woman should be the educator of children I believe to be as much a requirement of nature as that she should be the mother of children.” He and his fellow educators fervently believed in the inherent moral character of women, which made them most suitable for their role as “paragons of virtue whose influence would be felt and imitated by their students.” To Mann, female teachers were perfect role models.

By contrast, men were deemed unsuitable for teaching young children because of, in the words of historian Joel Spring, their “lack of emotional qualities and their reliance on the use of reason.” Male elementary teachers, therefore, were a rarity in the old days, and, relatively speaking, they still are.

The generalization that women are nurturers and men are not also persists today. The stereotypical father cannot change a diaper and would rather work than spend time with his kids. Who ever refers to the “paternal” instinct?

Kindergarten teacher Bert Morgan bucked the trend. He is the only male teacher in his Nashville elementary school. (See story on page 32.) He has been teaching little children for 22 years. He loves his job and can’t imagine giving it up for something else--even though parents sometimes look at him with suspicion. He is constantly aware of the dangers of touching and hugging children. And casual acquaintances often assume he is gay. Morgan’s principal--the only other male professional in the school--says, “There’s still probably this feeling out there that ‘real men’ don’t teach little kids. Well, real men do teach little kids.”

In Morgan’s case, being a role model is probably more important than his teaching. At a time when millions of children live in homes without fathers and laws are passed to coerce “deadbeat dads” to do their duty, children need a strong male figure in their lives. Little boys especially need to see men who are gentle, affectionate, and caring.

“I think maybe I bring a different perspective” to the classroom, Morgan says. “I know my little boys especially are fearful at the beginning of the year because oftentimes Daddy is still the disciplinarian at home, and suddenly here is this man who is going to be their teacher. I think they’re probably more fearful than little girls sometimes. Then, as the first six weeks or thereabouts end, they become so totally relaxed and open with the situation.”

Texas schoolteacher Victor Morales is another kind of role model--both for his students and his fellow Latinos. (See story on page 24.) Accepting a dare from his students to run for the U.S. Senate, Morales toured the state in a dented white pickup truck and somehow managed to beat a popular congressman for the Democratic nomination. Now, in a David-and-Goliath scenario, he is taking on powerful Senator Phil Gramm.

Morales got this far by being different from traditional politicians. He has not claimed infallibility, he makes no grandiose promises, and he is not slinging mud. For now, Morales is something of a hero. But the professional politicians and consultants are beginning to swarm around him with money and promises, presenting him with what may be the greatest test of his character. One hopes, as Catherine Bell puts it, he will have the courage to embody his own values.