Six Levels of Teacher Authority In Moral Education

March 20, 2002 4 min read
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The following model was inspired by conversations with the Committee for Moral Education at the Merion Elementary School in Merion, Pa. It assumes that a wise teacher will take into account the centrality and clarity of the moral good at stake to determine how much input he or she seeks from the students. The students are told the kind of discussion that is to proceed, and just how democratic it will be. Undoubtedly, teachers intuitively make these distinctions daily. The model offers a rationale and justification for the levels.

The justification for the first three levels is that they contribute to the development of habits, acculturation into traditional virtues, and the notion of obligation.

1. Rule imposition by authority. In our society, there are certain accepted obligations and conventions that all children must follow regardless of their personal and contrary opinions. The teacher is not only justified but mandated by society to impose these traditional values. Any teacher (principal or school) may exert his or her own personal authority in those matters that implicate the teacher’s serious commitments. Here are some examples:

It is wrong to exclude another child and no one may do so.

Trash must always be thrown into proper receptacles.

Children may never be teased.

You always must be courteous to substitute teachers.

2. Rule imposition with attempt at moral persuasion. All of us should abide by a set of obvious virtues: respect, responsibility, sharing, caring, trustworthiness, fairness. But these virtues are elusive and children need to understand the underlying principles that make them required. Examples:

To exclude another child is wrong because it causes pain that may have long-term consequences.

Trash must be thrown into proper receptacles out of consideration for the community’s welfare, so that it can be recycled and the premises kept clean.

Children may not be teased because it is hurtful and intolerant even if not so intended.

Substitute teachers deserve the same respect as all others because they are doing their best in a difficult situation and often do not know the regular teacher’s plans.

3. Rule imposition with encouragement of children’s moral engagement and agreement. Often children will come to the right decision when given the chance to consider an issue thoughtfully. The teacher is confident that through reflection and empathy good answers will emerge. However, questions are not open-ended.

Why do you think it is wrong:
To exclude another child?

Not to throw trash into proper receptacles?

To tease children?

To be discourteous to a substitute teacher?

The justification for the next three levels is that they contribute to appreciation of the complexity and ambiguity of morality, tolerance, and a pluralistic understanding of values, ongoing moral vigilance and attentiveness to the moral implications of life, and an internalization of moral identity.

4. Modify adult rules slightly by listening to disagreements, find common ground. There are instances in which a rule fits imperfectly with an event and admits to exceptions. Children’s views on contextual variations (that include a prior history, motives, and consequences) are relevant in such instances.

Are there times (and was this a time) when it is not wrong:

To exclude another child?

Not to throw trash into proper receptacles?

To tease children?

To object to the request of a substitute teacher?

5. Jointly construct rules. If we want children to willingly bind themselves to prescriptive rules, then they must have the opportunity to make their mark on those rules through genuine discussions in which opposing positions have been respectfully considered. If we want children to become participatory citizens, then they need to experience democracy-in-action. However, the teacher, with her broader perspective and larger responsibilities may exert more than a single vote.

How should we think, what rules, if any, are required around the following issues:


Throwing trash into proper receptacles

Teasing each other

Our behavior towards substitute teachers

6. Child construction of rules (topics generated by children as well as resolved by them). The rationale here is the same as in number five, but with the added recognition that children should be allowed to make the “wrong” decisions and learn from their experiences. The decisions must be open to regular reconsideration as experience leads to new perspectives.

Are there moral matters you recently confronted that you wish to discuss?

X has just complained to her teacher about being excluded. Is this a problem and how should it be resolved?

X suggests we have a rule that everyone throws away the trash they see on the floors. Should we?

X didn’t think it was funny when you joked with him. What should we do?

We are having a substitute teacher. Are there any issues we should discuss?

Some educators may find very few issues that permit a level-six discussion; others will want to be mostly at level six. Where one situates an issue and class meeting is less important, however, than the willingness to consider where an issue fits and the contributions made by all the levels.

—Joan F. Goodman

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Six Levels of Teacher Authority In Moral Education


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