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Teacher Authority and Moral Education

By Joan F. Goodman — March 20, 2002 5 min read
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To impose the rules, or to elicit the behavior?

I find something jarring about the following scenario: A child or children commit an indiscretion—squabbling in the lunch room, ignoring a substitute teacher, swearing at one another, excluding certain kids from their play. The teacher suggests that this is an opportune occasion for a class meeting. She begins the discussion by asking the children for their views. A couple of students, daring to be candid, defend their behavior. They argue that the squabbling was misinterpreted, that the substitute teacher was reading a familiar book to them so they stopped listening, that it is OK to swear, nothing insulting was intended, that they can’t always include every kid in a game. The teacher then asks the group questions such as, “Do any of you have a different viewpoint?” “Can anyone see why what happened was wrong?” “Is there a better way to behave?” “Does anyone have a suggestion for solving the problem?”

It strikes me that this familiar approach is deceptive. The class meeting was initiated to discuss a problem, yet the conclusions were preordained. As children become accustomed to such procedures, they undoubtedly learn to give the “right” answer (it’s wrong to squabble, we should be more polite to the substitute teacher, we shouldn’t swear, whoever wants to play should be included) and drop their candid self-defense. As they offer, and the teacher accepts, “good” suggestions, there is the illusory appearance that a democratic discussion has taken place. Putting aside the questionable efficacy of such practices, I find them neither democratic nor a discussion. In the short run, children may learn the “right” answer. In the long run, I imagine they become bored with the talk and cynical about the possibility of shaping their school culture.

Yet how can a teacher avoid controlling discussions? There are, after all, behaviors that are right and wrong. If the class is going to be a welcoming, safe place for everyone, there are rules that must be followed and courtesies to be upheld. Children notoriously are rule-resistant and limit- testers. Even if their views compose a majority, the teacher cannot allow them to insult, exclude, or injure others, or to disobey well-established conventions. It is her obligation to protect the interests (rights) of the weaker children, restrain aggression, and preserve civil behavior; if possible by persuasion, otherwise by authority.

The problem, then, is how can a teacher genuinely endow children with authority to find their own answers and formulate their own convictions while maintaining fairness? More simply, how much moral authority over children should teachers exert?

How can a teacher genuinely endow children with authority to find their own answers and formulate their own convictions while maintaining fairness?

One can approach the question by coordinating the issue at stake with the type of discussion. For more serious moral matters—deliberately pushing a physically handicapped child out of her wheelchair, for example—the teacher will insist on exercising full authority; dissenting views will be rejected. In such instances, however, the teacher will not be offering a democratic discussion. She may make an effort to explain the wrongness of the behavior, but she will be clear that the children’s task is to obey her authority.

Other issues may be less important—excluding a child from a competitive team because she is insufficiently skilled, for example. Regarding these, the teacher will welcome student input and will genuinely consider the various viewpoints, but may still retain decisionmaking authority.

Still other issues are much more ambiguous—say, for example, how to determine responsibility for, and what to do about, a broken piece of equipment. Regarding these, teachers may choose to defer to student opinion, even in the early grades.

Authority, therefore, may be monopolized by teachers or shared with students. Teachers may exert it sometimes, but not at other times; more when the matter is crucial, when there is a general consensus, when the children are younger. However, children will not be kept in the dark about the nature of the issue and the extent to which diverse opinions will genuinely be given a hearing. They will know that at least in some matters their decisions will be honored, in others they will be heard, in others they will have to submit to the teacher’s judgment.

If we could rank rights and wrongs from most to least critical (or ambiguous), we would then be in a good position to establish a paradigm that matched degrees of teacher authority against the relative centrality of a value, with students having a louder voice on the more negotiable issues. Such scaling, however, is impossible because of the dissent among us. While at the extremes we may approach agreement, school policies and rules touch on many values that fall between the extremes; surrounding these there is considerable discordance, both among teachers themselves and between schools and families.

If children are to become critical thinkers, and strong independent moral agents, they must be active participants in moral decisions.

Even at the extremes, there can be dissension. Take teasing. While many would adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward teasing, others think there are circumstances where it is harmless or even good for the teased. Furthermore, there are classroom rules that have little to no moral valence—seating arrangements, for example—yet, a teacher may consider them sufficiently critical to her instruction that she will not want to take into account any contrary views.

Given these complexities, the determination of how much moral authority is daunting. The purpose of the template I propose is to describe, rather than prescribe, levels of authority as an assist for teachers attempting to match degrees of their authority against their (or the schools’) set of “goods” and “bads.” (See “Six Levels of Teacher Authority in Moral Education.”)

The easiest solution, of course, is for teachers not to cede any power. To open up moral issues for children’s input, sometimes even for children’s decisionmaking, is risky. What might be unearthed? What does one do with disagreements? What objections might families raise? When should the teacher step in as the voice of society and of the school? At the very least, won’t discussions get out of hand, important matters be exposed that cannot be resolved?

Yet, it needs to be acknowledged that if children are to become critical thinkers, tolerant of competing interests and loyalties, and strong independent moral agents, they must be active participants in moral decisions, they must become proprietors of their own morality.

Joan F. Goodman is a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She is the co-author, with Howard Lesnick, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, of The Moral Stake in Education: Contested Premises and Practices (Addison-Wesley-Longman, 2001).

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

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