Most jobs require that the people doing them are ethical. Lawyers can’t withhold evidence, doctors can’t withhold treatment, and plumbers can’t steal all the stuff that’s under your sink. However, when these folks get home after a long day of work, there’s nothing that says that they can’t go jogging in a skintight Speedo and frilly bra – even if they weigh 350 pounds and answer to “Big John.”
Teachers, on the other hand, are expected to behave in an exemplary fashion at all times. Whether you’re on the job or at home, teachers are expected to behave in a morally upstanding manner. My neighbor might be able to run around the neighborhood in the aforementioned clothing (not that he does), but I certainly wouldn’t keep my job for long if I tried it.
Let’s discuss the reasons why this is the case, and whether it’s reasonable.
What teachers do for a living
It’s taken as a given that teachers are supposed to, well, teach. That is, after all, the name of our profession. I teach chemistry and my friend Sandra teaches Spanish – they’re different subjects, but we both have the expectation that our students will have considerably more knowledge about them after the class then they did coming into it.
However, our job responsibilities don’t end here. Though there’s nothing in any contract I’ve ever signed to suggest that this is the case, it’s always been clear that, above all, I be a good role model for my students. In addition to knowing chemistry, I must always do exactly the right thing in all moral situations, avoid unpleasant controversy, and live in a way that reflects the best standards of our society.
To my bosses and the world in general, this is considered far more important than the teaching aspect of my job. After all, if my students fail the standardized tests, I’ll be given remediation classes and warnings and opportunities to improve. Even if I didn’t ever improve, the chances are good that I’d still be teaching ten years from now. Such are the ways of the educational system.
However, if I show my weiner to the mailman just once, my teaching career is over. Such is the responsibility of morality.
Why being a role model is so important
My students see me every day. When they walk into the classroom, they see Mr. Guch at his desk greeting everybody with a happy hello. When they head out, they hear me telling them to have a good day. During class, I tell ridiculous jokes, but they’re comfortable jokes that don’t evoke anything untoward. In other words, I’m the very model of a pleasant and uncontroversial person.
This is exactly how students should see us. We see our students every single day and when they see that we’re having fun and doing a good job without doing anything improper, this sends the message that doing so is how reasonable people behave. We can’t control whether this is what they see when they get home from school, but it’s absolutely vital that they see it when they’re in our care. Legally, students are our responsibility while they’re at school. This is also the case in a moral sense.
I don’t mean to suggest that being a good role model means behaving like a smiling robot. There have been days where personal events kept me from smiling all day, and even caused me to be short when speaking with the students. In the long run, this actually helped to teach the kids how to behave, because when I realized that I was doing it I apologized to the students I’d been short with and to the class as a whole. Nobody expects us to be perfect, but when we fall short of this goal, it is expected that we’ll make it right. That’s what good role models do.
With enough exposure to good role models, students will absorb some of these habits as their own. Though I may be a goofy and friendly teacher and my friend Sandra may be a disciplinarian, both of us give students a model for how to be a good person. In fact, it’s best if Sandra and I don’t behave in the same way, because there are many good ways to be a good person.
Who sets the standards for role models?
As you’d expect, whether somebody is a good role model depends on who they work with. However, it’s generally the case that the determination of our values comes from three places:
- Ourselves: Each of us has a moral code that we live by. This code consists of behaviors that, when followed, allows us to sleep soundly at night. These moral codes will differ depending on the individual, but generally include honestly, kindness, hard work, and responsibility toward others.
- The people we associate with: Our families and friends help to shape the morals by which we live. Personally, I see nothing wrong with going shirtless on a hot day, but my family and friends have suggested that a good summer day doesn’t involve looking at a shirtless 110 kg man. No shirtless days for me.
- Our school: The school we work for has its own set of morals that it strives for among its faculty and students. Typically, this moral code is the same as those above, but there may be occasional conflicts. This is particularly true in private school settings, where the school exists for the purpose of teaching some set of moral and/or religious values.
Generally speaking, teachers are expected to behave according to the most strict aspects of the three moral codes. Though my friends and school share most people’s view that telling untruths may be fine under some circumstances (i.e. little white lies), I simply can’t allow myself to tell a lie under any circumstances.
What happens when your moral code conflicts with the school’s moral code?
There may be times when your personal morals come into direct conflict with the institutional morals of the school. When this happens, you have to make a choice: Follow your own morals and risk trouble with the school, or follow the morals of the school and risk sleeping poorly at night.
There’s no single answer for what to do when you and your school don’t see eye-to-eye. If my school wanted me to give a patriotic speech at the beginning of the day, I’d probably do it even though I wouldn’t find it to be particularly worthwhile. My moral belief that extraneous activities be minimized would, in this case, conflict with the school’s belief in fostering patriotism, but since I wouldn’t really care one way or the other, I’d do it anyway.
However, I once taught at a Catholic school in which the art teacher was gay. When she started organizing gay rights activities in her free time (outside of school and without mentioning it to students), it wasn’t something the faculty cared about much. However, the headmaster of the school was not pleased with these activities because they conflicted with Catholic moral values, and told the teacher that she could either stop these activities or quit her job. In her case, she quit her job because her own belief in promoting gay rights was more important to her than the school’s moral objections to her sexual orientation.
You might expect that when she left she made a big stink, but that’s not the case at all. When people asked why she left, she told them that the school didn’t agree with her gay rights stance, but also emphasized that she was given the choice to stay and chose to follow what she thought was right. Interestingly, she also praised the school for handling it in a reasonable way, and discouraged students and parents from protesting this action. You see, she understood that the school did exactly the right thing – according to their own morals. Though it may seem unreasonable to the reader, the school had always been against gay rights and the teacher took the job anyway. When she signed up to work for the school, she knew that her opposition to this belief might cause trouble and was ready to accept the consequences.
How schools justify dictating our off-clock behavior
“Role model” isn’t something that you do – it’s something that you are. You can’t be a part-time role model because our students need to see that we are good not because we have to but because that’s what good people are. Morality is a part of being a good person, and not something you can do only some of the time.