Friday, July 27, 2007

Moral Reasoning

Rafe Esquith has a new book out called Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire. I read his first book, There Are No Shortcuts, last summer and both hated and loved it. The guy is a fifth grade teacher who works thirteen hour days. He's super passionate and articulate. Although I agree with a lot of what he's about, the reason I dislike both books can be summed up by the NYT review blurb on the back of the latest book: "Rafe Esquith is a genuis and a saint. The American Education System would do well to imitate him. These children's lives have been changed by their year with this man." What I hate is the way his story is held up as a beacon of how things could be better if only more teachers would be like him. Regardless of the number of hours I put into my job, and I have the tendency to put in way too many hours, I'm never going to say that I think my underpaid and overworked colleagues should also work for free. People deserve to be paid for every hour of their work. Lauding Esquith's insanity turns teaching into some kinda holy work, rather than a respectable profession.

But just like the last book, the one I just finished had some gems that made me grateful to the man's brilliant teaching, if not the ways his writings and practices might be misused. "WORK HARD. BE NICE." was our classroom motto last year, straight from his book. And this year I'm gonna add something new, related to the motto. Rafe teaches his students Kohlberg's model of moral development and helps them think about their motives for making choices. I modified the model, to include a feminist and cultural critique, but I'm also going to teach moral reasoning to my students.

Here's my kid-friendly version:

Why We Make the Choices We Make
LEVEL 1: Fear. I'm afraid of being punished or hurt.
LEVEL 2: I want a reward.
LEVEL 3: I want approval. I hope somebody else will like my choices.
LEVEL 4: Rules. I understand rules are good and important and I choose to follow them.
LEVEL 5: Love and Commitment. I care about other people and I am a thoughtful member of a community. This love leads me to develop a personal code of ethics, and I follow it.

It's powerful to have clarity about a personal code of ethics. I believe in being compassionate and forgiving. But until those values get kneaded into the very center of my selfness, it's rather helpful to be consciously committed to them. "This is who I am," I have to remind myself--until I really am. I noticed myself being more patient on the road and more able to connect with other people today, after meditating just a tiny bit on these levels and on my desire to truly live up to my values.

Here is a related study of middle-schoolers who kept "gratitude lists" for two weeks. The act of counting their blessings helped these kids become more grateful (and happy) people. Qualifying the short duration of the journaling project, the writer of the study supposes that "becoming a grateful person takes a prolonged consistent effort." But, he goes on, "the time to start practicing gratitude is when you’re young, and I think schools can play a vital role."

If YOU had to choose 5 values, your top 5, to list in a personal code of ethics, what would they be? My husband would list hospitality in his top 5. Hey, this is a great way to twist that catchy "My Five" phrase. Who's in your five? Patience? Justice? Peace? Loyalty? Honesty? Kindness? Gratitude? Well?


In2theTrenches said...

I read Rafe's books and kind of feel the same way. I think one of the hardest parts about being a teacher is finding a balance between my personal and professional life. Without it, I become an emotional mess and I get burned out quickly. It's been hard to pull back my own reigns a little so that I can realize how important it is for me to be happy and healthy in order to be a better teacher. I think what frustrated me most about Rafe's books were the editorials and opinions it drew from the general public (non-teachers). It was that pervasive attitude that if we are not all putting in 14 hour days and making enormous personal sacrifices, we are not effective teachers. On the flip side, though, I think it's realistic in any job to be expected to go above and beyond from time to time. While I feel that the necessity to work 80 hour weeks indicates that someone either has way too much on their plate, or they are not managing their time, I think that a few extra hours here and there go a long way. One of my biggest pet peeves are contract people- the people who openly decree that if it's not within their 8:30 to 4:00 contract hours, they aren't going to have anything to do with it, ever. They don't chaperone dances or go to awards ceremonies, They even won't advise extra curricular things like clubs and sports because they don't feel the stipend is good enough to account for their time.

AMY said...


Agreed. Mostly. Although I'm not at all a "contract hours only" sort of teacher, I'm fairly understanding of folks who are. My adoption attorney billed me for every staple and every second he put into our case. I don't blame people who feel like they deserve to be compensated for every hour they work. Doctors and nurses who work sixty hour weeks get paid for sixty hours of work. But at the same time, I don't see how it's possible to do a decent job teaching working strictly contract hours. In our district that's only fifteen minutes on either end of the day. I need a lot more planning time than that.

I guess the other thing I don't like about the way Rafe's books are taken up is that serious structural problems get swept under the rug. Class sizes, limited resources, punitive testing, etc. These things aren't going to go away just cuz lots of teachers put in lots of extra hours.