Teaching Morally and Teaching Morality

It began with the test, as it so often does.

Ms. Samuel,

You are the worst science teacher that has ever taught me. In all my years doing science I have consistently averaged 89 and never struggled on a test as hard as the one today. If you are going to put a question on the test, prepare us for it. A question you put on the test today needed to use a method we never went over in class … The method was NEVER USED in either class or homework. I can’t switch teachers and I don’t want a teacher like you to mess up such an important year for me.

For the next test I am perfectly fine with you putting a harder question on the test. Just make sure you give us examples like that in our class or homework and teach us the proper way to solve them.

(email sent anonymously from a Grade 12 student)

I’ll offer a little context before proceeding. This is a true story. The anonymous student is in the final year of secondary school, at a highly academic and well-regarded school in an urban centre in Canada. The school is part of one of the largest and most diverse publicly funded boards in the country. Although the situation unfolded during the COVID-19 pandemic and has likely been exacerbated by it, it is not unique to that. The discussion can be applied more broadly and to other teaching contexts and situations.

Now, to continue. There are several ways to respond. Ms. Samuel (pseudonym) is a veteran teacher with a strong appreciation for due process. She immediately consulted her Principal. But given the extra stresses and responsibilities of pandemic schooling, he was not keen to become involved. So, Ms. Samuel sent the following email reply:

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Dear Student,

I have no idea who you are, so I am replying to your entire class to ensure that you get my response. I am also sending this to our Principal and the head of the department, who have already read your email. The email you sent me is below this response, as per usual with emails. Maybe it should be read before and after reading my message.

I believe that the test question to which you might be referring is #3, from textbook section 3.4 … Your email has given me a chance to look back at my lesson, which is available for all to see on my website, both the notes and the video.

Can you please open the PDF that I have attached to this email. This PDF is the transcript of the lesson for section 3.4, which was the topic of Monday September 21st. You can also watch the video of that lesson. This PDF and the video have been posted on my website since September 21.

If you scroll down to page 2 of the PDF, you will see that we dealt with questions exactly like the one on the test, together, during the lesson.

So now, anonymous student, I have some questions to put to you:

  • On September 21, did you attend and actively engage with the lesson?  Did you take notes or print the notes? Did you watch the video?
  • Did you do the assigned homework, particularly section 3.4 #6 which requires you to process the question in the exact manner you could have done on the test question?
  • When you were studying for the test, did you do the chapter review and chapter test as I suggested, particularly page 185 #9 and page 186 #7?
  • While preparing for the test, did you go to the website and re-read the notes or watch the video from the lesson to make sure you understood the content?
  • Did you use my homework log to access live virtual extra help, given that you were having difficulty?  

Should you wish to discuss this further my door is always open.  However, I do expect an apology, which I will accept, in order that we might move forward collaboratively.

Thank you.

Ms. Samuel

Teaching Morally and Teaching Morality

One thing led to another. The student who wrote the email was revealed and then confessed. After a brief chat with him, Ms. Samuel wrote this follow-up email to his parents.

Good evening:

I am contacting you regarding an abusive and disrespectful email that your son anonymously sent to me yesterday. He informed me that he spoke with you about this email, but I’m not sure whether he actually showed it to you. So, I have copied it below.

Your son has reached out and confessed to sending this email and we have planned to meet at 8:25 on Tuesday, in our classroom, so he can apologize to me. We can discuss reparations and then put this behind us and carry on with the semester.

At our school, we take all abuse of any type, directed at staff and students, very seriously. So, I am sure that our Principal will follow up with you and your son.  

I hope you can appreciate how disturbing it was for me to receive this email, and then have to deal with the fallout over the last 30 hours. It has taken an enormous amount of time away from my other students and my family and has caused me significant distress.

(Ms. Samuel then outlined the relevant lesson information, as per her email to the student.)

I have used this opportunity to emphasize three things, with all of my students, pertaining to this issue:

  1. Everything that is sent and posted on the internet (email, Instagram, Snap Chat, etc.) is kept by a third party, and is a permanent record of their internet activity and their integrity.
  2. There are more appropriate ways for voicing concerns, which are respectful and kind. We discussed some examples.
  3. I am always available to my students, for such discussions, should they have concerns. And if they are struggling in my class, I encourage them to seek me out for extra support.

Please reply to this email, so I know it was received.

Thank you.

Anita Samuel

Fortunately for all involved, the student’s parents took the matter seriously and were supportive of Ms. Samuel. They even thanked her for giving their son a valuable life lesson. The student apologized to Ms. Samuel and sought extra help with the science content. I am happy to report that they are back on track and moving forward with the curriculum.

Teaching morally and teaching morality: what it means

But, for academic purposes, let’s explore this case a little more. My area of interest lies in the moral dimensions of teaching and learning. More specifically, teaching morally and teaching morality.

Teaching morally means that teachers conduct themselves in ways that are moral and ethical and that they infuse their practice with moral values of fairness, honesty, kindness, responsibility, courage, trust, and respect, to name but a few.

Teaching morality means that teachers impart moral messages and lessons to students, by way of furthering students’ moral growth and development. Ms. Samuel seems to have accomplished both.

Teaching Morally and Teaching Morality

In taking on this issue, which she might have more easily ignored, Ms. Samuel was courageous. Her systems and structures for delivering the curriculum demonstrate diligence, responsibility and integrity. And in communicating with the parents, she was open and honest, particularly regarding the effect this situation had on her, personally. That is teaching morally.

Further, as the student’s parents noted Ms. Samuel imparted a life lesson to their son, which she extended to the entire class. Messages regarding respectful communication, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and being honest with others are moral and ethical in nature. That is teaching morality.

While the situation can generally be thought of as well managed, there are two considerations I offer, through a lens of empathy, compassion and care.

Firstly, while the mass email might have been necessary, the tone and content can be interpreted as public shaming, a public takedown of sorts. Ms. Samuel might simply have said “I received an anonymous email from one of you about our last test. What was said is unfair and untrue. It hurt my feelings and I would like the opportunity to respond and clear the air with whomever sent it”. Then wait, with the assumption that the student would also like to make things right and do the right thing. If that does not happen, further steps can be taken.

Secondly, this is an opportunity for Ms. Samuel to strengthen her relationship with this student, so that anonymous and nasty emails would no longer be part of his communications repertoire. Care Ethics Theory, particularly as developed by Nel Noddings, advises teachers to nurture individual relationships with students that are characterized by care, compassion, trust, respect, kindness, helpfulness, and knowing each other well. Ms. Samuel might follow up, therefore, with both the student and his parents, to see if there are issues beyond science that require extra support from her and/or school resources and to offer a safe place for the student to air frustrations, disappointments and anxieties.

While the student’s email is certainly unacceptable, it was likely a cry for help from a teenager who is struggling with the pressures of university acceptance and pandemic restrictions. Assuming this to be the case would frame a different response from the teacher. Two quotes come to mind:

It’s possible that one teacher can see the child as ‘causing distress’ and another may see the child is ‘in distress’.– Daniel Sobel

A child whose behaviour pushes you away is a child who needs connection before anything else. – Kelly Bartlett

There is no doubt that Ms. Samuel is a competent, considerate and conscientious teacher, and that her students benefit from being in her class. And I realize that the job of teaching is very complicated and taxing, particularly during a pandemic. But there is rarely harm in prioritizing empathy, compassion and care in one’s approach; in assuming students’ best intentions; and in placing the student’s pain and hurting before or above one’s own. These too are part of the teaching morally and teaching morality toolbox.

For more on teaching morally and teaching morality see my book, Portrait of a Moral Agent Teacher: Teaching Morally and Teaching Morality (Routledge, 2015). You can also find me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Youtube.

The Moral Agent Teacher

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Dr. Gillian R. Rosenberg
Gillian Rosenberg is a freelance academic, who views all things related to schooling through a moral and ethical lens. Her PhD work (University of Toronto) focused on the K-12 classroom, broadly exploring the moral and ethical dimensions of teaching, learning and classroom life, as well as various approaches to moral education. Her Master's degree in education administration (University of Toronto) focused on ethical school cultures, professional learning communities, and ethical and moral school leadership.

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