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Teaching Strategies: The Importance of Morality

Jordan Catapano

Teachers are responsible for teaching specified standards of academics. We have our course objectives, our teaching strategies, our standards, and our college and career readiness goals. We have our lessons and our curriculums, all outlining the specific academic criteria we are responsible for passing on to our students.

But morality, in addition to raw academics, plays an important role in society. It raises an important question, “Who is responsible for teaching morality?” Is it society’s responsibility, including teachers, to pass on the virtues of civilized life to the next generation? Or is this strictly within parents’ purview to oversee? Who gets to decide which morals get attention and which don’t?

Some communities have their established character-building programs incorporated into their schools and community life. My community abides by Character Counts, an ethics initiative founded upon six virtues of character. Does your school have a moral education component that you incorporate into your teaching strategies?

Why Teaching Strategies that Employ Morality Matter

If you were to hand someone $1 million, is that person now rich? Well, perhaps for the moment they are. But we all know the real determination of wealth is not how you get money, but what you do with it. Do they have the background and training to help them keep and grow that money, or will they squander it away within a year?

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I think of education along the same lines. Education is valuable, but getting one is not the issue. What a student does with their education is what counts. Will they squander it away? Will they further invest in their learning? Will they apply their knowledge? Will they use it to make the world a brighter place or a darker one? Morality is in part responsible for helping students best apply their education for their own personal benefit and the benefit of their surrounding society.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” When we consider what a complete education includes, Dr. King’s words of advice help us understand that pure intelligence isn’t enough. It’s the content of one’s character that helps to ultimately determine the choices and actions an individual will ultimately take. Dr. King also compared education without morals to a “Ship without a compass.”

Multiple studies have linked the implementation of character education in schools to the improved academic performance of students. A 2003 study of 600 California schools states that character education “Reduced office referrals, improved attendance and test scores, increased skills for conflict resolution, lessening of risky behavior, and overall improved school climate and civility.” Another 2005 study determined that the most commonly affected outcomes included positive impacts on socio-moral cognition, pro-social and behavioral attitudes, and problem-solving skills, among many other areas.

There’s little doubt that including some kind of character or moral education in addition to strict academics positively influences students. The question then is not if we should include discussion and education of morality in schools, but how.

Linking Morality to Academics

There are a number of formal ethics and character programs available to assist schools and communities with the moral development of their youth. If you’re interested in exploring programs to potentially implement in your organization, consider adopting Character Counts or another formally developed program that fits the desires of your community.

Rick Weissbourd posits in his Moral Teachers, Moral Students article that “Educators influence students' moral development not simply by being good role models … but also by what they bring to their relationships with students day to day.” Moral education can happen from formal school programs or, as Weissbourd recommends, from improved teacher training. But for the time being, however, think more directly about how you as a teacher can positively impact the moral development of your students on a day-to-day basis.

Teach Positive Behaviors. One of the first ways that you, as an educator, bring moral education into your classroom is by directly speaking about positive behaviors. Sometimes we assume that students know the correct, moral thing to do in any given moment. But do not allow this assumption to cause you to overlook the opportunity to make “Teachable moments” out of situations in your classroom. Openly share with students what the “right” thing to do is, and engage them in a discussion that challenges them to evaluate for themselves what seems the most appropriate course of action.

Be a Role Model. It’s not just what you say; it’s what you do that counts. As one of the few adults in the life of a child, it’s important that you use your conduct to model for students what an ethical professional looks like. Make sure that you do the right thing and conduct yourself along the highest moral standards. Judge fairly, practice honesty and respect, share, demonstrate responsibility, and allow students to see how you embody these characteristics in and out of the classroom.

Connect It to Your Content. Sometimes learning certain content is straightforward learning. But look for those opportunities where aspects of your content raise the moral question or connect to character issues. Students enjoy being challenged to think critically about themselves, and connecting ethical discussions to your content both reinforces their content knowledge and their characters.

Talk with Parents. Your students are important to you, but you are not the sole adult interested in your students’ moral development. Share your aspirations of your students’ characters with parents, converse with parents about how students are doing academically and ethically, and always make sure you allow parents to remain in the driver’s seat of their children’s character development.

How Does Character Education Help Academics?

So what does this have to do with academics? After all, if you’re responsible for make sure your students achieve up to the proscribed academic standards, then why waste valuable talking about character?

If you look at a list of elements covered by most character education programs – even informal ones driven by individual teachers – you’ll notice a strong intersection between good characters and good students. Consider how improvements in each of these areas could resultantly produce a positive impact on a student’s academic achievements.

  • Respect towards others
  • Personal responsibility
  • Conflict resolution
  • Better attendance
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Sharing
  • Self-restraint
  • Calm articulation
  • Community contributions
  • Fairness
  • Honesty
  • Compassion

When students are regularly exposed to discussion of these virtuous characteristics and encouraged to assume these qualities, it will result in fewer discipline referrals, improved attendance, better homework completion, decreases in bullying and exclusion, declines in conflicts between students and teachers, more mature understand of tasks, comfort and ownership in the classroom, and other positive elements that impact student learning.

Benjamin Franklin stated that “ ... Nothing is of more importance for the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue.” As we equip our students with powerful educations, our participation in the development of their moral characters helps to ensure that they will participating in a more positive learning environment in their youth and preserve a mature community in their adulthood.

What do you think of the teacher’s role in contributing to students’ character education? How do you support this in your classroom? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.