Thoughts on Teaching, 2001

In 2001, I retired from fulltime teaching and research at Stanford. The Dean invited me to give a talk to the graduates and their families that June. Here is an abridged version of what I said.

“I have thought a lot about the past 46 years I have spent in education. I have taught in urban high schools and Stanford for many years [in addition to being an administrator]. It is teaching–not administration or scholarship [however]–that has defined me as an adult….

Teaching has permitted me to be a lover of ideas, a performer, a lifelong learner, a historian, a writer, and a friend to former students and colleagues. For these reasons and because at this moment in our nation’s history teachers have moved to the top of the nation’s school reform agenda, I want to comment today on both the exhilarating and troubling aspects of teaching….

Two basic reasons are behind this strong push for higher quality in teachers: Policy makers and teacher educators believe that when teachers understand deeply their subjects and possess a full repertoire of teaching skills students will learn more, do better on tests, and eventually get good jobs. And, second, higher teacher standards will move the occupation much closer to professional status.

And, of course, who could argue against teachers acquiring more expertise in the subject and displaying polished skills to help children learn more? Who would argue against teaching becoming a full-fledged profession? Certainly, I don’t. Yet, in all honesty, what troubles me is the cramped image of teaching that has emerged from these reforms. The constricted picture is one where the teacher is a technically competent supplier of information and skills. It is an incomplete image of teaching.

Missing in all of the talk and mandates aimed at improving teacher quality are the traditional moral obligations of teaching the young be they preschoolers or graduate students….

I need to be clear on this point. Not for one second do I minimize the importance of raising the low status of teachers and getting students to do better on tests, go to college, acquire credentials, and secure good jobs. Nonetheless, I must point out that these reasons for improving the quality of teaching are far different than the moral purposes that have guided the practice of teaching for centuries.

Let me be more specific about what I mean by traditions of teaching imposing moral obligations upon the teacher. Teaching obliges those who teach kindergartners, sixth graders, molecular biology, auto mechanics, or art to give sustained intellectual and moral attention to students’ learning and growth. Intellectual attentiveness means concentrating on what students know, feel, and think about the content and skills to be learned–the technical side of teaching–but then go on to deepen their understanding of the world and their capacity to continue learning.

Moral attentiveness means to concentrate on helping students grow as persons in grace and sensitivity, becoming more rather than less thoughtful about ideas, becoming more rather than less respectful of others’ views, and becoming more rather than less responsible for reducing social injustice. Questions of what is fair, right, and just arise constantly in classrooms; students learn moral sensibilities from how their teachers answer those questions….

Teacher and author, Frank McCourt realized the moral implications of teaching. As a first-time New York City teacher in the mid-1950s, he was uncertain about what kind of teacher he should be. He recalled his thoughts after his first day of teaching.

‘Should I be Robert Donat in Good-bye, Mr. Chips or Glenn Ford in The Blackboard Jungle? Should I swagger into the classroom like James Cagney or march in like an Irish schoolmaster with a stick, a strap, and a roar? If a student sends a paper airplane zooming at me should I shove my face into his and tell him try that one more time, kid, and you’re in trouble? What am I to do with the ones looking out the window calling to friends across the yard? If they’re like some of the students in The Blackboard Jungle they’ll be tough and they’ll ignore me and the rest of the class will despise me.’

Teaching is a way of defining yourself as a person, a moral actor, and McCourt’s struggle goes well beyond how much of his subject and what skills he displayed. He knew, as we do today, that important as technical expertise is, our character as human beings and how we teach become what we teach.

Just like Frank McCourt, professors also display their character and moral virtues when they teach. In universities, as in public schools, the act of teaching, too often defined as knowing one’s discipline, has been divorced from who one is as a human being. To teach is to convey unveiled enthusiasm for ideas as it is about the details of a lecture. Too often, teaching has been stripped of its moral dimensions and made into a series of technical moves that can be swiftly learned and put into practice. If a professor, for example, only calls on the brightest, most verbal students in the class, snipes at students’ answers that call into question the professor’s statements, and provides few comments on students’ written work, students learn about fairness, independent inquiry, and the moral character of their professor.

Teaching, then, whether in graduate schools or kindergartens–in elite universities or slum schools–binds all of us together. In teaching we display our views of knowledge and learning, we advertise our ideas, how we reason, and how we struggle with moral choices whether we intend to or not. To teach is to enlist in a technical, morally based vocation, not an occupation and certainly not just a job. Technical competence, as important as it is in teaching, is insufficient to make a whole teacher or a complete student. It fails to capture the fundamental moral obligations of teaching the young. Teaching young and old in all of its splendid moral and technical triumphs and disappointments has taught me and I believe many other teachers to approach life and the classroom with humility. Finally, the current search for technical competence as the primary means of improving teacher quality fails to capture a virtue that few reformers even mention….”

After that brief talk to graduates in 2001, I feel the same way in 2011.


Filed under how teachers teach

18 responses to “Thoughts on Teaching, 2001

  1. Pingback: What Is The Job Of A Teacher? | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...

  2. Frank

    Dan Pink calls this a shift in times from the left-brain dominant Information Age (technical competencies as you refer) to a more right-brain dominant Conceptual Age (ability to see big picture, expand and sythesize ideas, collaboration & participation, morality & values, etc.). Both hemispheres are critically important, it just that the right side is undernourished and misaligned for this century.

    It seems to me that most school administrations were selected for their left-brain competencies, as such they tend to hire educators with the same strengths. Getting to the point of educational reform that you share will require more balance in left- and right-brained players across the board …. not just teachers.

  3. Jane Remer

    Larry, on this gloomy overcast Sunday in NYC, and the anticipation of the first day on the job by a Chancellor without any knowledge of education, let alone the moral and intellectual aspects of the not quite yet profession, I thank you for reminding me/us what it’s all about, Alfie.

    In today’s NY Times several principals summarize their suggestions or hopes for action from Chancellor Black. Many touch on the points you raise, but your summary is powerful. I hope you will find a way get it into her email box…
    Happy New Year

  4. Hello, Larry!

    Thanks for this article, especially the comment “Teaching…has taught me and I believe many other teachers to approach life and the classroom with humility.” As teachers, we must never forget the humility it takes to be a student; students of any age or subject must set aside their pride in order to sit and learn or to say, “I don’t understand.” Teachers must retain that aura of kindness that allows students to feel safe enough to open up and learn.

    Enjoy the New Year!


  5. Incisive as ever Larry and I couldn’t begin to improve on it. So instead I’ll offer another vision of the teacher McCourt didn’t mention but who is so, so common in schools out there the world over. I’ve seen him in elite English boarding schools (as in the film) and developing world classrooms alike.

    Andrew Crocker-Harris, played by Albert Finney in the Mike Figgis film of, “The Browning Version.” It’s a film every teacher ought to see midway through their career through their career…just in case!

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  7. Mike Sacken

    Re “The Browning Version” – I show students a few scenes from it, one where he returns exams, brutally, and the culminating scene where he acknowledges his loss of vocation, and juxtapose that w/2 scenes from “Shadowlands,” where CS Lewis is teaching – the 2nd after his wife’s death.

    In a very traditional setting, the 2 teachers show that context isn’t an excuse for impersonality or insensitivity in teaching – that the moral implications of teaching unify us in all settings, to grow or wither as a person.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the film tips, Mike. Cal suggested that I see the Michael Redgrave version (c. 1950s) rather than the remake. I have yet to see Shadowlands. Netflix, here I come.

  8. Cal

    If you’re going to watch The Browning Version, it is imperative you watch the Michael Redgrave version, not the remake with Albert Finney. I’ve seen them both. The original is my personal pick for best movie about teaching ever made–but then, I’m cynical and most of them are pretty soppy.

    I am very skeptical of the “exceptionalism” version of teaching. While I think many teachers, including Larry, hold the view honestly, I believe its currency in the teaching debate has three foundations that have nothing to do with the genuine belief. First, it has currency because teachers feel their low status deeply, and this is a way of compensating. Second, it’s a sign of the political and ideological objectives of a plurality of teachers and their desire to achieve political ends with educational policy. Finally, it’s an attempt to keep teachers away from genuine evaluations necessary in our incredibly diverse population. I’ll leave the first alone; it’s pretty self-explanatory. Here’s a brief take on the other two.

    Teaching is an intensely politicized and ideological occupation. I have heard too many people describe these so-called moral obligations of teachers while making it clear that a proper teacher has values that can only be described as political. In many schools, teachers are expected to support affirmative action, oppose attempts to limit undocumented aliens and promote tolerance for gay rights as seemingly self-evident ways to promote “social justice”, yet all of these are overtly political objectives. I would often hear classmates at Stanford talk about their deep belief that as a teacher, they were responsible for creating and instilling democratic values, to which I always added “with a capital D, no less”. When I asked them if they envisioned creating students who had strong conservative beliefs, they would invariably reply “Not if I do it properly.”

    I want teachers out of the values game. I don’t ever want to hear the term “social justice” or “diversity” again, because as defined in this country, they are political objectives, not moral universal truths.

    And even leaving politics aside, look at all the values you express in your post. Students should explore ideas deeply. They should have grace and sensitivity. Successful teachers provide not just subject matter competence, but also a sense of tolerance and social justice. Says who? Who gets to decide how this is done? Isn’t it okay for a student to hate school, to go through the motions to get a credential? (I can assure you that this is what we did at Stanford’s STEP program–and laughed about the difference between our professed motives for our students and our own values as displayed in getting our work done.) I don’t think we should ever expect that everyone value education, nor assume that anyone who doesn’t simply hasn’t had the right teachers.

    And then, isn’t it convenient that we can also cite this exceptionalism as a way to resist more objective forms of evaluation? How can such an extraordinary profession be judged by such flat metrics as test scores, teacher knowledge and its link to student achievement? I have too often seen teachers, administrators, and policy makers more interested in an outcome that promotes their view of social justice than which result gives the best learning results–measuring “learning” by the flat metrics that makes everyone so unhappy. So long as teaching is different, the thinking goes, we teachers can reject these flat, so-called objective metrics as insulting and demeaning to the important and deeply different work that we do.

    Isn’t it enough to talk solely about teaching from the standpoint of the subject matter? To talk about how to teach it well, based on the population (and that’s a key issue that we ignore), and to discuss which policies of grading and weighting are best practices regardless of teacher’s personal preferences? I don’t see why we can’t leave it at that.

    I love teaching. I love helping students become competent when that’s their biggest challenge, I love giving challenges to those who are ready for them. When I teach English and history, I am passionate about getting my students to engage with these subjects in whatever way that is meaningful to them–and I believe I am successful teaching weak math students precisely because I don’t expect or demand that they think of math as anything other than something to be survived. But I reject the notion of teaching as profoundly different from lawyering, programming, doctoring, or any other career. And I resist it when teachers–and most of them do–try to demand that it is more than an intensely satisfying way to spend the day and get paid for it.

  9. larrycuban

    Dear Cal,
    WOW! That was some comment. Must have touched a nerve there. At first, I got all defensive and wanted to point out paragraph-by-paragraph what I was saying. Then, I read of your experiences in a Stanford program and saw the nerve exposed.
    Let me be clear: public school teaching in the U.S. is by its very nature a moral act embodying personal, professional, and community values. Every teacher–you, me, those teacher ed professors you mentioned, and the novice kindergarten teacher stepping for the first time into her classroom–teaches values by our daily actions, what we ask students to do and not do, how to behave in class when someone else is speaking, and on and on. Values are either made implicit or explicit. Given this fact of life, the questions are always:
    1. Are these values worthwhile to me and do I want to teach them?
    2. If they are values I do not want to teach, can I still accept a paycheck from those expecting me to teach the content, skills, and values?
    3. Are there other values that students bring to school that I want to strengthen and values that I want to ignore?
    Of course, there are other questions that I could add, but you see where I am going.

    Currently, there is an explicit emphasis on the technical side of teaching that values knowledge and skills and their assessment. Currently there is a highly prized value that every student, regardless of prior achievement level or interest, should go to college. These are explicit values that show up in policy talk over charters, 1:1 laptops, and pay-for-performance plans. Are these political and social values? Of course. Are these ideological? Of course. So I end where I began: public school teaching in the U.S. is by its very nature a moral act embodying personal, professional, and community values. Should we talk about the moral act of teaching more than we do. You bet.

  10. Cal

    You know, I was finishing up grades and needed a distraction and went a little nuts! You should get preview on your blog; if I’d seen how long it was I would have edited.

    I keep coming back to the omnipresent notion that teaching is somehow unique and special–as you say, “not an occupation, certainly not just a job”. Many teachers and teacher educators confuse the “moral obligation” you discuss with their own personal values, and conflate “good teaching” with the implementation of their value system.

    Now, we could of course just keep reminding everyone that values aren’t universal, and that teachers with a wide variety of value systems can still engage in this intensely moral profession. Or we can change our premise, and accept that teaching has unique attributes, like many occupations, but isn’t singular–it is, in fact, “just” an occupation. I push for the latter.

    As for my own history, I went into the program with full knowledge of its ideological demands–and everyone I knew warned me, nonetheless. Ed schools are well known for demanding ideological conformity. I wasn’t shocked, shocked! by that (although their ability to threaten my standing with relatively little cause was a surprise).

    My vehemence comes not so much from my own experience as it does from my concern that teaching is dominated ideologically by the progressive left (not the far left, but the genteel suburban variety). It’s bad for the profession and it limits the important conversations on all aspects of teaching–the technical as well as the moral. I believe that the best way to do this is to de-emphasize the moral “specialness”.

    Apologies again for the long post.

    • larrycuban

      No apologies necessary, Cal. I guess where we part company is on the premise of teaching as an “exceptional” line of work. My biases show, of course. While I have worked at many other jobs in my lifetime, the primary work experience I have had has been teaching in high schools for 14 years and then at a university for 20-plus years. The mix of technical and moral, art and science, theory and practice have been a daily challenge to me for all of these years. I have learned a lot about myself, life, and the world through the students I have taught well and even ill-taught. I was (and still am) committed to teaching although its mysteries, big and small, continue to entice and puzzle me. So perhaps, in the end, our experiences may account for the different premises with which we start when we think about the act of teaching in schools.

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