Students need morals to make key life choices. But where do they get their morals?

Pop quiz. No googling it. Where is the following quotation taken from?

“A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement.”

If you guessed that it’s the first section of Article IX of the California State Constitution, you’re exactly right. That’s the article that outlines the state’s role in educating the population. It’s from the same constitution that every public school teacher has to affirm that they will support and defend. And it’s a clause I don’t recall ever reading until two years ago.

In teacher education, we were trained to let students come to their own conclusions and not to force our beliefs on them. We were taught to let students discover their own perspective rather than tell them ours.

But here’s the problem with that. If we don’t share our morals, and their parents don’t share their morals, and they don’t watch Mr. Rogers regularly, who is going to teach them right and wrong? They’re just going to absorb it from the most equally confused peers or a few outspoken members of our society, the ones who were often forced to shed their own principles years ago in their rise to prominence.

There’s been a push lately in education for “College and Career Readiness,” a sort of backwards planning based on the current state of the economy and higher education. It seeks to ensure 1st graders are on track for successful careers in post-secondary classrooms and the workplace. But you know what? We live in such a rapidly shifting economy that many of the careers and classrooms we are anticipating will be obsolete by the time kids graduate. So let’s go ahead and try to give kids the skills they need to be successful in the workplace and higher education, but let’s not forget that some of the more timeless skills are internalized moral principles.

I never like to raise an issue like this without also presenting some pragmatic solutions, so I’d like to spend the rest of this article explaining three changes I have made in my mindset and practice in response to my concerns over a lack of moral development in my classroom.

1.) I think of moral development when planning curriculum.

With loads of texts to choose from, is it censorship to prioritize the ones that teach character?

Any teacher worth her salt will consider how a particular text or lesson will help her students develop in specific intellectual ways, and it’s time to extend that kind of thinking to moral development. If you’re choosing between two books that are relatively equal in other ways, pick the one that carries the greatest moral value.

I’m an English teacher, and one of the most common fallacies I hear is that all books are good books. That statement is rubbish. There are good books and bad books. Books that make the reader intellectually, morally, and emotionally stronger after reading them are good. Books that do the opposite are bad. Don’t be afraid to cut the bad books and add better books. I used to subconsciously think of this as censorship, but then I realized that if that’s true, then all lesson planning is censorship. I only have my students 180 days, so I need to try to make each text we read of maximum value. If that means eliminating some texts to make room for better ones, so be it.

Last year, a new unit based curriculum we were piloting had a unit titled “All for Love.” It had some decent texts in it, but it also had several that addressed love from a perspective that I would call biological determinism. They essentially reduced the concept of love to a collection of chemicals. I went along teaching it because, honestly, I didn’t have time or energy at the time to rewrite the curriculum; however, near the end of the unit, I was grading some student responses and I ran across one response that included the sentence “thanks Mr. Rob for having us read these. It’s helped me realize that love isn’t actually a real thing.”

In my early days, I probably would have written back “That’s an interesting idea. What evidence do you have to support it?” And then moved on with my life. But it struck me then that if I just let the message of the texts slide without presenting what I knew to be true, I was essentially participating in the moral de-education of my students. So I started the next day in class with a short, five minute lecture and slideshow that presented several counter-examples to the texts we had read, expanded the definition of love, and finished with what love meant in my life.

That’s something I might only do once every year or two, but I felt obligated to ensure that my class was morally IMPROVING my student rather than degenerating their perspective. We then moved on with our curriculum. I elected not to waste another week having students read and respond to texts that were redundant and embraced an unhelpful perspective on one the key elements in the human experience.

2.) I share my principles using “I” statements.

It doesn’t take a megaphone to speak for myself when asked.

When talking to students, a teacher does need to be careful to not trample on the values of their parents, or to make the students feel that their personal beliefs are being attacked. At the same time, I realized that I need to be open and honest about the values I stand for. It’s just not fair to let students wander around in life wondering what morals the adults in their life actually try to cultivate.

That’s where an “I” statement comes in. Telling a student “I’ve found it is best to tell the truth and live with consequences” is a powerful way to confirm to them that my life is founded on that moral imperative. Same goes for more controversial statements like “When I got married, I made a promise to stick by my wife, so that’s what I do.” Or “I do believe there is a God and that we are his creation; every single one of us has intrinsic value.”

I’m not telling the students they have to stick to the same principles I do or embrace my ideology, but at least I am making them aware of what I purport to base my life on. It’s up to them to weigh my life and principles against other potential lives and principles. Ultimately, they choose their own moral foundation, but at least I’m not withholding key information from them.

3.) I emphasize process and principle over result.

Individual results have a short shelf life, but processes and principles are reusable throughout life.

So many times students, parents, and even coaches and teachers encouraging students to improve their grades, win a game, or shape up in the face of a consequence. These external motivations are fine, but every “get good grades” or “win this game” talk should first emphasize the morals behind the grade or win: the importance of competing with honor, the obligation to utilize talent, and the value of consistent work ethic. To put grades into perspective, I like to emphasize that grades are a ballpark gauge of learning and that taxpayers have paid for teachers and students to be in school and we need to execute collectively, to the best of our ability, the free public education we’ve been assigned to complete or we risk wasting hard earned money. Grades are just a measure of that.

The same goes with consequences. No consequence should come without at least a brief explanation of the specific character we are trying to encourage and the moral pitfall we want to avoid. These conversations do not need to be long or nagging, but they should occur regularly, even if they seem contrived or uncomfortable. When a student knows we want to help them improve morally, and that we’re not just out to punish them, consequences become less about squashing rebellion and more about growth.