At a recent convening of 15 teacher-leaders from around the country at the Center for Teaching Quality in Carrboro, North Carolina, I spoke to some colleagues about the balance between teaching academic content and striving to develop students’ moral identities. Leticia Skae-Jackson, an English teacher in Nashville, Tennessee, and Nick Tutolo, a math teacher in Pittsburgh, both commented that many teachers are overwhelmed by the pressure and time demands in covering academic standards. Focusing on character and ethics, they said, is seen as an additional demand.
Nonetheless, Tutolo engages his math students at the beginning of the school year by focusing on questions of what it means to be a conscientious person and citizen while also considering how his class could address community needs. His seventh-grade class focused on the issue of food deserts in Pittsburgh and began a campaign to build hydroponic window farms. While learning about ratios and scaling—skills outlined in the Common Core math standards—students began working to design and distribute the contraptions to residents in need, a project that will continue this fall as Tutolo “loops” up to teach eighth grade.
William Anderson, a high-school teacher in Denver, takes a similar approach to Tutolo, but told me that “most teachers haven’t been trained to design instruction that blends academic content with an exploration of character and ethics.” He emphasized that schools should promote this approach to develop well-rounded students. Addressing academic skills and challenging students to consider ethics and character should not, he argued, be mutually exclusive.
When I reflect upon my own education, two classes stand out with regard to finding the balance between imparting academic skills and developing my own moral identity. My high-school biology teacher Phil Browne challenged us to think about the consequences of our consumer choices and individual actions as they related to ecosystems and the environment in a way that challenged us to think about ourselves as ethical actors.
A couple years later, I signed up for a freshman seminar in college titled “Education and Social Inequality” at Middlebury College in Vermont. I remember being moved by Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and his moral outrage at dilapidated, underfunded, and understaffed schools in impoverished areas; early on in the course, I struggled to articulate my thoughts during essay assignments. My professor, Peggy Nelson, would sit quietly during seminars, watching us squirm in our seats while we grappled with big ideas such as personal responsibility, systemic injustice, and racism.
Entering my 13th year in the classroom this fall, I hope to continue striving to capture the dynamic that Browne, Nelson, Tutolo, Skae-Jackson, Anderson, and other skilled educators have achieved by blending academic instruction with the essential charge of developing students as people. It’s time for critical reflection about values our schools transmit to children by omission in our curriculum of the essential human challenges of character development, morality, and ethics. Far too often, “we’re sacrificing the humanity of students for potential academic and intellectual gain,” Anderson said.