Carrie Welsh: Hi, you’re listening to the Ethics and Education podcast from the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m Carrie Welsh. I’m the program director of the Center.
In 2019, I talked with professors Paula McAvoy and Lauren Gatti about their book project called “Just Teacher.” The book is about what it means to be a professional teacher in today’s context in the United States. What dilemmas do teachers face? And how should they navigate those dilemmas?
Paula McAvoy: You’re not going to be perfect in every moment. And that’s okay. What makes you good is that you’re willing to sort of think back on that moment, and figure out what to do next.
They want the book to provide a framework of professional ethics for teachers. This book is about weighing the question, Why do this rather than that?
Here’s part of our conversation in 2019.
Paula McAvoy: I’m Paula McAvoy, I am an assistant professor at North Carolina State University in the department of teacher education and learning sciences. I’m sort of identify both as a philosopher of education and as someone who studies discussion and democratic education in high school classrooms.
Lauren Gatti: And I’m Lauren Gatti. I’m an associate professor at University of Nebraska in Lincoln. I’m in the department of teaching, learning and teacher education. I also have a courtesy appointment in the English department. And I study English education and teacher education and teacher education policy.
Paula: And the book is called “Just Teacher: Ethical Thinking in the Profession of Teaching.” What the book is about is thinking about what it means to be a professional teacher in today’s context in the United States more specifically, and what are the dilemmas that teachers face? What they are in the profession of teaching, and how have they negotiated those dilemmas. The contribution that the book wants to make is to flesh out more fully what this idea of a professional teacher is how it’s different than other professions. One thing, for example, is that it’s a highly relational profession. And so that’s something that, you know, is maybe different than some of the other standard professions. And then the second contribution is to help provide a framework for professional ethics for teachers to help them think through the trade offs they will necessarily have to make while they’re being a teacher.
Lauren: And one thing I would add to that is that Paula and I were both high school teachers, prior to beginning our doctoral studies and our work in academia. So we each taught 10 years each before we started this work. And I think what we realized in talking to one another is that the most complicated and kind of lingering questions we had about our work as teachers in high school wasn’t about an assessment or, you know, one, you know, interaction with a student necessarily, it was about “did I treat the student fairly during this class.” Or for me, like the students that I feel like I didn’t treat fairly, like those students, those decisions that I made around those particular students still linger with me. And we both thought that that would be a rich area of investigation, especially given as Paula just said that when we think about teaching as a profession, you know, it’s often well, at least in teacher education, it’s often tethered to things like the edTPA, or board certification exams. And those are, I think, you know, legitimate and important ways to think about the profession. But we understood from our work in classrooms for a long time, that the ethical dilemmas were a lot more kind of, they were like the substance of the profession of teaching in a way that wasn’t addressed by any of the literature.
Paula: So we wanted the book not to be just Paula and Lauren do what philosophers normally do, which is just sit by themselves and think about things. And instead, we wanted to speak to teachers and have the voice of teachers in the book. So for that reason, we began with an online survey of we have now 130 responses from across the country of K 12. Teachers, asking them very simply three simple questions. What’s a decision you had to make during your career that you found difficult? What did you do? And do you think you did the right thing? So that’s how we began and so from there, we, as I said, collected 130 responses and now we’re following up with about 15 of those teachers to do more in depth interviews, and those will sort of breathe life into the arguments of the book, though we’re speaking back and forth between or we’re moving back and forth between the teacher voices and the ideas, we’re in development.
Lauren: And one thing we’re really interested in is thinking about how the teacher is positioned among different realms of responsibility. So there’s a responsibility to the institution, there’s an instant responsibility to parents and guardians, there’s a responsibility to individual children and groups of children. There’s a responsibility to the democratic aims of schooling. And so what we kind of hypothesized before we started to get the survey responses back. And what we’re finding in those responses is that so many of these dilemmas are about teachers struggling between those different realms of responsibility. And so we’re just trying to understand, especially through these in depth interviews that we’re going to be doing is, what was the thinking process that was going on, as they negotiated between these different realms? And what were the trade offs that were being made.
Paula: Some of the dilemmas that we found that came up, there were a set of common dilemmas. So lots of people talked about student behavior and student well being and that was both disruptive behavior in the classroom and handling, you know, a student has anxiety, a student who’s suddenly homeless, etc. And all of these sort of dealing with the life of kids that often doesn’t come up as central to teacher education and how we should handle those situations, dilemmas around grading dilemmas around teaching controversial issues in the classroom. And then teachers talking about wanting to have more control over the curriculum, and then some what the professional relationships at the school and how to negotiate those. And I’ll just say for the philosophy audience that the book is, it’s both it’s using data in order to inform philosophic arguments. And so it’s not that the book is not presenting the findings, as that’s all we have to say is here the means, but instead is using its it this is a way to help us think through the larger questions of what does it mean to be an ethical professional teacher.
Carrie: Since we talked last year, Dr. McEvoy and Dr. Gatti have completed the interviews for the book, and have a book contract with teachers college press. They’re in the writing phase now. We met in September over zoom. And they talked about a case from the book that illustrates the competing responsibilities of teaching and what they call the ethical long view, the forward ethical thinking that teachers need to be engaged in so they can see their work not just as right versus wrong, but as a kind of constant tinkering toward repair.
Paula: If you haven’t messed up, you can recover from that misstep because you have another day with your class…180 times (laughs)
Carrie: In this particular case, we hear about Mr. Owen, a teacher who has a conflict with a student and tries to prioritize the long view. Here’s Paula McAvoy.
Paula: Yeah, let’s introduce you to Mr. Owen. Mr. Owen is a sixth grade teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota. And he’s white and in his 40s. And he has taught for a number of years as a seasoned teacher, and one day he’s students are walking into his classroom, he’s standing in the doorway, greeting and reading them as they come in. And an African American girl walks in, and he says, Good morning, and she says, save it. And he explains that this is a student that had been having some difficulties at school, and that he struggled to have a relationship does sort of create a productive relationship with and so his response was, why don’t you wait outside, I want to talk to you. And she refused. So then he picked up her materials and set them outside and then began class and comes back out after you get this the class settled. And during that time, she had called her mother. It said that the teacher had yelled at her through her things outside now the mother’s upset. And he, I think, before by the end of that class period, had gotten an email from an angry email from her mother. And so he explains in his response to the interview, you know, I was he says the words I was blinded by anger upon receiving the email, and felt, you know, you know, his first reaction is, you know, I’ve worked so hard to sort of have a good relationship with you and you bring negative energy into my room every day. And I felt like I was being treated unfairly. We’ve used this quite a few times with teachers and faculty and students, pre service teachers, and sort of talk about sowhat do you see happening right now in this moment with Mr. Oh, and what tensions are in place? And what do you think he should do next?
Carrie: Take a moment to think about that. What’s happening in this moment, Mr. Owen? What tensions are in place? And what do you think you should do next? Here’s where the long view of teaching comes in. Lauren and Paula have identified four realms of the long view, positional temporal, relational, and ethical. In this particular case, with Mr. Owen, all four responsibilities collide.
Lauren: And so yeah, so we see Mr. Owen is this situation is showing these four kind of competing realms of responsibility. One is his own view of what’s right, his own view of good teaching, it’s one thing to, you know, to which he’s responsible. The second is parents and guardians. Another review, just the administration, the you know, the building that he works and the policies that are at play in his building. And then another would be the student, and their well being. And so you can see all of these things kind of colliding. Right. And Mr. Owen is trying to negotiate right, these responsibilities to these different realms, which is clearly messy. And, and I think, importantly, it’s not evident to him in the moment that this is why it’s such a confusing mess, you know, but is, you know, as Paul and I are analyzing these cases, this is what we see happening, right? These that these things are colliding.
Carrie: Here’s what happens with Mr. Owen.
Paula: He explains in his response that the first was the official policy of the administration, which he says a case like this should have brought been brought to my principal immediately, and then it would have been kind of assigned to, to that person to kind of take it from there. And he says, but as a member of the school’s equity team, I’d had a lot of training in thinking about building positive relationships with family with reflecting on institutional racism, which thinking about my own positionality. And so he, he decides not to go to the principal. So his first responsibility is to the school rules, but he goes against them and says, I decided it would be better to respond directly to the mother. And so he wrote an email to her explaining, this is what I saw happening in this moment. I, you know, I was frustrated, and says, I think I did the wrong thing. And I’m sorry that I caused an unpleasant experience for your daughter. And, and then he also explains, the principal was unhappy with him for doing this, because he thought or he or she thought that there was too much concession to the parent. And while the teacher appreciates, well, that’s nice that the principal was sort of on my side overall. He, it’s still frustrating, because apparently, we’re doing all this work, work around equity. And yet the policies in place are that you should not attend to the relational aspect of the situation and sort of handed off. And so he saw this as a moment to repair a relationship, not to sort of enforce school policy. And so this was, you know, so it. And he, he, in the end thinks he did the right thing, that it was the right move, and trying to kind of build the type of school culture that he thinks is most important. So again, he kind of leans on his own idea of what a good teacher does and what a good school is to make a judgment that goes against school policy. And then layered on to this and what I think is nice about this case is that it also illustrates what we what we saw in a lot of the teacher responses that there’s a layer of, of the teachers have to be able to sort of place themselves into a social context that has racism and sexism, and all the in justices that happen inside and outside of school. So he was able to think, okay, I’m a white man in this situation, and I have an African American mother and daughter and how do they experience this school? How is my response making their experience better or worse, and so he’s able to think through the layers or not Just think you disrespected me, I must, I must win. You know, so he. So this is a really nice, what we call taking the relational, the relational aspect of what we call the long view of teaching. And so thinking, I have to have a relationship with this family over time, not just on Tuesday afternoon. And so it was thinking, How can I use this moment to to keep this family engaged with me and not push them away? Okay, I’ll hand off to Laura, this is the beginning of our theory of the ethical long view.
Lauren: One thing that we’re really interested in, and one thing we’re excited about is that the way we’re thinking about this gets us away from this idea of like, a discrete moment, um, like one tiny moment in time, and it allows us to kind of zoom out, right? So it’s not just about the the young girl, you know, disrespecting the teacher, which I think you know, can often become the only focus, it’s like, these are the rules and you disrespected me. Like that would be the discreet way of looking at it. But instead, Mr. Owen really zooms out and thinks about, again, this relational kind of work more broadly, and especially in the in the through the lens of like, racial justice and equity in the school.
Paula: Yeah, and I’ll just echo that that idea of. So a lot of one more thing about the ethical like to thinking about ethics in the classroom, a lot of that discussion is what often be: so did Mr. Owen do the right thing when he told the student to leave the classroom? And we can judge him in that moment, perhaps, and maybe, and that’s a good discussion to have. I feel a lot of empathy for Mr. Owen, not that I think he did the right thing. But we’ve all I mean, as people who have, you know, we also get frustrated, and you’re thinking, I need second period to go Well, today, I have it in me to deal with this. You know, and so, he certainly didn’t know how she was, maybe he could have predicted how she was going to react. But he certainly, he also I have empathy that teachers are always you know, they’re, they’re doing the best they can, and that things don’t always go as you intend. And you’re making split second decisions as the bell rings. And it’s, you know, I really want to emphasize when I work with my own teachers, you’re not going to be perfect in every moment. And, and that’s okay, what makes you good is that you’re willing to sort of think back on that moment, and figure out what to do next, make it better not do it again. And that you’re learning, you know, and that’s the, you know, it’s it’s a lot like parenting, you’re kind of trying things out. And sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, and the same behavior with one student does not work for another. And so there’s a lot of, you know, we need to be kind of kind to ourselves and to our teachers, that it’s the teaching people how to respond well not just strive for perfection, that is sort of the art of teaching.
Lauren: Yeah, I mean, I do think if we’re thinking about teaching as a process of learning, that learning involves, obviously missed ups like and we I know that we’ve mentioned this before, but I do think that the repair part, the relational repair, the intellectual repair, that even just like the repair that happens when you’re like, screw something up in terms of a schedule, or in terms of a test, like you have, like the, you didn’t realize that you, like had a question on it, that was unfair, things like that, right? That there’s something powerful and important about a teacher saying, I’m sorry, that was my mistake, right? And to extend the same kind of grace and generosity to students that you want them to extend to themselves each other and to you. But I think in terms of the professional long view, you know, we you know, we’ve really identified four basic pieces of it, you know, and they’re all related. And a lot of it relates to some of the stuff we’re talking about now. But the first is the positional, um, that there’s this recognition of that the teacher is situated between competing responsibilities, they’re often intention. And those are again, you know, that the responsibility to parents the responsibility to self right the teachers own particular view of teaching what is good teaching and their own preparation. There’s the the realm of policy. And then there’s obviously the student. So just knowing again, that those those things have spheres, right, those areas are going to be in conflict and so that teachers are positioned between them, right? They’re constantly negotiating those different realms. So that’s one understanding that would be part of the professional long view. The second is that it’s temporal, right. And that’s the idea that education and teaching is not just about period one on Tuesday at 843. And what happens with us when a student, you know, tells you to, you know, go take a hike, um, but, um, it’s also about the long term development of individuals, right. And so that idea of Mr. Owen, for example, is understanding that his relationship with the student is one that is going to continue to happen over time. So it doesn’t end in the moment that they have the conflict that it’s going to take place, he will have the student in his class for the rest of his school year. And so he must attend to, to her into his long term development. And then really, truly, you know, deeply related to that is this idea of the relational realm, in this long view, and that you have negotiating relationships is inherent to teaching, and that you can’t think about teaching without thinking about the relational work that needs to happen. And that’s messy and nonlinear, and often really complicated. And then finally, is just this, this ethical aspect, again, and you can see, these are obviously all completely interrelated. But this idea that decisions need to be made with an attention to fairness and to justice. And so Mr. Owen, you know, deciding to reach out to the mother of the student and saying, I am sorry, I think I did the wrong thing. Right. He’s attending to what he understands about racism, about equity, about the way that this mother and her child probably already feel, like othered by the system, right. And so his bid to her to say, I’m sorry, this was not okay. Is his ethical, is he’s trying to repair that part of their relationship, which is an ethical decision. Paula, do you want to add anything to that?
Paula: No, I think just that in this ethical or justice realm, you know, as I was saying, with Mister Owen, that the teacher has to sort of look at the micro level of what just happened, or, you know, the particular moment in which the dilemma arose, but then, has to be able to think at the macro level of Okay, how are these other issues of power, fairness, playing into this situation, because so it can’t just be all about me and the rules I want for my classroom, it’s also understanding that your classroom si situated in a context that’s, that is inevitably going to bring in kids who feel, you know, wronged in a way, you know, or that have had a history with a system of education is history with society as a whole, that is informing how they’re reacting to you. And so you need to be able to be willing to sort of think about, okay, how do I respond, not just in what I want, but what I also think the student is feeling right now? Or is react, what she might not be reacting to me at all, you know, that it’s that there’s something else going on here? And to be sort of be curious about what’s happening, and not just be a decision maker first, you know, in that.
Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. And that the teacher must realize that he or she represents something to the student, like, like, for example, as a, you know, a white middle class man, teaching in a primarily black and brown school, for example, maybe this is Mr. Roland or someone else. But the point is, you represent something, right, you might represent a kind of power structure and kind of, you know, with that, you need to know that students are going to interact with you in a certain way. And then it’s totally personal and it’s not personal at all. It’s like you’re living in that paradox. If it’s all about you, it is not about you at all.
Carrie: So how can teachers learn this?
Paula: Soon they’ll be able to assign this very book that will help them with that! (laughs) There’s an approach to teaching, I think maybe novice teachers sort of instinctually want this like, “make it so that I never mess up.” You don’t teach me the skills. So that you know, like, there’s got to be a formula, there’s an answer, like, just give me the answer. This is how you do a lesson. This is how you know, and then it just goes, or even when I presented, you know, work from the political classroom, and there’s a moment there were a student prize during a discussion, and a lot of people want to respond, well, he the teacher did something wrong. That should those sort of things shouldn’t happen. I’m like, he might have done something wrong there. But it’s perfectly understandable that teachers do wrong things. Like it’s so it’s not, he’s a good teacher. Um, maybe he could have tweaked something, but you can, you know, so there’s this idea that, that teachers just need to be on and perfect all the time. And so I think the answer is, so that said, there’s a difference between training and education. So training is this is when you do this thing, and it should go well, if you do it this way. You know, that, you know, doctors get trained in protocols and and respond. So they’re trying to like lit and training is in some ways, I’m trying to shape your judgment.
So that you sort of move in this direction in general, like there’s still judgment within training. But and I think what we’re thinking about is education is that is one of my favorite quotes from RS Peters is the educated person knows how to answer the question, Why do this rather than that? And what this book is about is to help teachers understand the ways in which you’re always weighing this question, why do this rather than that? Because to ask that question means you’re going to stop and think for a second, why do this rather than that Mr. Owen, in that case, doesn’t have the luxury of making that sort of, he just does a split second thing, and that’s normal. Um, but so the book is sort of modeling a type of thinking that you don’t always have the luxury to take as a teacher, but reading about it and thinking about teaching in this way. I understand teaching as these competing responsibilities if I understand teaching as over time, relational, contextual, etc, that I’m just going to approach my work differently. And I think that that gives teachers the resources to not feel a tremendous amount of shame when things go wrong, so much that you can’t sort of stay in it. And that you and that you can, you know, you have the tools to sort of, Okay, what just happened there? What should I do next? And sort of, as we say, think long term, it’s not about you know, that you always have tomorrow, that’s just what of when I was a teacher, you know, that that just became very clear to me, like, what’s tomorrow going to be, I can recover, I can think that that did not go well at all. But I’m going to see costume tomorrow. So what comes next? And so, you know, I think that’s the sort of the heart of teaching.
Carrie: Thanks for listening. If you’re an instructor and you’d like to use this audio piece in your class, we also make study guides is a teaching companion to our podcast, with ideas for readings, discussion questions and class activities, which you can adapt to online classes. You can download the study guides on our website. I also talked with Paula and Lauren about the ethical dilemmas of teaching in a pandemic. You can find that short bonus episode on our podcast.