The elephant in our classroom

Let's not ignore our most important subject

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Stop me if you've heard this one. For the first time in living memory, the school's hockey team is in the finals. The place is absolutely humming with anticipated greatness. Banners proclaiming "The Puck Stops Here" and other witticisms decorate the hallways. The head has brazenly announced that, if the team is successful, everyone will be granted a half-day holiday. Many of the posters have one student's face on them: Roger "Dodger" Jamieson, graduating son of the finance chair of the board.

Success has come largely at the end of the Dodger's hockey stick. His God-given ability not only to skate with Coffey-like grace but to shoot the proverbial lights out from the point is directly and inversely proportional to his ability to do calculus. In calculus, he's a shuffling, tumbling ankle skater, not even house league. You're his calculus teacher.

The day before the big game, you're administering a chapter test and, as usual, you watch your students carefully as they struggle with the challenges you have set before them. You enjoy the soft sound of scribbling on paper and the percussive accompaniment offered by the ongoing tapping of calculators. Then, unexpectedly, you hear something hit the floor, something that sounds to your pedagogically attuned Spidey senses suspiciously like a cue card – which, in fact, it is. Under Mr. Jamieson's desk. You wonder what the Dodger has been cooking up.

You walk over to look at it and discover that critical formulae have been meticulously printed on the card. You pick up the offending object, look at Mr. Jamieson, who gazes back at you with a wonderful combination of "Who, me?" and "What? Me worry?"

After class, you ask him about the card. He first denies any allegations of cheating, then relents, pleads for clemency and asks to write the test the day after the game. "I'm under so much pressure," he laments, "that I can't think of anything but the game. University scouts will be there. I'm kinda scared. I was desperate. I'm sorry. I really am. Please." He's being sincere; you believe him.

What do you do? You've got about two seconds, max, to decide. He, his father and the school will be watching. Somewhere, your mother will be watching, too.

Ethical dilemmas like these are many and varied, and arise daily in classrooms of attentive and caring teachers.

What do you do when one of the boys in your class says that Blanche Dubois deserved to be raped by Stanley Kowalski? What do you do when one of your co-workers "loses it" and begins yelling at a student? What do you say when one classmate says to another in the course of a discussion, "You're such an idiot," or the boys' school favourite, "That's so gay." What do you do when a Grade 3 student takes a colouring pencil off another student's desk without asking, uses it, then puts it in his own pencil case – perhaps accidentally –without the other child knowing?

What do you do? Or even more to the point, what might happen if you don't do anything?

Teachers regularly are asked to give their heads, hearts and souls to their schools. Not only must they know their academic subjects deeply, they are expected to bring enlightenment, joy and some innovative way of developing in their students a sense of self-worth on a daily basis. Educators increasingly must possess the wisdom of Solomon, the humanity of Gandhi, the spiritual awareness of Buddha and the stamina of Paul Bunyan – or his ox. When hiring teachers, many independent schools are looking for God on a good day. Oh, yes, and by the way: Can you coach the badminton team next term?

Few of us were trained to teach ethics. I don't remember attending Values 101, and I don't think they've introduced the course since I went to teachers' college a millennium ago. As educators, however, we teach ethics with every action and breath we take, whether in the classroom, out in the halls or on any and all fields of play. It's the "hidden" curriculum of schools. While we may be more comfortable with describing an interlobate moraine or the juxtabrachial secretions of the higher molluscs, our fate is sealed: We are doomed to teach . . . everything. Should we teach ethics? We cannot avoid doing so. And it is absolutely essential that we continue to do so – and to do so well.

The teaching of values and ethics is the elephant in the living room. We all know it's there. We can see it, smell it, and we spill our martinis when we bump into it as we move about the room. We're just too polite or too frightened to acknowledge its presence. It's time we invited the pachyderm to the party.

The centrality of the teaching of values and ethics within an educational context is not groundbreaking news, but it must be affirmed with some regularity, especially when some societal doomsayers are describing the imminent end of the family. "Where will our children learn their values?" they wail into the howling winds of change. 

News flash: Trust the children. They are neither nihilists nor anarchists generally, and if they are, it's just a phase. You'd be surprised how ethical students are when asked for their opinion on matters that matter. Their sense of fairness often far exceeds that of their elders.

Postscript: Ethics and values are what schools have always imbued in their students, whether consciously or not. It's just that today's educators, in view of the clamour announcing the swift and certain end of civilization (or civilized behaviour at the very least) have become a little more conscious of the water they've been swimming in since time immemorial. To paraphrase Twain shamelessly, the reports of Ethics' death have been greatly exaggerated.

Grade school classrooms and playgrounds are tremendously complex social organisms, which demand of all their members negotiation, nuance and an understanding of the conventions – explicit and tacit – that govern everybody's words and actions. They are living laboratories that quite accurately anticipate the adult worlds of work and leisure. Schools are inherently value-laden propositions.

Certainly, education can't cure all social evils – family, friends and other structures such as athletic teams and religious organizations can always have immense positive impact. Still, schools and teachers can't hide from a clear responsibility to help students develop their individual moralities, which are in some large way congruent with the society they will enter and form.

Teachers are some of the most powerful shapers of our future. Inevitably, our students will step forward to take their rightful places in the world, but first they need people like us to help them kindly tie up their ethical shoelaces so they don't trip or knot them as they stride confidently toward tomorrow.

—Geoff Roberts
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