Kids today can be demanding, defiant, mouthy, disrespectful, and fiercely independent.
“At no time,” lamented school principal Hilderbrand Pelzer III in The Philadelphia Citizen, “has educational work been so difficult for teachers,” because they must spend their time dealing with “challenging student behavior.” Instruction suffers.
Most of us know dedicated educators who would agree with Mr. Pelzer.
But think of your own childhood. Were you a model of saintliness? Think of your own life now. Do you behave in ways you wouldn’t want children to emulate? I do.
Teachers have a nearly impossible job because humans aren’t born acting like angels. We’re “crooked timber,” the philosopher Immanuel Kant said. All of us require efforts to shape our “crookedness”—to find meaning and purpose, especially if traumatized.
Teachers are on the front lines—hopefully with parents—attempting to form students into skilled, kind, responsible citizens of good character to lead flourishing lives.
That’s why educators took on the vocation. They believe that this difficult work deserves their dedication because our country needs a generation of citizens and leaders who are good, truthful, and tolerant. Especially now.
In a new book, The Content of Their Character, scholars from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia investigated how teachers, leaders, and school cultures form students morally. We studied ten types of American high schools—urban, rural, and charter public schools, as well as Jewish, Islamic, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, alternative-pedagogical, prestigious-independent, and home schools.
Researchers met scores of educators who, like Mr. Pelzer’s teachers, have their “dedication and resolve tested every day.” Those heroic educators persevere in teaching and leading because they believe students—though “crooked” like many of us who may have learned to restrain our appetites—are worth their love and commitment.
One teacher in San Diego said he started teaching “partially because I want to . . . teach good character,” and another there said she wants to teach students “not to have a false sense of entitlement or self-confidence.” A teacher in Charlotte talked about a student calling her by her first name and how she explained to the student that it’s “disrespectful,” even as she tried to “understand that’s where they’re coming from.”
A principal in New York City patiently sat with a girl who had a fight with other girls that had escalated on social media, telling her, “You’re a kind person . . . you can’t let yourself fall off track.” A biology teacher at a rural school in New England operated with the conviction that the “best thing every teacher can do is to love the kids,” meaning “doing what’s best, serving that kid.”
One charter school principal said, “If they’re not getting the right message elsewhere, we need to supply it.”
A principal of an evangelical Protestant school affirmed that “no one is hired here who does not first and foremost have a sense of mission . . . helping kids become all that God wants them to be.”
The dean of students at a Catholic school emphasized how educators need to be “in [the students’] business” . . . “building closer mentoring relationships . . . because the kids will come to follow you as a sort of model of Catholic life or intellectual life.”
When confronted with a student caught stealing, the head of a Midwestern Haredi Jewish school disciplined him with every means possible—the Ten Commandments, moral reasoning, and the student’s divine origin. No argument was off limits in the rabbi’s effort to correct the wayward student.
Appreciating dedicated, compassionate school staff, one student in an Islamic school observed, “You can be honest with teachers here. If you have an issue or something, you can go straight to a teacher and let them know.”
An independent school’s 40-year veteran teacher affirmed that “the classroom is only the beginning,” a commitment to forming students common among educators.
And teachers know that “if you don’t walk the walk, [students are] not buying it and they know the difference,” as one Friends school teacher sized up the daunting responsibility that educators embrace.
We don’t have enough of these kinds of adults in our schools, someone will object. That’s no doubt true. But there are more than you think, as our research found.
And it only takes one or two in a student’s life. How many did you have?
Though demanding, character formation remains the primary focus of education. Encourage a good educator like Mr. Pelzer today. Steer them to resources like those at CultureFeed and the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues. We’re counting on these heroes among us.
Ryan S. Olson is director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and co-editor with James Davison Hunter of The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation. Permission to reprint this piece in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and source are properly cited.