What it Means to be a Teacher

This article is reprinted from Larry Cuban’s blog on School Reform and Classroom Practice. Larry is Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University. It is an abridged version of a speech to graduates and their families in June 2001. It is just as pertinent today as in 2001.

I have thought a lot about the past 46 years I have spent in education. I have taught in urban high schools and Stanford for many years [in addition to being an administrator]. It is teaching – not administration or scholarship [however] – that has defined me as an adult….

Teaching has permitted me to be a lover of ideas, a performer, a lifelong learner, a historian, a writer, and a friend to former students and colleagues. For these reasons and because at this moment in our nation’s history teachers have moved to the top of the nation’s school reform agenda, I want to comment today on both the exhilarating and troubling aspects of teaching….

Two basic reasons are behind this strong push for higher quality in teachers: Policy makers and teacher educators believe that when teachers understand deeply their subjects and possess a full repertoire of teaching skills students will learn more, do better on tests, and eventually get good jobs. And, second, higher teacher standards will move the occupation much closer to professional status.

And, of course, who could argue against teachers acquiring more expertise in the subject and displaying polished skills to help children learn more? Who would argue against teaching becoming a full-fledged profession? Certainly, I don’t. Yet, in all honesty, what troubles me is the cramped image of teaching that has emerged from these reforms. The constricted picture is one where the teacher is a technically competent supplier of information and skills. It is an incomplete image of teaching.

Missing in all of the talk and mandates aimed at improving teacher quality are the traditional moral obligations of teaching the young be they preschoolers or graduate students….

I need to be clear on this point. Not for one second do I minimize the importance of raising the low status of teachers and getting students to do better on tests, go to college, acquire credentials, and secure good jobs. Nonetheless, I must point out that these reasons for improving the quality of teaching are far different than the moral purposes that have guided the practice of teaching for centuries.

Let me be more specific about what I mean by traditions of teaching imposing moral obligations upon the teacher. Teaching obliges those who teach kindergartners, sixth graders, molecular biology, auto mechanics, or art to give sustained intellectual and moral attention to students’ learning and growth. Intellectual attentiveness means concentrating on what students know, feel, and think about the content and skills to be learned–the technical side of teaching–but then go on to deepen their understanding of the world and their capacity to continue learning.

Moral attentiveness means to concentrate on helping students grow as persons in grace and sensitivity, becoming more rather than less thoughtful about ideas, becoming more rather than less respectful of others’ views, and becoming more rather than less responsible for reducing social injustice. Questions of what is fair, right, and just arise constantly in classrooms; students learn moral sensibilities from how their teachers answer those questions….

Teacher and author, Frank McCourt realized the moral implications of teaching. As a first-time New York City teacher in the mid-1950s, he was uncertain about what kind of teacher he should be. He recalled his thoughts after his first day of teaching.

‘Should I be Robert Donat in Good-bye, Mr. Chips or Glenn Ford in The Blackboard Jungle? Should I swagger into the classroom like James Cagney or march in like an Irish schoolmaster with a stick, a strap, and a roar? If a student sends a paper airplane zooming at me should I shove my face into his and tell him try that one more time, kid, and you’re in trouble? What am I to do with the ones looking out the window calling to friends across the yard? If they’re like some of the students in The Blackboard Jungle they’ll be tough and they’ll ignore me and the rest of the class will despise me.’

Teaching is a way of defining yourself as a person, a moral actor, and McCourt’s struggle goes well beyond how much of his subject and what skills he displayed. He knew, as we do today, that important as technical expertise is, our character as human beings and how we teach become what we teach.

Just like Frank McCourt, professors also display their character and moral virtues when they teach. In universities, as in public schools, the act of teaching, too often defined as knowing one’s discipline, has been divorced from who one is as a human being. To teach is to convey unveiled enthusiasm for ideas as it is about the details of a lecture. Too often, teaching has been stripped of its moral dimensions and made into a series of technical moves that can be swiftly learned and put into practice. If a professor, for example, only calls on the brightest, most verbal students in the class, snipes at students’ answers that call into question the professor’s statements, and provides few comments on students’ written work, students learn about fairness, independent inquiry, and the moral character of their professor.

Teaching, then, whether in graduate schools or kindergartens–in elite universities or slum schools–binds all of us together. In teaching we display our views of knowledge and learning, we advertise our ideas, how we reason, and how we struggle with moral choices whether we intend to or not. To teach is to enlist in a technical, morally based vocation, not an occupation and certainly not just a job. Technical competence, as important as it is in teaching, is insufficient to make a whole teacher or a complete student. It fails to capture the fundamental moral obligations of teaching the young. Teaching young and old in all of its splendid moral and technical triumphs and disappointments has taught me and many other teachers to approach life and the classroom with humility….

After that brief talk to graduates in 2001, I feel the same way in 2021.

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