The Moral Dimensions of Teaching: And Classroom Discipline

Article excerpt


The moral development of children and their successful entry into a democratic society depends to a large extent on how successful schools are in promoting the development of responsible community membership. Schools are ideal places for this to occur because of the varied populations found in many schools as well as the specialized training teachers can employ. Unfortunately schools usually do not model democratic principles in their daily operations. Nor do they provide students experiences to develop practical knowledge about democratic living. Coercive discipline practices are a key obstacle to establishing democratic school communities and promoting the moral development of children and are a documented contributor to student misbehavior and school violence.

In a democracy, teaching is essentially a moral activity particularly as it involves assimilating the young into a democratic society. It is a moral activity because teachers have a specific responsibility for the appropriate moral development of their students. And it is basically irresponsible to engage teachers in this important enterprise without them first achieving adequate knowledge and a high degree of moral sensitivity. These are acquired, essentially, through critical, disciplined socialization in the full array of expectations and community responsibilities. This is unlikely to occur in the usual teacher preparation experiences (Goodlad, 1990).

The requisite knowledge base for teachers is not simply an understanding of subject matter and pedagogical techniques. What is required is for them to learn to be their own persons so that they can in turn teach their students to be their own persons. Teaching the young to be their own persons is likely to be unsound when teachers lack a reasonable understanding of the general capacities necessary for choosing, holding, and pursuing one's own personal and social good. Being one's own person involves possessing a strength of personality, and independence of judgment, and a degree of self-understanding that permits individuals to use freedom for their own personal as well as social purposes. Students can be their own persons depending on how penetrating and discriminating their judgment, and how acute their self-understanding. Their purposes can be their own depending on how broad the range of possibilities from which they are chosen and how deep their understanding is of these possibilities. Their sense of justice can regulate their actions to the extent to which they are willing to forego the advancement of their own good in order to treat others fairly (Fenstermacher, 1990).

School Discipline and Punishment

One of the most potent deterrents to the development of a moral learning community is school discipline, as it occurs in classrooms as well as in schools generally. In a study of more than 600 secondary schools in the United States, the following school characteristics were associated with discipline problems: Punishment administered when rules were unclear or thought by students to be unfairly or inconsistently enforced; students did not believe in the rules nor accept them; teachers and administrators did not know what the rules were or disagreed on the proper responses to student misconduct; teacher-administration cooperation was poor or the administration was inactive; teachers tended to have punitive attitudes; misconduct was ignored; schools were large or lacked adequate teaching resources; and schools failed to communicate rules with a climate of concern for students as individuals (Gaustad, 1992).

Discipline problems have also been shown to occur in connection with an inadequate emphasis on individual student responsibility and inconsistent teacher expectations. Teachers and administrators attribute school problems to students exclusively instead of recognizing that misbehavior often occurs due to the interface between students and the environment or circumstances in the school or classroom over which they may have little or no control (Arllen, Gable & Hendrickson, 1994). …