Morality Goes to the Head of the Class: Schools Team Up to Train Teachers to Instill Ethics

Article excerpt

MONTCLAIR, N.J. - Moral education and academics share equal status at two private independent schools that believe it's as important to teach students right from wrong as it is to hone their academic skills.

Striving to provide students with a moral compass, Montclair Kimberley Academy in Montclair, N.J., and Bancroft School in Worcester, Mass., collaborate to address issues such as character and citizenship, rights and responsibilities, ethics and values.

"The key is doing it, not just talking about it," said Peter R. Greer, headmaster of MKA.

"It's not effective if you're preaching to kids or moralizing," added Theodore G. Sharp, headmaster of Bancroft. "It needs to be in the woodwork of the school."

Moral education arrived at MKA and Bancroft with the two headmasters four years ago.

Colleagues and friends for many years, the pair have been influenced by President John Silber of Boston University, Dean Edwin J. Delattre of the BU School of Education (also Olin Scholar-in-Residence for Applied Ethics), former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and Steven S. Tigner, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Toledo and adjunct professor of philosophy and education at BU.

The four - all disciplined in philosophy - teach that the foundation for moral education is in the timeless and timely ethical questions rooted in the great books.

"Teachers are hesitant to get into moral discussions because of lack of confidence, and the major thing I do is give them confidence that not only can these issues be talked about, but they can do it," Mr. Tigner said.

"The best way to do it is to ground teachers in the best that's been written about it, and that's by getting them to study the Bible, Plato and Aristotle."

Mr. Sharp said, "Many of the games, books and packages on the market on character education have no substance. Teachers need to know the seminal texts before they can . . . teach about ethics."

"You can't hold a moral conversation with students if you don't know anything," Mr. Greer agreed.

The MKA and Bancroft programs in ethics and character formation are distinctive because they require the teachers to study. To develop a "moral literacy," the teachers engage in weeklong workshops every year and study Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Neruda, Nien Cheng, Martin Luther King and others.

"Teachers coaching each other, demonstrating for each other, and engaging in collective activities are at the heart of the program," Mr. Greer said.

There is a parents' component. Last year, 114 MKA parents attended 5 1/2-hour evening discussions on ethics and character.

Both MKA and Bancroft developed seven "character expectations." Posted liberally, they say that students will be respectful, friendly, responsible, confident, temperate, fair and informed.

Copies of Mr. Bennett's "Book of Virtues" and "Children's Book of Virtues" abound and are used often to deliver a moral lesson. …