The Good Life of Teaching: An Ethics of Professional Practice

By Chris Higgins | Go to book overview

Introduction
Why We Need a Virtue Ethics of
Teaching

I believe the impulse to teach is fundamentally altruistic and represents a
desire to share what you value and to empower others. Of course, all
teachers are not altruistic. Some people teach in order to dominate others or
to support work they’d rather do or simply to earn a living. But I am not
talking about the job of teaching so much as the calling to teach. Most
teachers I know, even the most demoralized ones, who drag themselves to
oppressive and mean schools where their work is not respected and their
presence not welcome, have felt that calling at some time in their lives
(Kohl, 1984, p. 7).


SAINTS AND SCOUNDRELS

Open any text on teaching and you are likely to find the same formula. It is nicely captured in this passage from Herb Kohl’s well-known work, but there is no shortage of examples. Kohl tells us that teaching is altruistic, fundamentally so. If we find a non-altruist in the classroom then we have discovered an imposter to the role. From the point of view of working teachers, we all know there are days we live up to our ideals, and days that fall depressingly short of those hopes, and days that seem to dwell uncertainly in between. Yet in representations of teaching, we find instead a stark contrast of motivations: teachers are either serving students or using them. In the helping professions, it seems, one must not ‘help oneself’. As one teacher recruitment campaign succinctly put it: ‘You’ve made your own dreams come true. Isn’t it time you started on someone else’s?’1 In the educational imagination—from posters to policies, from monographs to movies—we find more and less restrained versions of the same Noh drama. Enter stage left—the selfless saints, devoted to nothing but the welfare of their students and martyred for the cause. Enter stage right—the selfish scoundrels: narcissists, lechers, and petty dictators of their classroom worlds.

What seems clear is that these two characters and, correspondingly, the two main discourses about teacher motivation—the inspirational and the suspicious—are but two sides of the same coin.2 Inspirational accounts tend to focus on the role of teacher, holding out an image of teaching as a noble service.3

-1-

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