Moral Decisions

Mostly the idea is to use a community of conversation as a way to get somewhere: to revive old vocabularies, modernize new traditions, come up with new schools and labels so that people have more concrete building blocks and handholds as they try to figure out what life is all about.
— David Brooks

I have a student who moved from Mexico in the middle of the school year knowing no English. He has been very willing to learn. During guided choral reading, he will try to make the same sounds as the other students, though, from as far as I can tell, not really understanding the meaning of the sounds he is making. In his desk, he has a notebook I gave him where he keeps record of new English words he learns along with a drawing of them if possible (drawing the word "certainly" proves difficult).

I sat down with my principal and our school's reading specialists to look at my class's reading scores last week. We spent a bit of time talking about this newcomer. I asked them for help.

"Please, sir, can I have some help? This student isn't acquiring the English language as fast as this reading test is telling us he should be. What can we do for him?"

I wanted strategies, some best-practice ideas for how to meet his needs. One of the specialists brought up our newcomer English language instruction group. 

This group had existed from the beginning of the year. It included the few students our school had that needed intensive language help. The reason he wasn't already in it was because it was during music class. It had to be one or the other--learn English or play the violin. I found myself saying, "lets sacrifice music," but that didn't sound right. Someone else said, "he could really use the help." Then, as quickly as the conversation started, we dropped it and moved onto another student. 

There was a problem we all recognized and didn't know how to address. We didn't know how to compare the value of the two. Well, it wasn't that we didn't how to, but that to do so would require a moral decision that weighed the value of two valuable things. The choice would have an impact on the development of another human being. We felt the weight and shied away.

This isn't an isolated incident. I feel like Im making these sorts of moral decisions every day as a teacher. Do I let this kid off the hook or do I hold them to the expectations? Do I not mention a student forgetting his homework because he sleeps in his dad's car or do I ask him to be responsible no matter what situation he is in? Is that hurtful comment a student said to another worth stopping the class to resolve? Its claimed that teachers make 1,500 decisions a day. It feels like a good deal of those have some moral element to them. At the same time, it feels like I don't have the authority or the knowledge base to be making those decisions. But I make them anyway.

I don't really know what I mean by "moral element." I have a book on my shelf that I intend to read promising to answer that question, but right now I don't have a clear definition. The best description I have are those decisions that involve a right and wrong choice that affects the human I am responsible for for six hours a day. I can definitely state that there are better choices than others, but can I say that there are right and wrong choices? It seems we hesitated in that meeting, deciding whether English or music was more important for that student, because we didn't want to make the wrong decision.

Certainly we can say it is good for a child to learn how to read and bad to steal. Good to know how to support a claim, bad to hit another child when they are angry. These are easy, but when the two things get closer to that dividing line between good and bad, we have trouble. We struggle because we haven't bothered to communally (as a school, system, society, or individually) examined the nature or the width of that dividing line. The more defined the line, the easier it is to sort, organize, and make decisions, but in order to define it, we need to acknowledge it exists and talk about it. We live in a world with the concrete presence of that line yet we pretend like it isn't there, stumbling around in the dark, making guesses based on what we feel. I certainly don't want a child's development to be left up to my fickle feelings.

With these questions, we can suddenly find ourselves in the debate between objective morality and relativism--whether we believe there are universal moral underpinnings that our society and decisions rest upon or whether morality depends on individual perspectives and norms. What I'm arguing for though, doesn't require accepting a moral truth or the idea of universal morality--I'm arguing for moral learning. We have thousands of years of philosophical tradition that has tried to define that line and decide what sits on either side. Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Kierkegaard, Heigel, Grundtvig, Leibnitz, Freire, Dewey, Noddings, the list goes on. The least we could do is bring them into the conversation. These minds have labored to understand the human condition--shouldn't we at least bring them into the room? We currently rest in what David Brooks identifies as a "moral mediocrity" that comes from the "erosion of moral diction." We simply don't know how to open the door, let alone begin the conversation. 

Education is perhaps the place these conversations need to be happening more than anywhere else. In the classroom, we teach children how to think about themselves, the world, and life. We teach them how to exist in society. Our word choice as teachers, the texts we put in front of them, our standards for group work, all coalesce to decide their view of reality. On what basis are we making these decisions? What are we pulling from to make these choices? Our own upbringings? What we "feel" should be done? To not thoughtfully consider these questions, reflect on our own biases and reasoning, or have a dialogue about these issues "feels" irresponsible.