My Moral Education Framework
I have been a public school teacher of the upper-elementary grades for almost ten years now. I am one of those career switchers. I started as a chemical engineer, had a good career and a job I enjoyed, but was unexpectedly and inexorably drawn into teaching after a positive experience as a classroom volunteer. I can now say, without any reservations, that I am “riding this horse into the sunset”. In other words, I won’t be switching again. I love my job and hope to keep working at it for at least a score of additional years. I believe the deep satisfaction I feel in my work is in no small part connected to my religious beliefs and convictions, that is, my moral framework. This is not surprising. Moses, one of my faith’s early teachers, described the effect his words would have on the assembled throng of Israelites when he sang “My doctrine shall drop as the rain, My speech shall distil as the dew; As the small rain upon the tender grass, And as the showers upon the herb.” (Deuteronomy 32:2, The Holy Scriptures by The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1956). What teacher wouldn’t aspire to have such clear yet gentle impact? To put it another way, when I even approach having a Moses-like effect on my students, the feeling that I then experience is deeply nourishing.
I was born and raised as a Reform Jew, and I have continued to adhere to that faith as an adult. Throughout my teaching career, I have found that there has been a strong alignment between my personal morals, which are guided by my Reform Jewish beliefs, and the moral demands of being a public school teacher. I will explore why that is so by sharing some of my fundamental convictions, why they spring from Judaism, and how they apply to my existence as a public school teacher. While my initial list of convictions stretched past a half-dozen, I realized that my “enginerd” tendencies were leading me to be too specific. Eventually, I was able to distill out three essential convictions that have roots in my Jewish faith, which I humbly present below.
Tzedakah is Integral to being an American Public School Teacher
צדקה, pronounced tse-dáh-kah, is a Hebrew word that literally means “justice”, “righteousness”, or, more specifically in a modern context, “righteous giving”. Tzedakah is a commandment that is elucidated in the Torah and the Talmud, and has since been closely examined by countless Rabbis and Jewish thinkers. From the Torah we have “thou shalt not gather the gleaning of thy harvest; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger” (Leviticus 23:22), “If there be among you a need man .. .. thou shalt surely open they hand unto him” (Deuteronomy 15:7), and “Thou shalt surely open they hand unto thy poor and needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:11). The concept of providing for the needy has been integral to the Jewish religion since its founding. From the Talmud we learn that “Tzedakah is as important as all the other commandments put together” (Baba Bathra: 9a, Soncino English Translation), a strong statement considering that traditional Judaism counts 613 commandments in the Torah. Diamat and Cooper (1991) summed it up well when they wrote “Giving tzedakah is not view as an expression of individual goodness or good will, but rather as a response to an obligation based on biblical imperatives and the belief that all needy humans deserve help. Whereas it has always been considered preferable to give tzedakah cheerfully and willingly, the important thing is the gift, not the spirit in which it is given” (p. 70) Based on this Jewish teaching, I look at tzedakah as a requirement of my existence. This particular conviction does not pose any significant friction in a secular environment, as even people who consider themselves pure secularists often support charitable causes.
One of my favorite Jewish scholars, Maimonides (1135-1204), organized tzedakah into eight levels. I think one of the reasons I enjoy studying Maimonides is because he was a philosopher and astronomer who prized logical thinking and the ordering and quantification of things. This makes information presented by Maimonides pleasing for my engineering-oriented mind to digest. In any case, the eight levels find their apex when one gives in a way that allows a person to “strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent on others.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Charity, 10:7, Soncino English Translation). While I have donated money to charitable causes in a variety of manners, I have always pondered how to facilitate this level of tzedakah in my own life. I have come to see my efforts as a public school teacher as fulfilling lowers levels and, to some degree, the top level of tzedakah.
How does tzedakah play a role in my work as a teacher? Starting with lower levels of tzedakah, I have discreetly used personal funds, when needed, to obtain necessary education items for my students. This does not mean that I do not try and leverage available systems for providing items. Rather, it is that in some situations timeliness or logistics dictate that the need would be fulfilled in the most beneficial manner if I take care of it myself. In these cases, I am careful to ensure the student is unaware that they are being directly provided for by me. Rather, from their standpoint, these items are provisioned from classroom supplies. A challenge with this type of tzedakah is when to stop. I try and limit myself to only purchasing items that are crucial to the students learning, and cannot be reasonably obtained in another manner.
I also donate my money to our school PTSA and provide teacher experiences (game night with Mr. Leviten!) which generate funds at the PTSA auction. For this type of tzedakah, it can be important to be in alignment (in terms of level of giving) with your professional peers. It is not my intent to “out-donate” my fellow teachers. This can actually cause friction because teacher pay is somewhat limited and the financial burdens that each teacher faces can vary greatly. In cases where I have given a larger amount, I make sure to do so anonymously. Another indirect way in which I perform tzedakah is in foregoing my larger engineering salary as a public school teacher. I would argue that since teacher pay is lower than it should be, all public school teachers are performing an act of tzedakah by being willing to work so hard for such a small amount of compensation. Some may say that all that time off means teachers shouldn’t be paid as much. I would argue that if you take into account all the night and weekend hours, plus the time teachers put in during their breaks, you would find the hourly wage for teaching is even lower than many assume it to be.
Now for the highest level of tzedekah. How does being a teacher relate to helping a person no longer being dependent on others? When I reread that question myself I feel like it is quite rhetorical in nature. Each day I work I am helping students become more independent in their learning. I am helping them become more independent in their ability to complete complex tasks and solve problems. I am helping them become more independent in their ability to keep track of and organize their belongings. I am helping them become more independent in setting and tracking their own goals. I am helping them become better at communicating and collaborating with others. Collectively, all of these supports are pushing them towards a future when they will be able to depend on themselves to be self-sufficient as an adult. This is the logic I follow that enables me to feel like I am performing tzedakah each and every day I am a teacher.
Unconditional Love Improves Student Achievement
“Wuv, twoo wuv, will follow you foreva.. so tweasure your wuv”. (Reiner et. al., 2000) While the garrulous priest in “The Princess Bride” was referring love as part of marriage (or should I say, mawwaige), unconditional love for one’s students is a factor that has a huge impact on student achievement. I will never forget my student Nick, who arrived with his family at the beginning of the school year from Spokane. Nick came to my class with a record full of low grades, frequent disciplinary actions, and even suspensions. He started the year a bit hyper and a lot angry, and was unwilling to try any task he did not find easy. I was also warned by his parents that he “hated school”. What did I do with Nick? Well, to sum it up, I showed him by my actions that I would care about him and not give up on him no matter what he did. I would find out who he was as a human, share my own humanity, and care for him every day he came to school. I also would not lower my expectations of him (except to appropriately differentiate) because I believed in him. I would love him unconditionally. How did he respond? By the middle of the year, Nick was one of my hardest working students. He received excellent grades and had no disciplinary issues (except for that time he had to clean the counters in my class because he kept forgetting not to rest his feet on them). While Nick’s story is not the story of every struggling student (more on that later), I have experienced scenarios like Nick’s over and over.
In my view, unconditional love is love and caring that are provided regardless of the potential for reciprocity. Wirzba (2016) defined love beautifully when he wrote “It is the passion that enables us to protect, nurture, and celebrate every created thing. It is the lens that enables us to see each person and creature as a gift worthy to be cherished. Love is the eternal ‘yes’ to life’s possibilities and promise.” (p. 7) Nick needed to know that he was someone who was worthy of being cherished, someone who had possibility and promise. My Jewish faith helps me to love in a manner that calls to mind many of the concepts shared by Wirzba. Judaism tell us to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). One of Judaism’s greatest teachers, Hillel, was recorded in the Talmud as saying “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole of Torah, and the rest is commentary.” (Shabbat, 31a) These “Golden Rule” type concepts are part of many of the world’s religions, and help guide my work. Judaism’s ancient scholar-Rabbis said of love “if love does not depend upon some ulterior interest then the love will never pass away.” (Pirkei Avot 5:19, Greenberg Translation) I hope to be cherished by others. I wish that others see possibility in me. I do not want to be “loved” just because of an ulterior interest. So, therefore, will I cherish and see possibility in others, and love them because of their innate value as fellow human beings.
Unconditional love is often challenging to maintain. In fact, many people would argue that a teacher should withhold positive emotional connection with disobedient students, and reward those who do behave with such attentions. In my opinion, this type of approach is misguided. Students are often still learning how to make positive emotional connections, and may have little in the way of role models for these connections on the home front. Teachers have a special opportunity to show students what it means to care for others unconditionally.
So how does unconditional love show itself in my practice? It actually starts in a very concrete way. A simple sign, in large letters, that says “I will never give up on you” is posted above my desk where all students can see it. This is a personal message from me to them; I will always be there for you. It also shows itself in the careful attention I put into differentiating for each and every student. They know that I do not care where they are academically, I just want to work with them to find that place and figure out how to support them in growing from there. They know I love will love them if they can write an essay on nature worthy of Thoreau and need to be pushed to integrate more imagery into their text (I had one of those!), and I will love them if they need a scribe and extensive support to put together a clear thesis statement (I’ve had many of those). Beyond that, it shows in the personal relationships I develop with them, and the interest and caring I show them if they are struggling or facing tough times. I work to show them that I care about them as students, but more than that, I care about them as an individual human being whose life extends well beyond the boundaries of my classroom.
Students respond strongly to this type of unconditional love. In fact, Hattie (2012) found that “teacher-student relationships” ranked twelfth out of 150 influences on student achievement which were compared by combining the results of over 900 meta-analyses. I have seen students time and again respond to loving treatment at school by improving both their behavior and their academic performance. That said, I have experienced plenty of disappointments; situations where students continued to struggle or rebel in spite of my unconditional love. In these situations, it is crucial that my inner-voice stays strong, reminding me that their anger or lack of effort is not personally directed at me. I must remind myself that I can only control my own actions, and, in the end, I must let go of all results with regards to my teaching; both the greatest successes, and the most abject failures. In this way, by focusing on my own actions and responses to the needs and conduct of others, I am able to navigate the daily challenges of teaching struggling students.
Diverse Schools are Strong Schools
One of the central tenets of Reform Judaism is valuing diversity. I can remember even as a child having family friends of all backgrounds and colors, and being taught by my parents that as Reform Jews we believe that there is strength in diversity and that people of all races, religions, and backgrounds should not only coexist peacefully, but actively intermingle, collaborate, and create community. To quote from the Union of Reform Judaism’s website “The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) believes that everyone can feel at home in Judaism and that there is more than one way to be authentically Jewish. We stand for a Judaism that, in response to today’s realities, is inclusive, open, and diverse. (“What We Believe”, 2016) Reform Jews welcome people of any race, sexual preference, or gender identity, and interfaith couples.
My belief in the strength of diversity has followed me into the teaching profession. This aligns strongly with the philosophy of the community I teach in, and the professionals in my building. We have students who live in mansions and public housing (and a few who are homeless). We have students with families that originate in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America, and a few from Africa. We have students who are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and other religions (and non-religious). We have students who parents are a Mom and Dad, just Mom or just Dad, two Moms, two Dads, their grandparents, and more. We have students with a wide range of abilities, including a learning center and preschool with students who have emotional, mental, or physical developmental disabilities. Generally, we all work together to learn and grow, and I am grateful to be in such an environment. We strive for mutuality as defined in James et. al. (2014); “Mutuality in democratic education means that ‘it is in the interest of all to care as much about each other’s self-development as one’s own’ (Brookfield & Preskill, 1999, p. 12). Because there is an inherent symbiotic relationship between an individual and her larger community, mutuality is foundational to a healthy democracy. My right to speak my mind, or to practice a religion of my choosing, depends on the right of others to do the same.” (p. 6) I want to foster this type of sharing and acceptance of differences, so how does this play out in the classroom?
It certainly plays out in the selection of curricular materials and texts, and in unit design. Elementary students’ exposure to a range of viewpoints / ideas and peoples is dependent on the stories, events, problems, and projects they are presented with in the classroom. By seeing both themselves and others in the content they experience in the classroom, students learn to see that there is not just one successful way to function in the world. Branching out beyond the “typical” choices is also important. James et. al. (2014) states that “focusing on a short list of religions limits students’ understanding of social and cultural diversity in many world regions, and this leaves students vulnerable to the misleading stereotypes often found in the media.” (p. 64) This concept applies no only to religion, but all aspects of culture. This is why I rotate books I read aloud; to expose students to children around the world dealing with challenges that are difficult for most American students to understand. A recent choice was The Red Pencil by Pinkney (2014). Pinkney writes beautifully about a young Sudanese girl’s experience becoming a refugee and discovering the gift of education through a simple red pencil. When students experience this story, they develop a sense of understanding and empathy for people and situations that are difficult to understand.
Addressing the value of diversity directly also plays an important role in the elementary classroom. Each year, my students form small groups to evaluate different diversity messages such as “We do not all have to think the same”, “We do not all have to believe the same things”, and “We do not all have to dress the same way”. Students form meanings behind these statements, create posters, and share and discuss their ideas with their classmates. We use the values created through this activity as a foundational reference point when issues related to differences among students arise. They are kept posted throughout the year as a reminder of our core classroom values.
All of these effort do not completely prevent conflict and challenges related to differences among students. Take, for example, the day one of my Persian students came up to me, clearly very upset, and blurted, “So-and-so told me I am going to Hell because I don’t believe Jesus!”. This unfortunate incident led to a very productive discussion between both students and I, which we then brought up in our classroom meeting setting to the whole class. In the end, it resulted in a recognition that our different beliefs and ideas result in us all learning more. We also recognized that we don’t always have to agree, but that we do need to respect each student’s right to believe different things. Just like the poster says.
I am immensely grateful for my Reform Jewish upbringing and faith. It helps guide me in all aspects of my life, including my professional career as a public school teacher. Giving tzedakah, practicing unconditional love, and valuing diversity help me be a better teacher, and a happier one too. Through my convictions, I work to foster young people who, as so well stated by James et. al. (2014), “can rise above their private interests to engage responsibly and respectfully with others for a common good.” (p. 10)
Cooper, Howard, and Diamant, Anita, (1991). Living a Jewish Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Hattie, John (2012-03-15). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
James, Jennifer Hauver; Schweber, Simone; Kunzman, Robert; Barton, Keith C.; Logan, Kimberly (2014-11-13). Religion in the Classroom: Dilemmas for Democratic Education. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition
Pinkney, Andrea Davis (2014). The Red Pencil. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.
Reiner, R., Scheinman, A., Goldman, W., Elwes, C., Patinkin, M., Sarandon, C., Guest, C., … MGM Home Entertainment Inc. (2000). The Princess Bride. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment.
What We Believe. (2016). Retrieved August, 2016, from http://www.urj.org/what-we-believe
Wirzba, Norman (2016-03-01). Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.