Teaching as a Moral Endeaver

By Michael D. Barnes, Associate Dean

Jerry Johnson Teaching

All alumnus, faculty, students, and friends of the university are teachers in one way or another. Regardless of the role, the endeavor of teaching encompasses three questions: 1) What is most important for students to know? 2) What is most important for students to be able to do? and 3) What kind of person will students be? While all three will have a lasting impact, teachers often neglect the question concerning what students do and who they become. The “be” of the framework is important because it reflects upon what the student does with the “know” and “do” aspects of learning. The “do” aspect is vital because it reflects what students “know” and is driven by what they want to “be.” In order for students to know, do, and be, any effective teacher must also know, do, and be (see figure 1).

College leaders across the country, including leaders of the LDS Church have emphasized the importance of know, do, be. Elder Lynn G. Robbins emphasized this interaction by posing the Savior’s question, “What manner of [teachers, scholars, or beings] ought [we] to be?” (3 Nephi 27:27) “. . . Even as I am.” He shared,

The first-person present tense of the verb be is I Am. To Be as He is to do as He did. To be and to do are inseparable. . . . Christlike to be’s cannot be seen, but they are the motivating force behind what we do, which can be seen. When parents help a child learn to walk, for example, we see parents doing things like steadying and praising their child. These do’s reveal the unseen love in their hearts and the unseen faith and hope in their child’s potential. Day after day their efforts continue—evidence of the unseen be’s of patience and diligence. Because be begets do and is the motive behind do, teach[ers must live what they teach—be moral agents] (April, 2011).
Figure 1
Figure 1

Students require the skills of “know”—facts, topics, and concepts; as well as “do” – skills of communication, research, and information management. The “be” will connect the “know” and “do” to bridge the information together and make it applicable to the lives of the students. When students can utilize the information they have learned in class outside of school, especially if they learn who they can become, the influence of teachers on students becomes even more meaningful and relevant. Thus, as teachers remember the “be” they can in influence the lives of students, either knowingly or unknowingly.

The morality of the teacher may have considerable impact on the morality of the student. They can teach morality outright or they can act morally being a role model – the manner of the teacher. With rare exception, what students see of teachers’ morality is more important than what may be told or heard. For example, demonstrating matters of what is fair, right, just, and virtuous are always present.

The teacher’s conduct at all times and in all ways, is a moral matter. For that reason alone, teaching is a profoundly moral activity.

Surprisingly, an unsuspecting enemy of a moral being could be an over-emphasis on student success. For example, an overwhelming attention given to college or career readiness, can easily override the moral narrative. But, when teachers see the central and essential role of moral modeling as part of student success, they may contribute positively to advancing a knowledgeable and moral society.

Ken Bain, professor and author of the international best-seller What the Best College Teachers Do suggests that teachers can attain a moral mindset by learning to be bilingual. To him, bilingual teachers are not those with multiple language skills, but those who can consciously consider what knowledge should be taught along with modeling what a student should do and be as a result of the teacher’s influence. These bilingual teachers are those who approach learners with much more than accumulating information, but who also desire deep-seated changes or transformations that a affect both the habits of the heart and mind and the capacity for continued growth. A little more emphasis on what teachers do and be will strengthen the moral mindset and increase the impact of teaching (see table 1).

Moral teachers are those who impart what they know and strive to live what they know. For example, these teachers live with wholeness and compassion at work, demonstrate ethics, trust, and loyalty, and seek for work-life balance. By focusing on students and what they are gaining can promote high quality connections, foster classroom energy, enhance meaning and positive identity, and model informal leadership. When students are taught in this environment, many scholars note an increasing retention of knowledge learned. Thus, emphasizing what a teacher models (do and be) will enhance the value and relevance of what they teach (knowledge).

In so doing, moral teachers are in a position to help students and colleagues undergo deep-seated changes that affect habits of the heart and mind. Such efforts seem to also create a lasting legacy and renewable capacity for continued growth and learning. Thus, teachers can effectively make a difference among students. By seeing teaching as a moral endeavor, they may also better live the model taught by the Savior, to be “Even as I am.”

Typical Mindset Moral Mindset

Incremental change—knowledge

Deep change—capacity

Assumed Task Transfer knowledge Change beliefs/identity
Orientation Teacher centered Student centered
Key Question What should I cover? What do they need?
Role Expert Catalyst, role model
Power Maintain control Empower students, role model
Student Role Passive: acted upon
Act with self-interest
Minimize personal costs
Agency: act for self
Show compassion
Spontaneous contributions  
Vision Students are limited All students can learn
Approach Provide immutable facts Challenge their assumptions
Method Instruction Inquire about experiences