Teachers: Education's Pushmi-pullyus

When it comes to the Teaching Values vs. Developing Character conflict, teachers are the Pushmi-pullyus of education.

From My Side of the Desk:

Teachers: Education’s Pushmi-pullyus

For those who need a mind jog, the Pushmi-pullyu was a llama-like character in the 1967 musical film, Doctor Doolittle. Sporting a head on each end of its body, it experienced great frustration when it tried to move because each head wanted to trot the creature off in a different direction. Oh, what dilemmas it faced: This way or that? Forwards or backwards?  Into the future or back to the past? Decisions, decisions, decisions. What was it ever to do?

Teachers epitomize the educational equivalent of this animal often during their careers, but especially when faced with the Teaching Values vs. Developing Character conflict. Some parents want schools to offer curriculum that deals with the issues of drugs, alcohol and sex or to emphasize morality and values. Others want educators to just teach their area of certification: Math, Science, Social Studies, English and Foreign Language-and if they are elementary age instructors, all of the core areas. The clamor is enough, sometimes, to make the Pushmi-pullyu educators reach for two bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol.

Should teachers add lessons on morals and values to their planning? No, because which religious, cultural or community values would they choose? Talk about a Pushmi-pullyu situation! That one takes the (oat) cake. Should they guide their students to develop character traits such as: Respect, responsibility, reliability, integrity, and self-direction? Yes, because school would be total chaos without them and not the safe learning zones parents and faculties desire. Just imagine a few hundred to a few thousand young people strolling up the down staircases, meandering down the up staircases, coming to and leaving classes when the mood suited them, violating personal space in the halls, and talking, texting and tattling during lessons. I don’t even want to think about food fights. Talk about Nightmare on School Street!  Phew!

The problem is, by definition, Character and Values are kissing cousins. According to www.thefreedictionary.com, Character is-“the inherent complex of attributes that determines a person’s moral and ethical actions and reactions; a distinguishing feature or attribute; a moral or ethical strength,” and Values are-“(the) beliefs of a person or social group in which they have an emotional investment either for or against something; a principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable; worth in usefulness or importance to the possessor.” Note the fine line these terms cross as they swirl together and move away into separate entities.

Teachers that I encountered during my 30+ years in the classroom never professed a desire to teach moral or ethical values to their charges. That was and will always be the parents’ job. What they did want was to instill an understanding of the character attributes mentioned above and reiterated here: Respect, responsibility, reliability, integrity, and self-direction, along with the lessons they taught. They hoped that their students would step off the curb and join them on the educational journey, their backpacks full of the lessons, skills and materials needed to think, to analyze and to comprehend the courses taught while they nurtured their characters by adopting the positive traits their teachers emphasized. They still do, because they know that Skills+ Knowledge+ Character equals academic success.

Too many parents, though, when teachers add these five character attributes to their curriculum, feel the instructors are dipping their children into the values vat. And they balk against what they see as a clash of beliefs. I can see their point. According to religious, cultural and ethnic tenets, each trait has a different meaning that can be construed by some to be of vital importance, but to others means diddlysquat. Respect whom? Why? Responsible for what? To Whom?  Reliability, integrity and self-direction all don shades of gray, depending on the situation. This conflict keeps the Pushmi-pullyu thriving.

An article that Richard Weissbourd wrote for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Promoting Moral Development in Schools(http://hepg.org/hel/article/522), stated that, “about 70 percent of public school parents want schools to teach ‘strict standards of right and wrong,’ and 85 percent want schools to teach values.”  Why? What I derived from my research on parents who want schools to plunge into the values vat, some feel too overworked and stressed to deal with the ethical dilemmas their children face, while others lack the confidence and understanding to do so.

This just boggles my mind. Like all parents, my husband and I weren’t blessed with a Parents’ Perfect Guide to Raising Morally Upright Children handbook at each one’s conception. When our children were growing up, we would discuss the, “Oh, oh, how do we handle this” situations, by listening to each other’s point of view as well as collecting suggestions from our parents, siblings and friends and occasionally our children’s teachers, by reading widely on the subject, by weighing the pros and cons, and finally, by making decisions that fit our values and belief system. Did this mean that we never second-guessed ourselves? Of course not. Many a night we tossed and turned, plagued by the woulda, shoulda couldas until we banished them by trusting the knowledge and understanding that we infused in our choices. We were comfortable that our children would navigate the road to adulthood fortified by our decisions. And our daughter and son?  They turned out just fine.

Educators should not be in the business of teaching values. What they are challenged to do is to open their students’ minds with material that will expand their world, their thinking and their repertoire of skills. Through literature, non-fiction and poetry, students will encounter a multitude of characters, ideas and themes representing a multitude of religions, cultures, ethnicities, and who reveal values, morals and principles that they agree with or abhor. When I taught Albert Camus’ The Stranger along with the philosophy of existentialism, I never pushed my seniors to accept the view that the world was a meaningless, absurd place, or to align themselves with my spiritual beliefs, which I never expressed, by the way. Neither did they need to know that the character Meursault’s apathetic response to his mother’s death (paraphrase: “Maman died today; or was it yesterday? I can’t remember.”) so inflamed me that I flung the book across the family room, narrowly missing my husband’s head. We read the book and discussed the thoughts and actions in it as well as the various choices Meursault made which exhibited his character and values.

As for what the students chose to take from this study, to add to their own values and beliefs, or to refute as unacceptable? That was up to them. Hopefully, along the way they respected each other’s opinions, had the responsibility, reliability and self-direction to meet all deadlines, felt secure enough to ask for more clarity when needed, and had the integrity to come to class prepared, meeting all deadlines, and insuring that their work showed their thoughts, ideas, research and understanding.

Family Values are given that title because that’s where they stem from and grow. As well they should. Schools have the responsibility to educate children by following a curriculum agreed upon by administrators, teachers and parents, and to create a safe and respectful environment. In a perfect world, teachers will teach their subject areas, parents will instill values, together they will raise the children to be intelligent adults with solid characters and the Pushmi-pullyus will graze serenely in fields of oatcakes.

Believe me when I say, “Teachers do not want to be Pushmi-pullyus.” Martin Luther King, Jr.  said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character-that is the true goal of education.”

Until next week,


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