Teacher Ethics

by Benjamin Studebaker

An interesting ethical question was put to me recently–what interest are teachers ethically obliged to serve or defend? I was given several options:

  1. The teacher’s own interest.
  2. The interest of the students.
  3. The interest of the department or one’s fellow teachers.
  4. The interest of the school as a whole.

It’s an interesting opportunity to apply philosophy, so I’d like to explore it further.

The first thing to note is that some of these interests intersect or could be interpreted to be in line with or in opposition to one another. For instance, I can see two broad ways of interpreting the teacher’s self-interest:

  1. Whatever maximises the teacher’s immediate hedonism–higher salary, more time off, less work.
  2. What fulfills the teacher as a human being–helping students, feeling competent, feeling responsible, and so on.

In the former case, you have a teacher who is not particularly enthused with teaching or doesn’t particularly care about it. In the latter, have a teacher who, by pursuing the individual interest, simultaneously pursues a wider interest–the student’s, the department’s, or the school’s.

I think it stands to reason that an individual of the first type is not suited to teaching and should not be a teacher in the first place. An individual of the second type is well-suited to teaching and seems likely to be effective whether said individual deliberately tries to gain fulfillment or adopts an alternative ethic.

In the past, I’ve argued that individuals have no obligation to self-harm and that it is the responsibility of the state to guide them into being good people who can behave ethically while individually benefiting from doing so–people who gain pleasure from helping others. Following on that point, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that teachers who are hired are suited to teaching. Ideally, no teacher should be hired who is not already inclined to be personally invested in the right things. A teacher who does not care about students, the department, or the school is a bad teacher, but the error rests ultimately with the government that hired that teacher for failing to see this.

In other words, I think teachers should pursue their self-interest, but I think they should be hired on the basis that their self-interest already conforms to the wider interest the state is pursuing. What we want are not teachers who are morally conflicted between what they want and what students/departments/schools need, but whose interests are in harmony, who take joy in carrying out the student/department/school interest. We need functional compatibility.

The more interesting question then, is not what interest the teacher should defend, but what interest the state should keep in mind when it is seeking teachers to hire. Should the state be interested in teachers who care about students, who care about departments, or who care about schools?

Again, on some level, it comes down to interpretations of terms. How do we define say, the school interest? It could be:

  1. The financial position of the school alone.
  2. The interests of the individual administrators operating the system.
  3. The school’s capacity to perform its function.

Only the third interest sounds defensible from the state’s point of view. So what is the school’s function? Surely the school’s function is to create well-adjusted, intellectually capable students who will make for good citizens and to alleviate or reverse negative influences brought on by bad home environments.

This sounds very similar to the student interest–students benefit from being well-adjusted, intellectually capable, et al. I propose then that any definition of the school interest that takes on board the notion that the school exists for a social purpose beyond the enrichment of those who run it must inevitably coincide with the student interest, because schools exist to serve the community by helping students.

What of the department interest? The department interest seems relevant only insofar as it coincides with the student interest. If, for instance, the department as a whole were seeking higher wages at the expense of the district’s ability to provide students with certain resources, the department interest would run against the student interest, the school interest, and the state interest more broadly. If however the department was advocating on behalf of its students for more resources, the department and student interests would coincide, and consequently the department interest would be in harmony with the student/school/state interests. In sum, department only matters when it aligns with student interests; when it does not align, it does not matter.

It could be argued that the student interest itself is a function of the state interest–really, it could be argued that all of these interests are functions of the state interest. The state desires morally benevolent productive citizens because it exists to look after our social welfare, our social interest. What we are really looking for are teachers who are interested in pursuing the same objectives as the state, who have the same goals and interests.

This makes good teachers very special people. A good teacher is a person who genuinely desires, and gets gratification from, improvements in the welfare and education of children. A good teacher is a person whose self-interest coincides with the social interest–a rare bird indeed. Consider that teachers often take comparably low salaries. While some may do this because they can find no other work, many do it because of a genuine personal stake in the welfare of society’s children, and consequently out of private harmony with our public goals.  If all people had the mentality of good teachers, if all people were guided in principle by a desire to be helpful and to make our society a better place, we would have no need of so much of the coercion and regulation the state is forced to impose to make up for humanity’s collective failings of character. Alas, it is not so.