Misconceptions About Adults’ Moral Development

gfayahYet there may be a bigger obstacle to adults developing important moral qualities, and that obstacle is a fundamental cultural misconception about the nature of adults’ moral lives. Most adults, including most teachers, don’t view themselves as engaged in their own moral growth. We have the peculiar notion that our moral natures are established by late childhood—and that as adults, we simply live out the die that is cast.

Yet new models of adult development suggest that adults’ ethical qualities do not remain static at all—they zigzag depending on many factors (Noam, 1995). Some adults become more generous and compassionate over time; others become more selfish. Some adults become wiser, more able to distill important moral truths; others’ notions of fairness become more formulaic or coarse. Many people lose their moral enthusiasms. Every stage of adulthood brings both new moral weaknesses and new moral strengths.

This capacity for change means that the typical adult has not reached his or her moral potential. King Lear does not develop compassion or a mature sense of justice until he nears death. Schools face the challenge of creating cultures in which teachers come to view appreciating and being generous to others, acting with fairness and integrity, and formulating mature and resilient ideals as evolving and subtle capacities. “There is nothing noble in being superior to somebody else,” civil rights leader Whitney Young says. “The only real nobility is in being superior to your former self.”

Much of what passes for character education in schools simply has no influence on adults’ emotional or moral qualities. The constant exhortations that teachers receive to become better role models generate by themselves neither the internal commitments nor the external guidance and support that teachers need to develop these qualities. Minimally, an effective moral education effort would include specific strategies for helping adults deal with disillusionment and helplessness and would focus on creating a culture that supports teachers in their emotional and moral growth.


Toward Effective Moral Education

Schools clearly can’t respond to all the troubles that lead to helplessness and hopelessness in teachers. But they can focus on two prime causes: the strain of dealing with students with behavior troubles; and isolation.
Many schools now put a priority on helping teachers work with students with behavior problems, not only because these problems are so fraying to teachers but also because the problems undercut the learning of all students in the classroom. Happily, programs exist to help teachers deal effectively with these students. The best give teachers specific strategies and break down teachers’ isolation, creating stronger, more caring school communities. An example is the Child Development Project, an elementary school program designed, implemented, and evaluated by the Developmental Studies Center in Oakland, California (Battistich et al., 1991). Among the many supports provided, teachers learn effective discipline strategies and receive help in developing students’ intrinsic motives to act constructively and cooperatively, including engaging students in rule setting, decision making, and problem solving. Over the past four years, I have worked in two Boston elementary schools with Robert Selman, Bethany Montgomery, and Alison Auderieth on a similar project, which trains a diverse cadre of graduate students to work with schools on these goals.
Schools might also assist in getting the small number of teachers suffering from serious depression into treatment. Such treatment has dramatically improved in the past 25 years (Beardslee, 2002). I am certainly not suggesting that school administrators identify depressed teachers and pressure them into getting therapy. But schools could play a much bigger role by participating in the National Institute of Mental Health’s ongoing public education campaign on depression awareness and screening, including using posters and other materials to inform both parents and teachers about the symptoms of depression and about treatment resources.
Although a mountainous literature exists on depression, psychologists have remarkably little understanding of dis-illusionment. They don’t even have a vocabulary for talking about it. But disillusionment—especially the loss of a belief that they can make a difference in students’ lives—is one of the biggest reasons that nearly one-half of teachers in the United States leave the profession within their first five years (Education Week, 2001). Disillusionment is not necessarily bad. Strictly speaking, disillusionment is freedom from illusion. It is the ability to face and absorb a greater portion of reality—a foundation for wisdom and maturity. But disillusionment turns pernicious when it slides into helplessness and passivity—when teachers don’t have the confidence, support, or opportunities for the creativity needed to master these realities.
There is a great deal of talk these days about stronger, more coherent mentoring programs for new teachers, and these new programs are vital for helping teachers work through disillusionment. Mentors can assist teachers in developing their competence and talents, but they can also be responsive to teachers at precisely those moments when new teachers’ images and expectations about teaching collide with difficult realities. Mentors can help new teachers be realistic and take pride in seemingly small accomplishments.
Mentors can also help new teachers think about creative, diverse career paths within the teaching profession that might enable them to use their talents and have a larger impact on students’ lives. Research suggests that using their talents and growing professionally are significantly more important than status or salary in boosting teachers’ morale (Heath, 1994). A growing chorus of educators and researchers now call for revamping teachers’ career opportunities to allow teachers to become innovative and entrepreneurial—for example, enabling them to start their own programs, conduct research, take sabbaticals in the private sector, or assume leadership roles.
Such changes as these should be one piece of a broad effort to support both teachers’ ethical growth and their ability to guide students’ ethical growth. New modes of professional development focused on improving instruction can teach us much in this regard. District 2 in New York, for example, has attracted attention for revamping professional development so that teachers regularly observe and reflect on one another’s practice. Veteran professionals with expertise in such important content areas as literacy also coach teachers.
School districts need to do much more to promote professional cultures that focus on both academic instruction and developing adults’ ethical awareness and skills. Teachers, guided by coaches, could provide feedback to one another on such topics as earning respect and trust, creating a caring community, dealing with challenging students, and identifying and reversing the downward spirals in which students and adults get caught.
Teachers need opportunities to reflect on why they have difficulty empathizing with particular students, on their successes and failures in cultivating students’ moral thinking, and on the state of their own ideals. Teachers need emotional support from their colleagues in dealing with chronic stress. And administrators need to learn the art of creating opportunities for this emotional support without turning schools into the kinds of therapeutic cultures that would estrange many teachers.
None of this, of course, will be easy. But it doesn’t have to be yet another task for schools already burdened with the hard work of improving instruction. Much of the work can be done in the context of what schools should be doing anyway to support new teachers and to promote good instruction, and much of it—creating strong communities, helping teachers manage students with behavior problems, increasing adults’ capacity for reflection—will certainly serve academic goals. Best of all, this approach, unlike so many current character education efforts, stands a real chance of nurturing in children the qualities that they need to become caring and responsible adults


Battistich, V., Watson, M., Solomon, D., Schaps, E., & Solomon, J. (1991). The Child Development Project: A comprehensive program for the development of prosocial character. In J. L. Gewirtz & W. M. Kurtines (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development (Vol. 3). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Moral Teachers, Moral Students

wayangOnce again, the public frets about whether children are becoming good people. Both conservative commentators, such as William Bennett (2000), and researchers, such as William Damon (2001), decry a steady rise in greed, delinquency, and disrespect. And once again, the public holds schools largely responsible for remedying these troubles.
“Solutions” abound. Many character education efforts in schools now focus on everything from community service to teaching students virtues, building good habits, rewarding positive behavior, and developing students’ capacity for moral reasoning (Schaps, Schaeffer, & McDonnell, 2001).
There is value in these solutions. Students surely benefit from performing community service, being reminded of important virtues, and practicing good habits.
But we have been wringing our hands and trying these solutions for decades, in some cases for two centuries, without fundamentally changing students’ moral prospects. The moral development of students does not depend primarily on explicit character education efforts but on the maturity and ethical capacities of the adults with whom they interact—especially parents, but also teachers, coaches, and other community adults.
Educators influence students’ moral development not simply by being good role models—important as that is—but also by what they bring to their relationships with students day to day: their ability to appreciate students’ perspectives and to disentangle them from their own, their ability to admit and learn from moral error, their moral energy and idealism, their generosity, and their ability to help students develop moral thinking without shying away from their own moral authority. That level of influence makes being an adult in a school a profound moral challenge. And it means that we will never greatly improve students’ moral development in schools without taking on the complex task of developing adults’ maturity and ethical capacities. We need to rethink the nature of moral development itself.
                                                                                                                     by : Rick Weissbourd

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