Does your school have a positive moral climate?

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
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Does your school and your teaching still maintain its moral dimension – or has this lost out to competing pressures? Matt Bawden reflects on teaching in a ‘positive moral climate’

It is that time of year again. Some of us will be getting itchy feet, perhaps even looking over the garden wall to see the greener grass. A few might make the leap and search out pastures new.

I know many look because they seek progression, others because they’re fed up with where they are.

Having taught for more than 20 years, I have felt that feeling several times, but I do think that a positive moral climate, founded on a characterful approach, can make all the difference.

In these times of general unrest, I’m not sure if I mean nationally or in terms of education, it is something I almost have to pull myself up on, but (dramatic pause) I actually really enjoy “school”.

Part of this stems from the notion of a “positive moral climate”, a phrase I borrow from the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues’ Statement on Teacher Education and Character Education (December 2015).

The statement stresses the importance of moral education and purpose for students, student teachers and established members of staff. It raises questions as much as it answers them.

In the conclusion, it states: “Teaching has a significant moral dimension. However, this dimension has lost ground to competing agendas affecting the profession in recent years. The emphasis on the character and conduct of teachers themselves requires an appropriate focus in the education of teachers. The character and integrity of the teacher is fundamental and it is no less important than mastery of subject content and teaching techniques.”

In this statement there are three key factors – a strong sense of realisation about the moral dimension of our craft, a stress on the conduct of ourselves and others (perhaps an echo of the Teachers’ Standards), and a call to see this as equally important to our knowledge and pedagogy.

It is these three things that stop my feet itching and prevent me checking out greener grass or newer pastures. When a school has them right then it is a school worth hanging on to, and when they are right students make progress, and make it in the “right spirit”.

I recently spent a day working with student teachers at Painsley Catholic College in Staffordshire. There weren’t many of them but what they lacked in numbers they more than made up for in enthusiasm. Therefore I thought we might usefully consider some of their thoughts in relation to these three things, perhaps going a step further and looking at how these can make for a stable, focused and, dare I say it, content school.

A moral dimension to teaching

The Association of School and College Leaders recently launched a year-long project on ethical leadership in education. Reading the accompanying introductory piece on their website the following leapt out: “The nation trusts us to form young people into the best that they can be. The public expects us to know what kind of example we should set them, but do we? How do we know what’s right or wrong?”

In it they refer to Kipling, esteemed institutions such as the Law Society and medical royal colleges, as well as showing concern over possible regulation.

When such things are discussed in CPD we often bring things back round to the classroom. After all it is there we spend most of our time. The student teachers felt that if we had a shared language of character it would help everyone, especially students, to engage and behave. Clarity over what’s expected gives us all more autonomy and feelings of real responsibility. They were adamant that it is only in this way that we make “British values” really mean something.

Reflection matters for us all, and when done well it can be very effective. One of the student teachers was very clear that she felt time reflecting in detentions might lower repeat offending. Those of us who have seen this done well in our schools are bound to agree, just as we are likely to say that there is a degree of skill needed to make it happen.

Thoughts about teacher conduct

The Teachers’ Standards do not shy away from informing us, as teachers, about our role both in and out of the classroom. Part Two of the Standards talks in terms of upholding public trust and maintaining high standards of ethics and behaviour. The section stipulates five ways in which this is to happen, centered on safeguarding and the application of British values.

All the student teachers I spoke with felt this mattered, but one suggested that staff need help in finding ways to model character qualities.

In her feedback one teacher wrote: “Further training on character education within a school would be beneficial during the training year so we are able to model aspects on a daily basis.”

When pressed, others said this might also apply to established staff. They felt, sometimes, we become so preoccupied with achieving the grade we lose sight of our “selves”. By making qualities more central we increase the supportive nature of things.

Through our conduct we help each other grow, whether we are considering our role in developing students or colleagues. By working with others in a characterful manner we influence the whole-school ethos and improve everyone’s wellbeing, which is no mean feat.

Character vs knowledge and pedagogy

Traditionally our CPD tends to focus on pedagogy. If we are lucky we experience the delights of an exam board meeting when our courses change, and perhaps find the need to do quick research if we face a new topic in our specialist subject. It is rare for us to explore our personalities or character.

Naturally there is a market for spiritual, moral, social and cultural courses, and these are often excellent. They tend to offer an insight into the minds of the inspectorate and offer worried colleagues the chance to identify, record and refine current practice in their schools.

One of the student teachers also pointed out something else we might consider when she said: “The idea of incorporating character aspects within all lessons, as a part of the success criteria, potentially allows the lesson to develop from the study of a specific topic to the establishment of our character within that topic. For some pupils this could create a more meaningful experience.”

Here she is saying that character education might offer a key to link academic content to the individual student. Naturally the Jubilee Centre has many suitable resources to help and, in my experience, much can be achieved with a little guidance and plenty of enthusiasm.

  • Matt Bawden is an assistant headteacher at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne and editor of the Association for Character Education eJournal Character Matters. He is a former teacher-in-residence with the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues. Follow @ourschoolday. To read his previous articles and SecEd’s other best practice relating to character, visit http://bit.ly/1OvQtqv

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