Teaching Morals and Ethics In a World of Gray

A Cathy Rubin Global Education Discussion

From the Cool Cat Teacher Blog by Vicki Davis

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The murderous mobster Jimmy Hoffa once said, “I may have my faults, but being wrong ain’t one of them.” If such an evil man – guilty of prostitution, gambling, corruption, murder and more — didn’t see his faults, what hope do we teachers have of teaching kids the difference between right and wrong?

teaching morals in a world of gray

Cathy Rubin in her Global Search for Education has posed these questions in my inbox:

  • How important is teaching ethics in the classroom?
  • How do we instill a moral compass in every student?
  • How can we work to consistently cultivate values of thoughtfulness and empathy without directly teaching it?
  • What roles do teachers have to play in creating kind and compassionate citizens?
I have to say, this particular post has caused me agony. I’ve wished I was GK Chesterton or CS lewis. But instead I’m just a small town teacher, albeit one who has worked with lots of kids and adults. This post is my heart. It may not be perfect but it is my small contribution to a very big topic with no easy answers. 

Teachers Have to Be Models of Morality

Once, Dr. Scott McLeod shared with mee that a teacher can be fired if their personal life
“distracts from the learning environment.”
This really does happen. For example, a teacher lost her job for posting Facebook pictures with a beer in her hand. Another lost her job for twerking.
While some may not understand, we teachers model life every day. Some students do not have adults in their lives to be a good model of behavior. Even kids have great parents, teachers often spend more time with children than parents do.

As a teacher, my response to the struggles of life are some of the most important things I teach.

My daily interactions can teach students:

  • How to disagree
  • Handing rudeness
  • Apologizing when you’ve done something wrong
  • What should be done when someone talks about another person behind their back (I never allow people to talk about someone not present)
  • Disruptive behavior and how to respond
  • Upsetting circumstances and how to handle them
  • Sometimes we even teach kids how to die

But teaching kids how to live is the most important thing we do. Steven Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People defines “responsible” as having an

“ability to control one’s response.”

Robert Schmidgall says,

“We teach what we know; we reproduce what we are.”

For this reason, the greatest teaching secret that I never share is my own dedication to fervent prayer. I’m confronted with too many hard things every day in order to make it on my own. I say this to point out that there are no easy answers when it comes to teaching kids. We teachers all cope in different ways.

So, some of the things I feel it is important I do as a teacher is to:

Live life like it matters. Know that students are watching. Apologize when you do the wrong thing.

Point out when children do the right thing. Kindness. Sticking up for those who are being bullied. Generosity. Caring. By pointing out when kids do the right things, we’re pointing out that right things exist.

Let kids make choices. It is ok for students to disagree with me. They make choices. I have to let them without being dogmatic or condescending.

Accept people who are different. Since every person is a masterpiece, loving people is art appreciation. Students need to meet, greet, and relate to all kinds of people from around the world. We all must appreciate and respect the differences we have and the beauty they bring to our world.

Teach kindness and empathy. I work hard to create projects like Mad about Mattering that encourage students to solve problems. Have empathy. Be kind to others.

All educators (and parents) should understand that we model behavior for students. Morals are most often caught, not taught. What we do is even more important than what we say. 

Small Things Grow Big Quickly

Education can learn a lot from the story of the Romero family pet.

For eight years Sally was the Romero family pet. They got her when she was a foot long. The family said she’d always been playful. But not so on July 20, 1993. Sally, the Burmese python turned on 15-year old Derek Romero and strangled him until he died of suffocation. The Associated Press quoted the police as saying that Sally was “quite aggressive, hissing, and reacting.”

Deal with Trouble When It is Small or Not At All.

The small things aren’t small. Small things are big things just starting to grow.

Why I Only Cut Class Once

I cut PE one time. I had forgotten to read Sounder and needed to get it done before Literature. So, I cut PE class and sat on the bus reading until it was time for class. I was caught.

Although I’d never had a disciplinary offense before, I had one week of after school detention. I also had to clean up the gym after a basketball game. It was an awful, long week. My Dad was on the Board of Directors but reminded me,

“The standards are higher for you because I am on the board. I’ll never get you out of anything. Serve your time and learn.”

I never cut another class. My principal (and family) stopped that behavior the moment it started to grow. The desire to ever be where I wasn’t supposed to be was nixed right then and there.

What Happens When We Don’t Deal With the Small Things

I yelled at the TV when the reporter talked about Ethan Couch’s  “affluenza” claim. His lawyer claimed Ethan Couch was so rich he didn’t know right from wrong and thus, shouldn’t be guilt of manslaughter. Are you kidding me?

But I promise that this wasn’t the first thing his parents had probably “gotten him out of.” He probably started with lying or hurting someone. I bet some teachers knew his name.

There is a time for grace and forgiveness (good educators know when) but there is also a time for accountability.

Stop misbehavior before it grows. Look at where a habit can lead if it is not stopped. It is easier to pull out a seedling than chop down a tree. Deal with behavior when it is small or you may not be able to at all.  

 Behavior Has Consequences

A while back, I had Ron Clark on a podcast and he talked about a phone call he got from a parent upset that her child didn’t get a cookie.

“Your child didn’t deserve the cookie,” said Ron.

By attempting to remove consequences for misbehavior and disruption, we have stories like these:

A teacher told me at her old school that the principal said,

“don’t send kids to the office. Don’t send them to the hall. You’re stuck with them, they’re you’re problem. You have to figure out what to do with them, it isn’t my problem.”

Another teacher I know told me that they were discussing whether to install bullet proof glass between the students and teachers in a particularly gang-ridden school when the class sizes had gotten too large and unruly.

Some teachers say troublemakers are sent right back to their classrooms with few or no consequences.

Trouble makers should have trouble consequences. If they do not, trouble just becomes a form of entertainment or a very desperate cry for help.

One of the greatest disservices we can do to society is to ignore what should be dealt with right now. 

Whether Someone is Offended Does Not Determine Right or Wrong

Here’s where I think education has gone massively wrong.  A teacher in Canada recently lost his job for stating a personal opinion that offended a student. He was teaching about private morality and public legality, The Canadian National Post reported,

“In other words, he said, in a pluralistic democracy, there’s often “a difference between people’s private morality and the law.”

“I find abortion to be wrong,” he said, as another illustration of this gap, “but the law is often different from our personal opinions.”

That was it, the teacher said. “It was just a quick exemplar, nothing more. And we moved on.”

The article goes on to say

“A little later, the class had a five-minute break, and when it resumed, several students didn’t return, among them a popular young woman who had gone to an administrator to complain that what the teacher said had “triggered” her such that she felt “unsafe” and that, in any case, he had no right to an opinion on the subject of abortion because he was a man.”

He did eventually lose his job. One student didn’t accept his apology and didn’t feel safe.

There is a difference between BEING OFFENSIVE and BEING WRONG. Just because you offend someone doesn’t necessarily make you wrong.

Winston Churchill offended a lot of people when he said of Neville Chamberlain,

“At the depths of that dusty soul there is nothing but abject surrender.”


“an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”

But in the end, history has shown us that Churchill, although he was offensive, he was right. And one could argue that Chamberlain empowered Hitler’s rise to power by being afraid to offend Hitler. Some people are worth offending, especially when they are evil.

Right or wrong is not determined by how many people are offended.

The now popular movie Hacksaw Ridge has an epic scene where the whole unit is waiting for Desmond Doss to finish praying. [spoiler alert] That everyone was waiting to attack was astounding because Desmond Doss was harassed and bullied by many of them in the previous years.

You see, Desmond Doss had conviction. He would not carry a gun. It was his personal code of conduct. The leaders felt it was a danger to everyone else that he wouldn’t carry a gun and tried to court martial him. He persisted and won. And saved many lives as a medic.

Desmond didn’t advocate or try to make it so no one else could carry a gun. But he won the right to go into battle defenseless but armed with prayer and a determination to save lives. Although it offended the generals and others that Desmond had such a standard, history now shows us his heroism.

Andy Andrews has a whole chapter on “taking offense” in his new book The Little Things, that is a must read. He says,

“Mature people understand that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts. While it is true that you are free to believe anything you wish, the rest of us should not be expected – and certainly not compelled — to recognize, respect, or fund foolishness just because you believe it.”

Thomas Jefferson said,

“In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

Morals offend people because some peole don’t want to be told they are wrong. In order to help kids develop a “moral compass”, they will be told things that will offend them but will make them think. People who are easily offended become angry people who don’t make very good citizens. People who learn to reason things out and make up their own mind, make better ones.

Give Kids a To Do List

Too many schools are a place of don’t do.

Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t hit people.

But as the psychologists teach us teachers – us humans are really good at leaving out the “not.” One of the first things you learn as a teacher is NOT to say “do not talk.” The kids leave out the “not” and hear “do talk.”

Basketball players also use this technique. They are taught to say “ring the shot” in their mind when they are getting ready to shoot a free throw instead of “don’t miss.”

So, in the end, we have to get at the do’s.

  • Do be kind.
  • Do forgive
  • Do speak truth
  • Do be happy for others when something good happens.
  • Have good clean fun with friends who do good things
  • Stay pure in mind, body, and soul
  • Think about good things

These are just a start. But as the old adage goes,

“You can’t boil the ocean.”

So, rather than give kids a long list, I keep it simple. Teachers used to call this the Golden Rule (it is also in the Bible),

“Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself.”


“You reap what you sow.”

Give kids simple guidelines for how to treat others and how to live life. Teach kids what to do.

A Note on Religion and Morality

One reason Cathy Rubin’s question filled me with such dread is that I knew it would lead me here. One can’t bring up morality without touching on religion.

My parents always told me to avoid politics and religion when meeting strangers unless you like standing in a South Georgia fire ant bed. The results of both can be painful.

But she asked, so here we go.

Think about it. In the United States, the founding fathers wanted to avoid having a state religion. State religion always leads to a state of oppression.

But it seems to me that freedom of religion is being rapidly replaced with freedom from religion in the minds of many.

Our ancestors knew what it was like to be deemed “politically incorrect.” In those days, they would lose their job. Lose their home. Perhaps even lose their family, if their views didn’t line up with “the state.”  They didn’t want a state religion.

However, there’s going to be an ism somewhere in our schools because there are questions in the universe that cannot be answered. Humans are wired to believe something about God. You can’t look at your hand without wondering who made it.

So, if we choose to remove God, we have humanism or atheism instead of Catholicism or Protestantism. But we will have an ism. Individualism. Extremism. Some ism will be there whether we want it or not. Unless we work to truly have the melting pot of isms that our founding father’s intended.


To Tell the Truth Even When It Costs You

As part of being truthful, I believe we are whole people. As a whole person, I can’t pick and choose what pieces of me to leave out for you. For, to edit my belief systems is impossible and would make a liar out of me.

In fact, my own beliefs that God is the King of the Universe and Jesus Christ is his Son are so strong, I choose to teach at Christian school. I have the freedom to speak about the Bible as I teach. But you’ll also seeing me love people of all kinds — I believe my work speaks for itself.

As a teacher, I believe it is good for students to see strong, healthy opinionated adults who believe in something bigger than themselves. And I want my students to become those same adults.

Freedom of religion and freedom to choose are an essential part of our beliefs and government here in the United States.

But I’m afraid, in an attempt not to offend anyone, that we’ve chosen to say nothing, believe nothing, and suddenly accept everything as OK as long as you think it is OK for you.

The End of it All

For within each person who is moral, I believe, is a respect for other human beings.

But just as I would die for my faith, I would also die for you to have the freedom to choose yours.

We want our students to have a moral compass. Great. But adults who are too scared to share their own views of morality will never get the job done. For it is by coming up against different views that you form your own. Diamonds are shaped with chisels and pots are shaped by the pressure of a hand. Likewise, morals are formed as we grapple with the pressures of life and come to understand what we believe.

There are no easy answers here but perhaps an important conversation has begun.






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