Teachers are empowered to have a strong influence on children, who in turn play a role in shaping society. But with this empowerment comes responsibility.
In a study recently published in the journal Ethics and Education, Assistant Professor of Education Christopher Martin is arguing that teacher-education programs can and should aim to empower teachers to communicate the reasons behind their decisions.
He thinks that educating teachers in this way could serve as a more beneficial form of teacher accountability than what's currently being done.
Q: Describe the influence teachers have on students.
Christopher Martin: Teachers can play a tremendously positive role in the lives of students. They can help to shape the way students think, feel and relate to others. However, this involves a much greater degree of influence than we grant to others. In order for this arrangement to work, the public must be able to put a trust in teachers to carry out this role ethically and responsibly.
Q: How can teachers work to promote public trust?
CM: One obvious way is to respect codes of professional conduct and ethical norms. I think that teachers have a proactive, perhaps even educational, role to play in promoting public trust, and one of those ways is through their ability to communicate the value of what they do and why they do it. This requires time and opportunity for teacher candidates to engage in serious thinking and reflection on the nature and value of education.
This is where teacher education plays an important role.
When someone gets an education in teaching they should acquire not just an understanding of what they will be teaching but develop an informed sense of why what they are teaching is worthwhile.
Q: In your article, you argue that teachers should be able to give reasons for some of the decisions they make. Why is this important?
CM: There is a growing sense that certain approaches to teacher accountability that we see internationally, such as standardized testing, classroom inspections or pay for performance, do not serve teachers or students especially well. Nor do they do much to inspire public trust. When teachers are able to account for their decisions in the public sphere, the trustworthiness of the profession increases. This should support the case for the professional autonomy and independence teachers need in order to excel at their work.
Q: How can teachers learn to communicate their practice to the public?
CM: If teacher-education programs see part of their responsibility as enabling students to cultivate a deep understanding of the values of education—part of which would require discussion and debate about those values—students will acquire the ability to communicate along the way.
Being able to communicate the reasons behind your decisions is not necessarily about persuading others to agree. It is about promoting understanding. What people are often looking for is a sense that there is a certain degree of fair-mindedness and care that goes into educational decision-making. Teachers may know this to be the case, but it makes a real difference if the profession is equipped to communicate this fact to the same people that are asked to place trust in them.