My Obligation to My Students

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a fellow teacher about our obligations towards our students. In particular, when it comes to how we express our own beliefs and worldviews in a classroom that holds a diverse group of students.

In a time when ‘indoctrination’ by teachers is a hot topic, tensions between worldviews becomes more polarized, and a seeming inability to bridge differences, how we the teachers model our beliefs in the classroom matters. A number of months ago (October), I wrote about the type of discussion I want to foster in my classroom. In it, I wrote about how my goal was not to get my students to think what I think, but to learn to critically think and engage for themselves.

After the conversation with my colleague, I’ve been ruminating on this topic a bit more. As a somewhat progressive-leaning Christian at a more conservative-leaning Christian private international school, I often see first-hand the tensions between various camps, whether it comes to beliefs (sociological, political, religious), cultural assumptions, various denominations, and underlying worldviews. I teach a broad spectrum of students across different religions, cultures, family dynamics, and experiences—and they all belong in my classroom. They should all feel at home there and that their thoughts, feelings, and words have a place there.

I can be very persuasive. Not only have a spent much of my life dedicated towards word-smithing, but I also understand the structures of argumentation. I think and read a lot and so to students I often come across as more knowledgeable than I actually am. Many students over the years have noted how ‘smart’ I am, though I suspect they mean something like ‘natural intelligence’. Really, it’s a reflection of my dedication to curiosity, learning, and a desire to always keep learning. It also helps that I have a broad range of interests, so to high school students, I seem to know about a lot of things. I of course know that I’m barely in the foothills of a vast range of human knowledge.

But my students are 15-18 years old. They have not had the time or opportunity afforded to them to read as much, to think as deeply, or to experience the world around them. I’m constantly amazed by how much they’re capable of (especially because I was not like that in high school). Their minds are so very malleable and as they’re coming more and more into their own personhood and personality, they’re also very easy to influence. More often than not, I’m certain I could readily convince most students towards my way of thinking and seeing the world.

But that would be wrong.

No matter how deeply I hold something to be true, I cannot allow myself to impose that on the more impressionable young humans in my classroom. Of course there are things that I value deeply, that I hold to be fundamentally true, that I can argue for very persuasively. But in my role as teacher, if I bring my own intellectual and argumentative abilities to bear on my students, that’s a violation of a sacred trust. My obligation to my students is to allow them space to flourish, question, think and develop on their own.

That doesn’t mean I don’t share my opinions, or model good behavior, or tell them what I value and believe. To connect with the students in my classroom, I must be honest, open, and even vulnerable. But I need to do that with humility, that indicates I too am still on a learning journey. And when I voice an opinion, belief, or deeply held truth in my classroom, my students need to know that they are not required to hold those same positions. They can disagree, see the world differently, and should be able to question others—even me.

When teachers speak with authority, it can lead to a form of intellectual subjugation. The way we hold and speak our deepest convictions makes a difference. The authority we hold in the classroom comes with an obligation to not impose our beliefs (no matter how good, right, or well-intentioned they might be) onto our students. Even when our students hold problematic beliefs, say things out of ignorance, or question our worldview, we must remember that they are in our care. We can push back, we can engage, we can ask questions, we can provide alternate views, but we cannot impose.

But, the authority also comes with an obligation to manage the entire classroom space. Some thoughts or ideas or words are incredibly harmful and giving them a free platform can perpetuate damage and hurt. Part of managing the classroom space is making all students feel safe, so we also cannot allow students to impose ideas, thoughts and worldviews on each other. There is a flow of energy in a classroom during an engaged discussion—and it is the teacher’s obligation to perpetuate and manage the flow in a healthy way.

I suspect it’s the power dynamic that frightens so many parents. Because the truth is, teachers hold a lot of power in a classroom, especially if the teacher is well-loved and respected by students. It must be our goal to help students grapple with difficult questions, process the world around them, grow on their journey of discovery—even if they come to very different conclusions than we do. It is my obligation as a teacher to help a student become a better version of themselves, not a smaller version of me.

That doesn’t mean a remain disengaged, neutral, or keep my values to myself. But it does mean that I share them carefully and with humility.


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