What I Owe My Students

A new school year is upon us; students and teachers alike are entering their classrooms brimming with excitement, possibility, and a little bit of nervousness about the lessons and conversations to come. One thought that has been a topic of reflection for me in this new year is how I can best train the minds and improve the hearts of the young people in my care by giving them what they are owed, rather than what they owe me.

My first tendency is to think about what the students need to do to be successful, but I’ve been challenged with thinking about the opposite. I have had thoughts like, “if only this student could see ….”, or, “Ugh! He didn’t do his homework again!”, and I know, like other teachers, that these thoughts do little to form the character of the student in question.

This points me in the direction of justice. It’s a unique virtue, because unlike many of the others, which can be exercised in a private capacity, it is done for the good of others – it demands actions that lead to the good of a community. In our world of teachers and students, a special community exists within which we all seek to pursue knowledge and strong moral character, but what ought I to give to my students to help them reach those goals?  

Aristotle taught in his Nichomachean Ethics that the knowledge of virtue is only effective when the virtue becomes a habit rooted in action. If our students have been raised in such a way that they are habituated to do the right thing, they will more likely choose it even if they aren’t in full control of their reason.

The small things that I do in my classroom provide a model for what I expect from my students. Do I think through my lessons carefully? Do I show up to every class prepared, on time, and do I treat every minute of class as precious? Do I pay attention to what the students are learning, versus what I am teaching? Do I have my homework planned before class, and do I own it if we don’t get through all the material that I had planned? These are the questions that provide a framework within which I can develop specific action plans to do what’s best for my students.

It’s not enough to tell myself that I delivered a fantastic lecture – if I haven’t taken the extra steps to determine the learning that’s happening, I haven’t given my students what they are owed. This is perhaps one of the most challenging tasks that I can think about – the shift from what my students ought to do to what I need to do so that they can do what they ought is at the heart of a just classroom, and one that I hope provides a solid foundation for the months to come.