Do you remember your first favorite teacher? I do. She made me feel like I could do anything and that I was destined to make a contribution to this world. She made me believe that the peculiar details about my life were enough by themselves to demand her full attention. I mattered in her class. It would be almost 20 years later that I would truly understand what made her great.
The first two and half months of my teaching career were days without nights. Each morning, I left my studio apartment in Baltimore city just after 5 o’clock, and returned 19 hours later. A bus would take me into downtown and then out again to the furthest part of my district. With freshly graded papers in hand, I managed to make it into class just before my students. Later, I would bundle a stack of newly gathered papers under my arm and wait in the summer heat for the bus. Once home, I would fully waken from the bus rides and begin grading papers in preparation for the next day.
I loved it.
To see light-bulbs go off in a student’s eyes after the sequence of a meticulously planned lesson works; is rapture! The ways students smiled when they entered my class (on good days), or vowed to be better (on challenging days), was what I lived for. But it was in the bus-rides and back-aches that I really understood my high school teacher. Every smile she gave was expensive. There is honor in that. Survey after survey ranks teaching as one of America’s most prestigious professions. But how many really know the sacrifice it takes to teach just one child well?
It takes a life.
If there’s any beauty to a story that contains two near-nervous breakdowns, a car accident on the way to work, two slashed tires and numerous shirt-grazing pencils, it’s that my story is not unique. Teachers who love children commit to it for life. Our commitment always goes beyond a day, a year and often-times a career (most teachers retire – to teach again). When we are at our best, we combine proven praxis with a desire for heart level connections with children, sincere interests in their lives and unyielding passion for their safety and success. This commitment, however, has always been on shaky ground.
Do you remember the most recent teacher scandal? Or your first worst teacher (it’s possible both are one and the same)? I do. It reflects poorly on all of us, every time. The prevailing notion is that the teacher you are thinking about now and the teacher from the beginning of this article are actually different teachers. However, without a set of guiding principles shared by all educators, the first teacher could very easily become the second.
We need a code of ethics.
Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont once said that "love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god." A code of ethics then, takes our passion, desire and commitment from lofty and ethereal realms to a plain and practical place where our diverse backgrounds and beliefs don’t pre-dominate the professional principles that should be common to us all. This code is an agreement that honors our sacrificial commitment by creating a common language and understanding of the promise we give to every single child and their family, the moment we assume the role of teacher. Within this framework, the under-service of black and brown children becomes more than immoral - it becomes unethical. By defining our norms, this code can guide a diverse teaching force through dilemmas and situations where boundaries can be blurred through the lens of upbringing and good intentions. The code is what could help our first favorite teacher, stay that way. In fact, if we are to consider ourselves a true profession on par with doctors and lawyers, we need a code of ethics.
Ten years later, my mind floats back to those early days. Do I still operate with that same commitment? I have listened to countless educators express that the increase in testing, over-reliance on student data and injection of politics has squeezed their commitment dry. We now listen to people who have never felt the joys and pains wrapped in the sacrificial commitment it takes to teach children well tell us how broken our life’s work is.
We are tired.
Despite these outside forces advancing upon this great calling, I believe there’s hope. We start taking back the conversation over our work by seeing ourselves as true fiduciaries in the field of learning and establishing a code of ethics that allows us the freedom to self-govern if necessary, but also collaborate on what is the least acceptable standard of excellence that will honor our life-long commitment.
2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year
2/24/15 – 11:40 p.m.
Editors Note: The National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) have written the first ever nation-wide Model Code of Educator Ethics. It is now available for public comment at this location: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/DMCN6XF