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Teaching’s Conscientious Objectors: Principled Leavers of High-Poverty Schools

by Doris A. Santoro - 2011

With Lisa Morehouse

Background/Context: Most accounts of teacher attrition fall into one or both of the following categories: teacher life cycle and workplace conditions. Many educational researchers have described and analyzed teaching in moral and ethical terms. Despite the numerous articles and books that study the personal convictions of teachers, a sustained consideration of how moral and ethical factors may contribute to educators’ decisions to leave the profession is absent from nearly all the literature on teacher attrition and on the moral life of teaching. This article couples these two literatures to highlight the moral and ethical dimensions of teacher attrition through the experiences of 13 experienced and committed former teachers from high-poverty schools.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study asks: Why do experienced and committed teachers in high-poverty schools leave work they love? This article explores how the former teachers in this study weighed the competing calls to teach “right” and their responsibilities to society, the profession, their institutions, their students, and themselves. The participants’ principles, or core beliefs, are analyzed in light of John Dewey’s description of a “moral situation.” Following Dewey, it is shown that in deliberating on their moral dilemmas, principled leavers ask not only, “What shall I do?” but also “What am I?”

Population/Participants/Subjects: The research participants are 13 former teachers from high-poverty schools with tenures ranging from 6 to 27 years of service.

Research Design: The study is a philosophical inquiry combined with qualitative analysis of “portraits” of former teachers.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This article introduces a category of teacher attrition that is rooted in the moral and ethical aspects of teaching: principled leavers. Akin to conscientious objectors who refuse to fight wars they deem unjust, principled leavers resign from teaching on grounds that they are being asked to engage in practices that they believe are antithetical to good teaching and harmful to students. The category of principled leaver enables teachers to call on a tradition of resigning for moral and ethical reasons rather than viewing their departures as personal failures and the result of individual weakness. Principled leaving, as a category of teacher attrition, provides a vocabulary for such resignations and may enable community to arise rather than isolation to prevail. Just as principles may motivate teachers to enter the profession, principles may provide justification for leaving, even for teachers who envisioned themselves as committed, long-term educators. When experienced teachers who expected to work in high-poverty schools for the “long haul” leave, it should command attention. Policy makers and educational leaders need to attend to the moral and ethical dimensions of teaching when developing pedagogically related policies and in crafting retention efforts.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 12, 2011, p. 2670-2704
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16202, Date Accessed: 8/3/2021 2:03:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Doris Santoro
    Bowdoin College
    E-mail Author
    DORIS A. SANTORO is assistant professor of education at Bowdoin College. Her research interests in philosophy and education include the ethics of teaching, John Dewey, and feminist theories. She is the chair of the Philosophical Studies in Education Special Interest Group of AERA and the author of “Women’s Proper Place and Student-Centered Pedagogy” (Studies in Philosophy and Education) and “Teaching to Save the World: Avoiding Circles of Certainty in Social Justice Pedagogy” (Philosophy of Education, 2009).
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