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Realizing the Moral Value in Teachers’ Work: Breaking Down the Open Door

by Richard D. Osguthorpe & Mathew N. Sanger - April 25, 2014

Teaching is an inherently moral endeavor with moral purpose, and it takes place in classrooms inhabited by teachers who choose to be there for moral reasons. However, most teacher candidates do not come to their teacher education programs with a well-developed understanding of the moral work of teaching, and most leave without any concerted effort to develop that understanding. This article discusses the concerns that arise from this lack of attention to the moral work of teaching in teacher education, and it identifies hopeful approaches to helping teacher candidates find moral meaning and value in their future lives as teachers.

In our efforts to make a case for attending to the moral work of teaching in teacher education we often feel like we are trying to break down a door that is already open.  We come to this paradoxical analogy, being that on the one hand, the moral work of teaching is currently located, at best, on the periphery of teacher education scholarship, and matters of moral character are increasingly marginalized in educational discourse (Sanger & Osguthorpe, 2013a).  Thus we feel as though we need to make a strong case that teaching is, at its core, a fundamentally moral endeavor (e.g., Campbell, 2003; Goodlad, Soder, & Sirotnik, 1990; Hansen, 2001; Noddings, 1984; Sockett, 1993; Stengel & Tom, 1995; Strike & Solits, 2009); and, therefore, that teacher educators ought to more substantively and explicitly address the moral work of teaching in research and practice (see Jones, Ryan, & Bohlin, 2003; Oser, 1994; Sanger & Osguthorpe, 2011; Sockett, 2008; Thornberg, 2008; Willemse, Lunenberg, & Korthagen, 2008).  On the other hand, we know of no one who is arguing that teaching is not a moral endeavor, nor of anyone who is contending that the moral work of teaching should not have a prominent place in teacher education research and practice.  To switch similes, it seems as if we are preaching to a choir that is just lip-synching—as the moral work of teaching gets little more than lip-service in the discourse of teacher education.

To add yet another illustrative analogy, we have described this lip-service as contributing to a moral vacuum in teacher education (Sanger & Osguthorpe, 2013b).  The vacuum is created by the force of the contemporary emphasis on accountability reforms that are based on standardized test scores.  This myopic focus on producing measurable gains of student academic achievement creates an educational space devoid of substantive moral thought and discourse (see Fenstermacher & Richardson, 2010).  This vacuum is particularly evident in teacher education, where there is little room in the curriculum for anything other than the development of specialized content knowledge along with the methodological skill to convey that content (or what Biesta has called the ‘learnification’ of education [2010]).


We find this vacuum and the concomitant struggle for the relevance of moral concerns in teaching and teacher education perplexing.  We also find it problematic in at least three important and connected ways.  First, we contend that there are many teachers and teacher candidates, who deem these moral considerations to be of utmost importance in their current and future practice (Osguthorpe & Sanger, 2013; see also Brookhart & Freeman 1992; and Watt & Richardson, 2007).  Teacher candidates commonly choose teaching as a career for moral reasons—such as the desire to be meaningfully involved in and making a positive difference in the lives of their students.  They also frequently suggest that the purposes of schooling entail moral ends, such as the development of civic and moral character, along with goals related to social and emotional learning.  In short, when teacher candidates begin their preparation as teachers, they commonly bring strongly held beliefs with them that are directly related to the moral work of teaching.  Failing to attend to these beliefs in preservice teacher education (or inservice teacher professional development) strikes us as pedagogically unsound, and is, at least, an affront to teacher candidates’ ability to bring meaning and value to their future lives as teachers.

Second, we worry that teacher candidates who do not develop an understanding of the moral work of teaching are susceptible to experiencing a profound disconnect between the lives of teaching that they envision for themselves and the actual practice that they enact in their future classrooms.  Sanger (2012) describes this disconnect as a sort of moral schizophrenia or “bifurcation of spirit.”  This bifurcation occurs as teachers attempt to make sense of their moral commitments to and aspirations for schooling in the face of systemic forces that constrain the purposes of schooling to narrow student outcomes and technical means to those ends.  These outcomes, such as scores on standardized tests, are not misguided in and of themselves, but they represent an impoverished view of education when they are the primary focus of the system.  Teachers who learn how to teach in such a system neither develop the moral language necessary to intentionally enact their own moral commitments, nor the support to realize the moral value of those commitments.  In essence, the concern is that a narrow focus on accountability, as measured by standardized tests, does not capture all that is valuable in education, in terms of both the teachers’ sense of fulfillment and the moral outcomes that support it (such as moral development, civic engagement, social and emotional learning, etc).

In this vein, we point to the work of Santoro (2011), which suggests that teachers who are unable to access the moral rewards of teaching, and thereby demoralized, are more likely to leave the profession.  The moral rewards are those that come from engaging in teaching practice that aligns with what one believes to be good and right and virtuous and caring in the classroom.  The result is a sense of worth and meaningfulness.  One of the interesting findings in Santoro’s work is that highly capable and motivated teachers choose to leave the profession not because they cannot handle the demands of the work, but because they find themselves forced into a way of teaching that they do not find worthwhile for their students nor meaningful for themselves.  Teachers teach for moral reasons, and denying their access to the moral rewards of the profession denies their reasons for remaining in it.

Third, and finally, we contend that teacher education perpetuates, if not exacerbates, these problems.  The concern here is that teacher education programs either purposefully prepare candidates for the moral work of teaching and provide teacher candidates with the moral language they need to fulfill their reasons for being teachers, or they support the prevailing educational ideology that the core purpose of education is the pursuit of increases in student academic achievement as measured by standardized tests.  Teacher education overwhelmingly does the latter, for example, in courses on classroom management, assessment, lesson planning, differentiated instruction, etc. that do not address the inherent moral elements of such practices and, instead, favor a language that portrays the practice of teaching as a technical matter of finding the most effective means to its narrow, presumed end.  Such a technical approach forces the moral to the periphery of educational discourse, thought, and practice.


All three of these concerns point to the importance of supporting teacher candidates in realizing meaning and value in their future work as teachers before they enter the profession. But, just how important is it to do this? And how might teacher educators begin to do it?

In relation to the importance of supporting teacher candidates in realizing meaning and value in their work, a possible response to the aforementioned concerns might be that the profession simply needs to recruit a different type of teacher; one who does not bring such strong altruistic commitments to teaching, and is thus not susceptible to any type of moral schizophrenia or demoralization. In other words, it might be suggested that the profession needs to recruit results-minded technicians who focus on academic learning and thrive in the high-stakes environment of testing and accountability without regard for the moral reasons for choosing teaching as a career nor for the high moral ideals a society might hold for the education of its young.  And such an argument might have merit, if teaching was not inescapably moral in both purpose and practice (including its pursuit of academic learning).  But it is, and if these hypothetical teachers are not interested in the basic task of helping other human beings grow and improve, they are not only blind to a significant part of practice in which they are engaged everyday, they are also a potential danger in the classroom.

Thus we suggest that we are best served by continuing to have teacher candidates (and practicing teachers) who are committed to the moral work of teaching; who know how to engage in that work intentionally and effectively; and who find meaning and value in that work.  With such commitments in place, we can then help candidates and practitioners examine their commitments and identity in light of the system in which they will teach.  For example, in our courses we help students to understand the current system of schooling and to understand the possibilities for engaging in practices that have moral value within that system.  We also take it a step further by helping them connect the moral reasons that commonly ground their choosing a career in teaching (but that typically do not get beyond the common ice-breaker question “why do you want to be a teacher” on the first day of class) to the broad purposes that our schools have served in our society throughout its history.  The premise for viewing the history of schooling through the lens of moral value is to retain a sense of agency, identity, purpose, and support in our increasingly deprofessionalized classrooms.  The complementary activity needed is to reframe the commonly technical and amoral treatment of the remainder of the teacher education curriculum, so that it recognizes moral value where it exists (for teachers) and provides teachers the opportunity to more capably reflect on and enact their practices in moral terms.

This project is essential to sustaining a productive teaching corps.  We want people who stick around and enjoy their work.  And the moral rewards are some of the most wonderful that exist.  Just ask teachers.  They long for “the expression of meaning and value in relation to [their] humanity, professional practice, and identity” (Sanger, 2012, p. 293). But this expression need not be dormant in their preparation as teachers.  We recently brought together scholars of teacher education and moral psychology who provided in-depth descriptions of teacher education programs and practices that support rather than paper-over the moral work of teaching (Sanger & Osguthorpe, 2013a).  The resulting book is not a prescription for teacher education practice, but it very concretely illustrates how and why such work can be done, and that it cannot be dismissed as an ivory tower flight of fancy.


We close by sharing an activity we commonly use that gives us both hope and direction in breaking down the open door to the moral work of teaching in teacher education.  For the activity, teacher candidates are asked to interview classroom teachers, discussing how current reforms have impacted their practice and how they navigate any tensions between what they are asked to do and their own values as educators.  The most common theme in the practitioners’ responses reported is “remember why you are there…it is all about helping your students.”  This idea is precisely what teacher education research, policy, and practice would do well to reflect and embrace: that teachers are morally motivated and should be given the tools and the support to realize those motivations because of the meaning and value such motivations bring to their practices, and the value they contribute to our P-12 students and the society of which they are a part.  Of course, giving these tools and this type of support to teacher candidates is not a simple task, but it is a worthwhile one—if we want our teacher candidates to understand and realize the moral value in their future work before we kick them out the (open) door.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 25, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17516, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 9:49:54 AM

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About the Author
  • Richard Osguthorpe
    Boise State University
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD OSGUTHORPE is Dean-Elect and Professor in the College of Education at Boise State University. His teaching responsibilities include courses in the foundations of education, and he also serves as a liaison in partner schools, where he works closely with teacher candidates in clinical field experience. His research combines his work in schools and responsibilities in teacher education with his deep interest in the moral work of teaching.
  • Mathew Sanger
    Idaho State University
    E-mail Author
    Matthew Sanger is a professor in the College of Education at Idaho State University. He received his PhD in Educational Studies, along with an MA in Philosophy, from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He currently teaches courses in the social foundations of education. His research focuses on the moral work of teaching and teacher education, with recent publications appearing in Teaching and Teacher Education, Curriculum Inquiry, and the Journal of Moral Education.
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