Worlds of Education

Photo: Jerry Wang / Unsplash.
Photo: Jerry Wang / Unsplash.

"Teacher ethics: ethics of presence", by Eirick Prairat.

published 27 June 2019 updated 27 June 2019
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The professionalisation of the teaching profession, initiated at the beginning of the 1990s, was conceived solely in terms of technical skills. There was little talk of ethics at the time. In this text, we would like to show that far from being “an extra soul”, ethics is at the heart of teaching professionalism.

Justice, the first and main virtue

The first ethical virtue of the teacher is certainly the virtue of justice because it involves the recognition of rights and merits. Justice must be viewed from two distinct perspectives because the teacher may relate to the student in two different ways. First, they relate to the student as a subject of rights. There are children's rights, and there are now students' rights. However, in that they relate to subjects of rights, fair teachers must observe the texts, they are not above the law. This is not formalism but simply assurance given that all students will be treated in the same way, respecting their prerogatives, even when they are sanctioned. Because students sometimes get into trouble, being fair already equates to observing the law. However, teachers do not only address student subjects of rights who, understood in this way, resemble each other. We cannot distinguish one subject of rights from another subject of rights.

They also address learners who, this time approached from the perspective of their abilities, appear very different from each other. Subjects who do not have the same motivations, desires and desire to succeed, subjects who have not had the same opportunities and support. This difference – which is that of the social and epistemic relationship to knowledge – cannot be ignored by the school. As they are addressing students who are very different learning subjects from each other, a fair teacher also knows how to bring the dialectics of equality and inequality to life. Equality in expectations and goals because all students are encouraged to succeed. Inequality in the means implemented, the support, aid and assistance provided; inequality in the support provided to compensate learning difficulties, which are certainly contingent, but very real.

Justice does not therefore manifest itself only in the moment of evaluation which, we are told, must be positive, it is more fundamentally part of the very organisation of the act of teaching. Justice as implemented by the teacher is therefore two-fold. Respect for legality in that the teacher addresses students who have rights, the same rights (the right to speak, the right to be heard, the right to be welcomed, etc.), and the concern for equity in that they are addressing student learners who are always singular subjects with different abilities.

Ethics of presence

But the virtue of justice, however important it may be, requires the company of two other virtues in order to be able to speak of an ethical presence of the teacher because teacher ethics are ethics of presence. We can thematise this idea of presence by explaining the three lines of meaning that structure it. Presence: it is first and foremost an art of being present, for oneself, for others, to be in resonance with the class, the group with which one works. Presence: it is also an art of being in the present, being there, here and now, in the immediate reality of what is unfolding. Being available, one might say. Presence: it is finally an art of the present in the sense of a gift, of what one gives, of the gift of one's knowledge, know-how, experience, etc. Presence is a way of being.

Better yet, it is a way of inhabiting the classroom. Perhaps this is how the great philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas should be understood when he writes that “the teacher's first teaching is his very presence as a teacher”. Hannah Arendt, a German, naturalised American philosophe, in The Crisis of Culture, states in a famous formula that the teacher signals himself to the student by saying: “This is our world”. ,Levinas responds more modestly that the master signals himself by saying: “Here I am”. But this “Here I am” is not a “I am doing well” but an “I am taking responsibility”; it is not a takeover of power but a takeover of risk. It is therefore understandable that the virtue of justice, concerned with rights and merits, must be accompanied by two other virtues, the virtue of benevolence and the virtue of tact.

Benevolence and tact

A lot has been said and written about benevolence recently, and when a lot is said and written then, inevitably, some nonsense is also said and written. It is not serious, for example, to say, as some may have said at the start of the last school year in France, that benevolence is nothing more than complacency. Benevolence is not a matter of pleasing but of watching over others. The benevolent person is a watchman, watches over the well-being of others. This person is attentive to the one who is in difficulty and need. Beyond “caring”, benevolence is the act of “taking care”. A glance, a word, a gesture can be enough. It may not be much, but it is already quite a lot.

Benevolence invites us to offer a form of comfort to the student confronted with anxiety, disillusionment and sometimes, let us say, even suffering. I never understood what the philosopher Alain meant when he invited us to give class in the same way as one would sweep. Or more precisely, I have understood him too well, he calls for a cold kind of justice, a form of detachment that must keep the world of affects at bay. I have never believed that such impassivity could ever foster a relationship of trust. I could never really bring myself to give class in that way; instead, I attempt, on the contrary, to sweep up in the same way as I give class by trying not to mistreat my broom too much.

In writing La morale du professeur (The teacher’s morality), a few years ago, I discovered the importance of the discreet, almost invisible virtue of tact. I suggest thematising it by distinguishing it from and opposing it to civility. It is not, of course, a question of making civility disappear – long live civility – but I believe that we really understand what tact is only by distinguishing it from the other great relational quality that is civility. Civility is respect for customs and conventions, while tact manifests itself precisely where recommendations and rules are lacking. The precepts of civility can be inventoried to make them into treaties, but nothing of the sort can be done with tact as it is invented in its very execution. Tact is improvisation because it is both a sense of skill and a sense of appropriateness.

Sense of skill because when I talk to Paul I am not talking to Suzanne and when I talk to Suzanne I am not talking to Mohammed. And a sense of appropriateness: a sense of what needs to be said and how it should be said, but also a sense of what should be left unsaid. Tact is not simple skill but virtue. It is the virtue of how, how we say and do things because in education, the way in which we say and do things is just as important as what we say and do. There is a sensitivity to others in tact, where the first words, perhaps the first silences, of an ethics of speech are outlined. Justice, benevolence, tact, and academic ethics must tie these three virtues together. Justice because it is recognition of rights and merits, benevolence because it is attention to fragility and tact because it is concern for the bond. We might say things in a different way, but the message would remain the same. Justice because it is concerned with the collective and balances, benevolence because it is concerned with singular subjects and tact because it is concerned with the relationship itself.

Non-heroic exemplarity

Academic exemplarity, the necessary academic exemplarity, is ultimately nothing more than fidelity to these three great moral principles. It is sometimes difficult to follow Rousseau’s teaching because, unlike those illustrious contemporaries, Rousseau does not consider school as an institution. He talks about education and learning ( Emile, or On Education), he talked about politics and democracy ( The social contract) in the same year, but he does not think about what precisely makes it possible to articulate education and politics: School. Emile and his tutor Jean-Jacques talk in vague terms, “ far from the black mores of the city”, in a kind of institutional no man's land where nothing is marked out and assigned. Rousseau has no other model to propose than that of the teacherly relationship. On the other hand, on the matter of exemplarity, Rousseau is right. Let us read his words: “ Another mistake that I have fought against, but which will never leave small minds, is to always affect teacherly dignity and to want to appear as a perfect man in the mind of your student. (…) Show your weaknesses to your student if you want to cure him of his own; let him see in you the same struggles he experiences, let him learn to overcome himself by your example (...).”

Exemplarity is not to be sought on the side of perfection, of an impossible perfection but, on the contrary, on the side of a silent fidelity to a few great principles. It is this obstinate and unemotional commitment that makes the teacher respectable in the eyes of his students. Teacher exemplarity - and it is not a paradox to say this – is an ordinary exemplarity. It does not require being a superman or a superwoman. Any teacher can reasonably subscribe to this non-heroic conception of exemplarity. However, fidelity to a reality that is not of the order of strength, as are ethical principles, the philosopher Simone Weil calls that “holiness”.  In this sense, there can be holiness at the heart of the secular school. It resides neither in the exaltation of an unbounded devotion nor in the assumption of an exacerbated vocation but, more modestly, in a silent fidelity to a few great moral principles.

The Socratic Oath

But academic ethics, even if they are not the ethics of the hero or the saint, are often shaky and always fragile, because there is something of the Sisyphean struggle in the teaching profession. To do, to do again, to do again, and again, and again. The weariness caused by doing so. Let us not underestimate this challenge which, in another way, is the challenge of time because it must be sustained. And to meet this challenge, to maintain a form of ethical consistency, a teacher can rely on the respectable behaviour of a large majority of colleagues, but he must also be able to rely on a clear ethical framework.

Every profession has a code of ethics, but it is not always clearly explained. It should be remembered that a code of ethics lists the standards and recommendations to which professionals intend to submit themselves in the performance of their mission in order to carry it out in a proper manner. It is for this reason that I am advocating for the introduction, in France, of a public code of ethics for teachers. Better still, I am advocating for a solemn entry into the profession, what might be called “the Socratic oath”. For it is no small thing to have to teach those whom Hannah Arendt calls “the newcomers”. The challenge with which we are faced today is that of developing real ethical and deontological training. Training that goes beyond the specific activities it offers (analysis of exemplary situations, work on moral dilemmas, etc.) to organise the group of trained individuals into what the American philosopher Nel Noddings calls “a community not bound by compulsory rules” (free translation), that is, a community animated by a spirit of mutual understanding and benevolence.

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