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Philosophical Meanderings

Live What You Teach

I’m fixing my bike up again and preparing to ride it to school each day after coming to terms with my own contradictions between what I value and what I tell my own children.  I’m realizing that I can’t talk about healthy choices, eco-friendly decisions, paying attention to the community or staying within a budget while I choose to stay in a steel cocoon fueled by a non-renewable resource.

It’s part of a longer process that my wife began a few years back of examining what we value and how we live.  It started with getting to know our neighbors, growing a garden, composting, switching to cloth diapers and hanging clothes on a line. It’s expanded to raising chickens, rethinking our energy use and being intentional about bringing our kids into the dialog.

This isn’t to say that we have it all figured out or that we have shifted into a fanatical dogma.  Perhaps the greatest gift our children will receive in this dialog is that of freedom and humility.  We openly admit that our actions will not always fit our values and that the journey will include as many failures as successes.

So, it has me thinking about my classroom.  Can I tell my students that math is important and yet avoid thinking mathematically in life?  Can I tell my students to be original and develop their own philosophy and stay in a silent, moderate middle on the core issues I care about?  Can I tell my students to think critically about the role of technology and then use the television as a babysitter? Can I tell students that they need to work hard, while I stuff the trash can with student work? Can I tell students that cooperative learning is important while I engage in staff lounge gossip?

Go back for awhile, behind the factory, buried within the philosophy that once flowered before the industrial pavement of compulsory schooling.  Regardless of the educational stream or the ideology that shaped it, there’s a notion that a teacher’s value depends upon how he or she lives.  Whether it was the expert craftsman teaching an apprentice, the informal network of family or the formal, philosophical liberal arts education, people expected teachers to live out the philosophy that they taught.

I realize that the past isn’t always so glorious.   The apprenticeship model often turned to indentured servitude and abuse and the liberal arts education often became so elitist and abstract that it lacked the vitality of true education.  Yet, if we want true reform, this might be a value of the past that we need to reconsider.

Ultimately, if we want to talk about holistic education and life-long learning, it has to begin with educators.  This isn’t to suggest that we live perfect, moral lives or that we use our personal life as some type of a platform for our educational philosophy.  The process has to be humble and organic.  However, if we aren’t living the values we are teaching, students will ultimately recognize it as a slick, empty counterfeit.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


6 thoughts on “Live What You Teach

  1. I love this post John. I remember being told when I was in teacher training that teachers were held to a higher standard than the rest of society, and I know this to be true.

    Interestingly, I don’t lead my life with integrity because I am worried about what my students, or their parents will think. I do it because I think it is the right thing to do.

    Our hope should be as teachers is to produce people who are more ethical than we are. Our world is filled with people who think the golden rule is “do that unto me and I’ll do it back”. If we spent no time on values and what we believe, the change we hope to see in society would never come.

    Posted by David | January 16, 2011, 3:38 pm
  2. I agree it’s important to walk the talk. I don’t always do it as well or as often as I would like. Your post reminds me that this is important as others try to tell you that it’s not. It’s not always easy to live life by one’s principles, especially when they clash with the “status quo”. Thanks for the reminder.

    Posted by elisaw5 | January 17, 2011, 2:46 am
  3. To play devil’s advocate a bit — to live what you teach (or as people in management positions in the corporate world know it “lead by example”) assumes that what you teach is right! I think a better approach is to let your values and your teaching interact, feed on each other and evolve.

    Ultimately, if the teacher’s goal is to inspire lifelong learning in their students, what better way but to use your teaching as a way to learn yourself and bring back your life’s learning to your students?

    Posted by kima | January 17, 2011, 3:38 am
  4. John, great thoughts.

    I have come face to face with many of these issues in recent years as well. And you have hit hard with some of your examples. “Can I tell students that they need to work hard, while I stuff the trash can with student work?” Ouch! So true. A similar one for me was hounding kids to ‘highly value’ their work and make efforts to ‘get it done’ by such and such a time. Then, when they were done and proud and brought it to me and I was busy with something else, I’d take it and set it in a pile on my desk. Oh man. I stopped doing that. It was disrespectful and hurtful and wasn’t who I wanted to be. So I learned to ‘take the pause’…to ‘be in the moment’. Well, didn’t learn to be – like I’m perfect at it – but I struggle to be!

    I also stopped the ‘getting it done’ drive that most of us as teachers suffer. Task completion is one of the skills or work habits we cultivate. I get that. But to assess and evaluate that above all else and to not look more deeply at what has been learned and achieved through the process of the project or exercise or whatever is wrong.

    Our education system asks that kids ‘meet the expectations’. If they, in fact do that – regardless of task completion – they succeed. I had one young woman in my media arts class who never completed a project in the whole year. But, I took the opportunity to sit with her, watch her work, discuss it all, observe her skills and knowledge. She aced the course because she very effectively demonstrated the expectations. (We worked on task completion as a separate entity.)

    So thank you for reminding us to be human, real, honest and respectful – and humble in our dealings with young people.


    Posted by peter skillen | January 17, 2011, 9:06 am
  5. what you suggest John is just plain healthy. i believe many health issues are because of inner struggle, we’re not who we say we are. not to mention actually doing the things that are better for us.

    and this is huge – when you say:
    if we aren’t living the values we are teaching, students will ultimately recognize it as a slick, empty counterfeit.

    i believe transparency is one of the good things that is coming from the web, as well as the freedom and humility you talk about.
    people see through things. especially kids. especially today. i think, perhaps, at least some, because they are exposed to so much.. they are more aware of what is real. they crave real.

    dang. who doesn’t..

    Posted by monika hardy | January 19, 2011, 1:56 pm


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