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November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

Actions Speak Louder Than Words: What Students Think

According to students, teachers “have to follow the rules themselves” in order to effectively teach character education.

What's the most effective way to teach values? According to students, teachers “have to follow the values themselves.” They have to be “fair” and “real”—not “phony.” Teaching moral values doesn't work, students say, if teachers try to “make it a big deal” or “have a separate class about it.”
These are some of the findings from a study I conducted to better understand how moral values and traits of character are taught and learned in classrooms. As a teacher, I was aware of the growing interest in character education across the nation, and I was concerned about the implementation of schoolwide character education programs.
First, I conducted a pilot study to determine how eight of the moral values stated by former Education Secretary William Bennett are learned by students in classrooms (Williams 1987). Because “respect for others” had the highest priority for students, it became the focal value in my qualitative/ethnographic study.
To discover how respect was taught to students and learned by them, I surveyed, observed, and interviewed teachers, students (grades 6–8), administrators, and parents in urban and suburban settings, in public and private schools, during one school year. I expected to find that formal lessons about respect produce the best results. Yet, the findings indicate that respect is taught best through a hidden curriculum of modeling and quality teaching that creates a positive moral climate (Williams 1992).

Through the Eyes of Students

Analyzing the data from the perspective of students provides a vantage point that is rarely encountered in classroom research. Had this study been conducted from the teachers' point of view, all of the participants would have been judged effective. They all asserted that it was part of their duty to teach moral values to students, and they all believed that they were successful in teaching character. According to middle school students, however, only some of their teachers (“model teachers”) follow through with this stated intention. The other teachers (“poor models”) are judged to be insincere and inconsistent.
Students from classrooms with “poor models” report evidence of double standards and differential treatment. For example, these teachers say things like, “You should be kind” and “Respect others.” Yet students report that they “choose favorites,” “treat us like babies,” “don't listen,” and “give us busy work.” Although these poor models believe they are teaching respect, they are blind to the way their behaviors affect student learning and behavior. As several students put it, “Teachers can't fake it.”
When students perceive a teacher as insincere, they talk behind the teacher's back, talk back to the teacher, and exhibit other behaviors generally deemed disrespectful. Students report that they “respect” these teachers only because they “have to.”

What “Model Teachers” Do

Character education manifests itself in teacher practice as respect for each student as a responsible, active learner. Model teachers understand that students require an environment of mutual trust and respect.
  • present clear, consistent, and sincere messages;
  • do not pull rank—are never authoritarian;
  • communicate high expectations;
  • really listen;
  • communicate their commitment through actions;
  • are hard-working and really care about student learning;
  • deserve respect.
The characteristics of a “model teacher” match Glasser's (1990) description of a “quality teacher.” These teachers create classroom environments that are nurturing and risk-free, along the guidelines of constructivist theory as proposed by Vygotsky (Clark 1990). They are open-minded, direct, and nonjudgmental. Model teachers often use specific classroom situations as lead-ins to brief discussions about proper conduct and ethical behavior.
In such classrooms, teachers' enthusiasm and commitment are paralleled by students' enthusiasm and engagement in learning. Students do not work just to get the assigned work done—they are intrinsically motivated because they are doing meaningful work. Model teachers recognize students' contributions by restating them or posting them on the board. These teachers say things like, “There are no right and wrong answers.” In such classrooms, students can make mistakes without condemnation from others.
Model teachers show their sincerity and concern for students through their daily actions. One of the exemplary teachers I observed had a commanding presence, yet was a noncoercive authority figure in the classroom. She moved among students freely, making eye contact with them. She was observed to make individual requests only once, giving the impression that she did not repeat herself. In addition, she used inclusive language and cleared up misunderstandings as they arose: “All set? Are there any not with us?” Never angry with her students, she was patient yet persistent, saying, “It's your job. I can't do it for you.”
This teacher was also skillful in delegating responsibilities to students without abandoning them. For example, one girl who was behind in a project looked sad because she had to continue working while others had free time. This teacher put her hand on the girl's shoulder and said, “I know this must be hard because you were sick last week. I'll help you get started. Then it won't take long.” Respectful actions like this help build students' confidence.

A Closing Note

“Do as I say, not as I do” clearly does not work. Quality teaching, coupled with an ethic of caring and respect for students as learners, is a powerful combination of behaviors that creates a positive moral climate in the classroom. If our classrooms lack such an environment, we risk graduating future generations of citizens without a sense of the common good, without respect for others and the environment, without tolerance or responsibility.

Clark, C. (1990). “The Teacher and The Taught: Moral Transactions in the Classroom.” In The Moral Dimensions of Teaching, edited by J. Goodlad, R. Soder, and K. Sirotnik. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Glasser, W. (1990). The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion. New York: Harper & Row.

Williams, M. (1987). “Pilot Study” for the Boston University Character Project. [unpublished report]

Williams, M. (1992). How a Value Is Treated in Middle Schools: The Early Adolescents' Perspective. Michigan: University Microfilms International.

End Notes

1 W. Bennett, (1985), “Core Democratic Values” [fairness, kindness, honesty, persistence, responsibility, love of country, respect, and courage], as described in the proposal for the Boston University Character Project submitted by K. Ryan and S. Ellenwood.

2 W. Bennett, (1985), “Core Democratic Values” [fairness, kindness, honesty, persistence, responsibility, love of country, respect, and courage], as described in the proposal for the Boston University Character Project submitted by K. Ryan and S. Ellenwood.

3 Eighteen teachers, 54 students, 12 administrators, and 18 parents participated in the study.

Mary M. Williams has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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