The English Teacher

Teaching Values

Over the recent Christmas holiday break, there were a few interesting occasions that related to my teaching. In a nearby city, Eugene, Oregon, they banned Christmas trees on public property. And in our schools the mention of Christmas is becoming less politically' correct. In a time of changing public values we are expected to teach values in the classroom. Presently there is a controversy in some regions over whether the schools should teach evolution or creationism.

The teaching of any type of values may become a further challenge in a society where one can be subject to endless amounts of hindsight' judgements by a large group of people who weren't directly involved in the situation. In order to deal with this situation, I would suggest that teachers first have a clear sense of their own values before they try to teach values to their students. Values taught, but not held, don't "ring true" in students' ears. The biggest challenge may be to avoid teaching values that we think are true, that carry to the students real conviction, but which we ourselves have not examined. Some of those values we may gain in our teaching methods, or teaching philosophy classes, or other college classes. Those classes are taught by people who have had much time to examine their values and support their reasoning. When we come into such classes, the force of their reasoning and the strength of their support and the power of their position, at times may insert values into our personalities that should be subjected to a second examination. Such an examination may not be possible in the middle of a busy school year with many students, papers, exams, reports, meetings, etc., but during a longer vacation period it may be a worthwhile activity. Once teachers have completed this introspection, they will be better prepared to face any criticism that may result from teaching values.

In my own experience, at the same time a teacher wrote into TEACH-ENG-L about a textbook that was challenged, four of my students objected to learning about the Norse gods, Thor, Odin, etc., because their minister had warned them that they could not learn things in certain areas, otherwise they were in jeopardy. Since I was teaching Beowulf at the time, I felt that an acquaintance with Norse mythology would deepen the students' understanding of the book. I was surprised at the objections to learning these things. [*One should have a plan to deal with such events.] I called the students' parents and informed my principal about what had occurred in order to avoid surprises from the parents and to the principal. The principal supported me, and then so did the parents, and the students got back to work, but on another occasion there might have been different results and I realized again that I had to have a personal rationale for teaching what I was teaching.

I believe in teaching values, but personally I don't believe that values are limited to a specific source. In the United States there is a great emphasis on separation of church and state. This philosophy has so progressed that some hold that there can be no teaching about any religion at all. For instance, any mention of the Bible may bring a criticism of teaching religion in school. In my classes I have had success stating that teaching about religion is not the same as teaching religion, which I define as espousing a specific religion and their doctrines. Religions of the world contain most of the values people hold and have been time tested.' I choose to focus on the principles underlying those values. If one focuses on principles, then many sources become available to teach from. The use of a variety of sources also helps prevent criticism of teaching religion in the classroom, yet gives the students insights into the values that people have thought worthwhile through the centuries.

My first exposure to teaching values came in an educational philosophy class where the professor taught that first one had to come to realize that there was no purpose in life, and then to go on from that point. The next incident occurred in an English methods class where the professor drew a triangle on the board and on the three sides wrote, "god's love," "god's omnipotence," and "world suffering." To the beginning teachers he stated that one should present questions to the students such as represented in this triangle: why is there such suffering in a world where god is said to love us and said to be all powerful? He said that the purpose of this exercise was to break students loose from their rigid thinking, and that to remember that there were no answers to these questions that we were presenting to our students.

At the time I had just read Robert Ruark's book, Something of Value. It was about a native tribe in Africa that had turned to terrorism and murder and other actions that had previously been against their values. The message of the book was that as the British civilization and power had come into this area, they had destroyed the natives' religion and their gods, leaving a vacuum of belief that the philosophy of murder and terrorism could fill. Now the British were fighting terrorists that they had created. The theme behind the title of the book was that before one destroyed the values that people lived by, they should be prepared to replace them with something of value.'

I thought about all the problems and hard conditions that students in the city were facing, and I raised my hand and suggested to the English methods professor that as in the book, Something of Value, teachers should not take away students' supporting values, unless we were prepared to replace them with something of value. He did not agree and to my surprise several students made hostile comments to me after class. Perhaps others silently agreed with me. Nevertheless, in my opinion, one should not attack the basic values of students, even to replace them with something of value. Instead one can present values to students, and they can judge to what extent they are valid for their lives.

In the teaching of values one can find many good sources. Many years ago I came across a book, The Wisdom of Kung-Fu. It turned out to be in part a compilation of wise sayings from Chinese philosophers. I eventually used some of them for a teaching unit. That unit can be found at 'Sayings'. I also use some teachings from the Bible, and occasionally use the Book of Esther. See 'Esther'. The point is not to push values, but to use them as they are naturally needed to clarify or deepen understanding of a part of a book, or an event in people's lives. I have used some Islamic Sufi stories, especially about Nasrudin, but they are too difficult for most students to understand. However, I have learned some teaching methods and philosophy from them. Some Japanese Zen koans, haiku, and Zen tales also have helpful messages.

From a library book explaining the Koran I learned an interesting concept. I had observed the concept in action, but had no conscious understanding of it. In Islam there are a number of titles for Allah describing his characteristics, such as Allah the Merciful. One title, I believe it is Allah the Beneficient, describes how Allah takes the small, good intentioned actions of people, and magnifies their power so that great good results. One time, I stopped a 10th grade girl in the hall. She had been in one of my 9th grade classes. I told her, that she was capable of doing better than she had so far, and could be a leading student. Later, when she graduated, the head of the social studies department and a demanding history teacher, in the annual Awards Assembly gave this girl the Outstanding Social Studies Award. Some years after that assembly, I learned that when I stopped her in the hall, my passing comment, had had such an effect, that she had realized it was true and had changed her actions to fit her new understanding. I did very little, but the dynamic of Allah the Beneficient, by whatever name it may be called, in my experience, exists in people's lives... and I refer to it at times, when appropriate in class. Truth is truth, and it can be found in many sources if one is open to it. Hopefully we can teach our students to be open to truth from whatever source, and they can fit it to their needs at the time.

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