As a teacher educator, I would sometimes ask my students, “What is a good teacher?” Students often struggled with this question—in part, I believe, because many of them knew that teacher evaluations weighed heavily on how well their students did on standardized tests. This would suggest that “good teachers” prepare students to get “good scores.”
But that’s not what motivated these students to choose education as their major. Most of my students chose the teaching profession because they wanted to do good in the world. To help my students retain their enthusiasm for and dedication to teaching, I led discussions on what it means to do “good work” in education.
I started by introducing the concept of good work and what this would look like in any profession. For this, I turned to the resources of the Good Work Project, which defines good work as that which is simultaneously excellent in quality, carried out ethically and personally engaging. These criteria are sometimes referred to as the “three E’s”: excellence, ethics and engagement.
In Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed, Howard Gardner—a psychologist known by many educators for his work on multiple intelligences—pairs the three E’s with the three critical virtues of truth, beauty and goodness. Excellence is paired with reason and truth, engagement with beauty, and ethics with justice and goodness. Caring about these virtues, Gardner says, “is fundamental to our condition as human beings.” They are also fundamental to good teaching and good work in education.
Good work in education promotes the fulfillment of each student’s potentialities while simultaneously contributing to the betterment of society. For this to occur, teachers need to strive for excellence in what they do. They need to be aware that good intentions aren’t enough, that competence does matter. Beyond being knowledgeable about what one is teaching and having the skills to teach it effectively, being competent also involves knowing one’s students—their interests, strengths, potentialities, cultural backgrounds, concerns and needs.
But good work in education also requires a commitment to ethical action. Different educational organizations have developed codes of ethics for educators, and they all include a commitment to students and a commitment to the profession. Some, like the National Educational Association, explicitly state a belief in the worth and dignity of each human being and a guarantee of equal educational opportunity for all. In practice, this means promoting students’ growth as global citizens, exposing them to a variety of perspectives, and cultivating an environment in which every student feels safe and included. It also means engaging in self-reflection and holding colleagues accountable to these principles.
Finally, good work in education is engaging—something that should be experienced by both teachers and students. Unless teachers are truly engaged in their teaching and students are actively engaged in learning, good work in the classroom will be stymied. Drawing on Gardner’s idea of a connection between engagement and beauty, incorporating students’ experiences, families and communities into the curriculum will contribute to the flourishing of good work in the classroom. The sharing involved in such an approach is invaluable. On a more aesthetic note, adding more of the arts and nature into educational programs can contribute to a beauty-engagement connection as well.
For more ideas on how to do good work in education, you can turn to the resources of the Good Work Project, especially the “Good Work Toolkit” and the “Elementary Good Work Toolkit.” These toolkits include lesson plans, course descriptions and narratives that can be used with children as young as 6 or 7. Some of the activities are designed to help students understand the good work concept.
One such activity has students develop word maps for the three E’s. Amy Hoffman, author of the elementary toolkit, created a WebQuest of this activity too. After the word mapping activity with each of the three E’s, Hoffman and her students developed their own definitions. This is what they came up with: Excellence is “being the best we can be”; ethics is “being respectful and a good friend”; and engagement is “liking what we are learning about.”
The thrust of our society today is on competence, and it’s unfortunate that, in our understanding of competence, engagement and ethics often get lost or neglected along the way. A message I tried to leave with my college students is that, without a commitment to doing good work and understanding its importance, their enthusiasm for teaching may wane and they might be at risk for dropping out of the profession. I wanted them to go beyond learning objectives and to weave truth, beauty and goodness into their work. Good teachers, I told them, do more than help students get good grades. Good teachers help students understand what it takes to live a meaningful life and to make positive contributions to society.
Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.