What exactly is being a good teacher? It is first of all, of course, to master the discipline that one teaches, and to know how to transmit the knowledge which composes it – this aptitude to stage and in riddles the knowledge being what one calls “the didactic expertise. “.
But, beyond these skills, it is also a question of attitude. It is about behaving in a respectful and attentive manner towards others. That is to say, to be attentive to the fragility and the difficulties of the pupil, respectful of his rights and his prerogatives.
Here we are in the field of ethics , an issue which is indeed at the heart of teaching professionalism. In the teacher training institutes, the INSPE , modules have been devoted for several years to this facet of the profession. But how do you concretely define “ethical” conduct ?
The importance of justice
It is less the tradition, which has long praised the severe but fair master, than the permanent questions of the students who invite us to make justice the first virtue.
Am I rated as I deserve? Why would I participate in collective punishment if I haven’t done anything? Was I at a disadvantage compared to my classmate when giving a presentation? Will a selection on file be as impartial as an examination? The objects of questioning vary according to age, but, whatever the level of education, this question of justice is recurrent.
It must be viewed from two distinct perspectives. On the one hand, the teacher relates to the pupil as a subject of rights. It respects the official texts, thus giving the assurance to the pupils that all will be treated in the same way, in the respect of their prerogatives, even when they will be sanctioned.
On the other hand, it is also aimed at learning subjects who, this time apprehended from the angle of their abilities, appear to be very different from each other. They don’t have the same motivations or the same desire to succeed, they haven’t had the same help or the same support. This difference, which is sometimes called “social and epistemic relation to knowledge”, the school could not be indifferent to it.
Having to support students who do not start life with the same opportunities, the just teacher also knows how to bring the dialectic of equality and inequality to life. Equality in the expectations and goals set for the whole class; but inequality in the supports and props. To give all students the opportunity to achieve the targeted skills, the teacher must personalize their support.
He will give more attention to one in such a situation, more explanations to the other in such other case. There is therefore inequality in the support in the name of learning difficulties, certainly contingent, but very real. The teacher must know how to be as close as possible to certain students; know how to follow them, advise them, guide them to keep them under study.
An ethical presence
Important as it is, the virtue of justice requires the company of two other virtues – benevolence and tact – in order to speak of an ethical presence of the teacher.
To be present is to resonate with the group with which we work. Be involved, we might say. Presence is also knowing how to be there, in the immediate actuality of what is happening. Be available. Presence is finally, let’s not forget, an art of the present in the sense of the gift, of what one gives: one’s energy, one’s skills, one’s knowledge.
Presence is a way of being, better still, it’s a way of inhabiting the classroom. This is perhaps how the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas should be understood when he writes that “the first teaching of the teacher is his very presence as a teacher”.
To Hannah Arendt, a great German naturalized American philosopher, who in The Crisis of Culture affirms in a famous phrase that vis-à-vis the pupil, the teacher signals himself by saying: “Here is our world”, Levinas answers him more modestly that the master signals himself by saying: “here I am”. And this “here I am” is not an “I assure” but an “I assume”, it is not a taking of power but a taking of risk.
Kindness and tact
It is then a question of acting with benevolence. It is not fair to say, as we have been able to say, that this virtue is only complacency. To be benevolent is not to please, it is to take care, it is to have understood that the one who faces me is fragile and vulnerable and that we are all moreover fragile and vulnerable.
Benevolence invites us to bring to the student confronted with worry, disillusion and sometimes even suffering, a form of comfort. A few repeated words, an aside, strong encouragement may be enough. It’s not much, but it’s already a lot.
The third virtue is tact , a relational virtue par excellence but a discreet, almost invisible virtue. It is both a sense of address and a sense of timeliness. Sense of address because, when I speak to Paul, I do not speak to Suzanne and, when I speak to Suzanne, I do not speak to Mohamed. But also a sense of timeliness: sense of what must be said and how it must be said.
Tact is the virtue of “how”, how we do things, how we say them. It manifests itself in particular when the teacher has to hand in assignments and comment on them. Evaluate without devaluing. Also, professorial speech must be polite speech (but without pathos), made of restraint (but without concealment) and warm (but without familiarity).
Justice, benevolence, tact. Teaching ethics combines these three virtues: justice because it is concern for the collective and balances, benevolence because it is concern for the individual person and tact because it is concern for the relationship itself.
Professorial exemplarity, the necessary professorial exemplarity, is not to be sought on the side of perfection, of impossible perfection. Rousseau saw it clearly :
“Another error that I have fought but which will never come out of small minds, writes the Genevan philosopher, is to always affect the masterful dignity and to want to pass for a perfect man in the mind of your disciple. […] Show your weaknesses to your pupil if you want to cure him of his; may he see in you the same struggles he experiences, may he learn to overcome himself after your example. “
The exemplary teaching is to be sought on the side of a silent fidelity to a few major principles. It is this stubborn and unassuming commitment that makes a teacher respectable in the eyes of his students. An ordinary exemplarity. Any teacher can then reasonably subscribe to this non-heroic conception.
Author Bio: Eirick Prairat is Professor of Philosophy of Education, member of the Institut universitaire de France (IUF) at the University of Lorraine