Always On

By Scott Seider | March 1, 2006 | 0 comments

Educators often refer to the “teachable moment”—that moment when a comment, incident, or question by one of our students presents an opportunity for deep learning to take place. When it comes to matters of ethics, it sometimes feels like every moment of the day qualifies, giving us teachers the chance (and the responsibility) to help students reflect on their behavior and refine their decision-making skills. Here are just a few examples I’ve encountered:

Walking down the hall on my way to my first period class, I overhear one student exclaim to his friend, “That’s so gay!” A few steps later, I hear another student declare, “Is she retarded?”

During my study hall duty period, I spot one student copying another student’s homework.

In the cafeteria, I notice a deserted lunch table on which three or four students have left behind trays, brown bags, empty sandwich bags, and food remnants. They know that a custodian will come by to clean up after them.

At the end of the day, a senior comes to me with one of her college applications. There is a question on the application about whether or not she has ever been suspended, and she asks me whether she really has to check “Yes” if she has only been suspended once—and an “in-house” suspension at that.

I would estimate that the typical school teacher encounters a dozen ethically charged teachable moments like these every day. Speaking for myself, it can sometimes be overwhelming to feel as if I am never “off duty”: so often these moments bubble up during my lunch break, on a mad dash to the photocopy room, or even on a trip to the bathroom. And, of course, each of the examples I offer above is somewhat complicated. They are by and large not simple rule violations, such as when one student calls another a derogatory name; in that situation, I might simply remind the offending student of the school policy against “shame, blame, or attack.”

Instead, consider the first example: the student who exclaims, “That’s so gay!” When I stop to address this comment, which I consider to be inappropriate, the offending student will explain to me in an earnest (or even pitying) tone that of course he or she is not intending to insult gay people, but rather that this is just an expression—a figure of speech. Helping this student to understand my concerns with such homophobic language requires a conversation about the following. First, his or her intent in making such a comment is not all that matters. Second, a comment that equates “gay” with “bad” makes our community a hostile and even dangerous one for gay students and faculty members. And third, both of these problems are true even if there is not a gay person around to overhear the comment.

Such a conversation—one that may actually prove effective in changing the offending student’s behavior—can be a difficult one to take on during the four minutes in between classes or the 26 minutes allotted for lunch. And yet taking on these conversations does feel like part of my job—part of what I signed up for.

Partly because of these conversations, especially at the high school level, I am sometimes astonished by how much better I seem to know my students than do my students’ parents.

“Your daughter has a wonderful sense of humor,” I once told a mother and father on Open House night. The two parents stared back at me in astonishment.

“Really?” said the mother.

“She doesn’t talk to us,” the father admitted sheepishly. I reassured them that they were by no means alone in receiving the silent treatment from their teenager. Of course, conversations like these leave me all the more convinced of my responsibility to take on ethically charged teachable moments with my students. For better or worse, I may be the only adult they really talk to all day.

Tracker Pixel for Entry

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure

About The Author

Scott Seider is a teacher and administrator at Fenway High School in Boston, Massachusetts, and a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

blog comments powered by Disqus



Greater Good Events

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017
Clark Kerr Campus, UC-Berkeley
Sunday, June 25 - Friday, June 30, 2017 OR Sunday, July 16 - Friday, July 21, 2017

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017

The GGSC’s six-day Summer Institute equips education professionals with prosocial learning strategies, tools and processes that benefit both students and teachers.


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

Roots of Empathy By Mary Gordon Mary Gordon explains how best to nurture empathy and social emotional literacy in all children—and thereby reduce aggression, antisocial behavior, and bullying.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement