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.

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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 they are 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, their 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.

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