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Obama’s Farewell Address: Some Notes for Educators

Barack Obama gave a farewell address on Tuesday night that hopefully made everyone forget about the political semantics behind what he did or didn’t do while in office. His speech reminded me of the chills I got and the thoughts swirling through my mind on that winter day in 2009 when he was finally sworn in. The idea of what a Black president would do and has done for the future of a culture that has rarely seen themselves in positions of importance will make an impact far beyond any bill that was or wasn’t passed in his 8 years at the helm. But Obama’s farewell address also connected with me in the way that he spoke about democracy: his words tied directly into what we are trying to accomplish in education by being both ethical and persons of integrity.

 

“We must uphold laws against discrimination…but laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change.” Although Obama was speaking to the racial politics of the country and how rhetoric can at times be divisive, his words encouraged me to think about how we in education navigate and maintain professionalism by upholding the ethical values of teaching. But we must move beyond simple “ethics” and include integrity in our practice. Being a teacher is similar to being one of those Cirque du Soleil unicycle riding plate spinners. When one considers the entire portfolio teachers must handle merely in order to be considered competent, it is no wonder why so many burn out and leave the profession after a few years. Besides all of the explicit aspects of the role, two main pillars of teaching, one’s integrity and ethics, have to be considered in “Obamian” terms as we think about how we must propel the next generation forward.

 

How exactly does integrity and ethics in education tie into the teacher’s everyday role? I mean, besides being professional and understanding the responsibilities of your job, what more can we say? Short answer: a lot more. Ethics, closely tied with accountability, is how teachers maintain a sense of order inside their classroom. Now hopefully, every teacher knows when and where to draw the line in terms of their ethical practice and pedagogy and in doing so creates an established tone of learning and success. The difference between having an ethical standard of teaching and a standard of integrity rests in the small parts of what we do every day. While every teacher who upholds the ethical standards of the teaching practice can arguably be said to maintain an accountable practice, those who maintain a high standard of integrity go beyond establishing accountability, they establish an expectation of excellence.

 

Teachers who have a high degree of integrity consistently look for ways to document and subsequently encourage student learning. This secretes goals that students aspire towards. This is true integrity in practice. All teachers need to maintain sound ethical standards, but the challenge with an over-emphasis on ethics is that it can potentially lead to a tedious and robotic style of teaching that doesn’t truly espouse what teaching should be about. Many times, “ethical standards” can slide into a deep cynicism of our current educational models, and while there are many things we must fix in order to help all students, we must maintain the belief that, like democracy, education too can work. Obama put it better when he said, “Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.” We too, as teachers, must guard against the negative silos that do nothing but stifle education. By espousing the message Barack gave in his farewell address, we will be able to move beyond the simple ethics of the practice and use our integrity to ensure that our future generation learns and surpasses the impact we have made on society.

 

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