As teachers we have the power to shape and influence young minds. Our values and attitudes impact the way we relate and interact with learners and in turn build the characters of the learners we encounter. In South Africa particularly we have many cultural diversities and perspectives together with our own principles and educational practices that we impose in the classroom. Learners from different communities, families, socio-economic backgrounds etc. form part of our classrooms. How do we ensure that we don’t, through being unaware and by misunderstanding, put any learner at a disadvantage because of personal expectations and what Bourdieu (1930-2002) refer to as cultural capital?
Bourdieu (1930-2002) referred to cultural capital as the knowledge, skills, and education a person accumulate which gives us social status and standing in society (Cole, 2019).
Using cultural capital, a teacher comes with certain expectations and habits that often does not match those of the learners. Murphy (2015) talks about Social Justice.
Referring to it as the right to equal basic education for everyone, but inequality remains. Social Justice, as Murphy (2015) explains, is parallel to freedom. In South Africa the focus in education has been on Social Justice as it is explained here, on the pedagogy and curriculum and giving everyone the freedom to equal education. Content and Assessment are found to be based on what is expected in the workplace and are not culture free (Christie, Bultor & Potterton, 2007). This comes with many challenges as diversity in terms of culture is a reality.
Classrooms are filled with learners and teachers from different backgrounds, cultures, families and communities. Christie, Bultor & Potterton (2007) found that these factors had a paramount influence on performance in school. Naturally, teacher will judge based on their own cultural capital.
The purpose of education includes teaching specific traditions in ways of how things are done, how to be, professionalism, political and religious views (Biesta, 2015). If a teacher only teaches in terms of their own traditions and views some learners might be misunderstood and this can severely impact the engagement of a learner. To significantly impact the achievement of students, especially those from disadvantaged groups in terms of family, community and socio-economic status, a teacher must seek to understand the culture of a student. Even though we cannot do away with unequal backgrounds a difference can be made by “…. adjusting of thought and action in relation to notions of human good and how to be and act in relation to others” (Christie, 2005). During Apartheid the rulers could impose the ethical standards in our schools and country. It was viewed as a duty or responsibility rather than what Christie (2005) describes as “good character” or “actions”. You were judged on what duty you can fulfill, and people were defined by their responsibilities rather than their character. What you can do, not who you are.
Every person has a moral compass. An inner voice per se, that helps us decide between right and wrong. We are in control of our inner voice and behavior despite of our own religion or beliefs and the norms of society. There is a need to upgrade the quality of our teachers. But it is personal. Working with learners one should be able to adjust oneself to different situations and cultures as well as people to act in the best way to positively affect each learner. This is a monumental task as it is not something you can learn, but rather an awareness of the difference between right and wrong. A decision to apply whatever action or decision is right in a specific situation without exception even if it is outside our nature. As Christie (2005) clearly found, education is an ethical activity, a decision to apply one’s morals in order to reach the goal or learning. Christie (2005) talks about four of Foucault’s (1994) aspects of ethics that can be applied to become a better teacher. The community, religion, culture and circumstances of learners influence their intentions and feelings. This is ingrained and difficult to grasp. The educator’s responsibility is to try and understand the feelings and intentions and where they come from, assist the learners to understand themselves, help them to regulate their actions and identify the type of person they wish to become (Christie, 2007). That is the goal of education.
In South Africa, ethics is also linked to politics. As we move through different periods of time it has influenced ethical concepts and will continue to do so. During Apartheid “Black” South Africans were not allowed in “White” Schools. Might it be that we are still influenced and base our ethical considerations on political issues instead of forcing ourselves to act according to our own moral compass in different situations? Do we hold an African learner from a poor community with uneducated parents to the same standards in terms of behavior and performance as perhaps a white student from a middle-class community with educated parents? Judgement should not come from one’s own clouded vision influenced by our own culture. This, as Delpit (2006) puts it, will lead to assumptions and stereotyping. Delpit (2006) urges us to get to know the worlds of others, to listen and acknowledge that we are different and focus on how we are connected or disconnected from each other. As teachers we need to lead by example. Our everyday interactions and conduct should instill in them their own ethical compass. Going beyond just the curriculum and pedagogy. Getting students actively involved in their own learning by being open to inquiry, questioning situations and asking what consequences of certain decisions and actions will be.
But first and foremost, it is crucial that we know ourselves. We need to understand ourselves in relation to others and continually without fail, despite all the differences, do the right thing. As teachers we need to habitually question their actions in different situations, with different students and be flexible and able to adjust their thoughts and actions to ensure that they bring out the best in the learners they encounter. Christie (2007) describes it unmistakably by saying that the “appropriate ethical response entails a shattering of indifference and a willingness to suffer for the suffering of others”.