Teaching Ethics to Teens

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She was my best student in history, but unsure of herself. She worked hard, really wanted those A's.

Now it was the final exam. She dove right in, typing furiously on her laptop. I roved among the students. Every time I came towards her desk, she squirmed in her seat, changed the angle of the computer screen. My teacher radar went off. I kept circling the classroom, peering over shoulders, until I knew for sure.

After the exam when everyone else had left, I explained what I had clearly seen her doing, toggling to her stored notes. I ripped up the print-out of her exam.

It was a terrible moment for both of us. But I was the adult. I owed her the truth of right and wrong.

As a teacher, I see the difficult terrain teenagers negotiate as they establish a sense of self, assembling personal values and ethics. Parents may not have the stamina to teach the really painful lessons, and the digital world where teens live is an echo chamber where cause and effect, acts and consequences are obscured, if not hidden. There are no referees. Meanwhile, they see the shortcuts some take to get ahead.


They do something wrong because they saw other kids do it and "nothing happened." Or they think: "No one will find out. Everyone does it." No one discovers the school denied a diploma to the senior who plagiarized. Parents fight disciplinary action when their student "tells just a little lie."

Talking face to face about ethics, defeating the idea that a bad act can be "technically" okay, is critical. Adults dare not be polite.

I sat beside my student, feeling miserable too, but remembering that teaching right and wrong is the central work of all adults, and especially teachers. We are training the next generation to do the right thing.

After she finished sobbing, my student looked at me teary-eyed and blurted, "Thank you." For stopping her, now.

Years later, she still stays in touch.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is an educator and writer who founded REAL School Marin.