What is the most important moral lesson in a school’s character curriculum? According to American educational psychologist Thomas Lickona, it is the idea that teachers can only cultivate children’s character if they display it themselves.

While we have all heard the mantra that virtue is first “caught” and then “taught”, I doubt whether the meaning and radical consequences of Lickona’s advice are always understood well. The ideas that teachers should be moral role models and often are role models to pupils are often taken for granted to such an extent that it prevents us from thinking about this complex, demanding and rather mysterious pedagogical device.

Let’s put my cards on the table. I think that a kind of character education that emphasises the importance of role modelling should first of all focus on the quality of the pedagogical relationship between teacher and student, instead of on the use of didactical interventions.

Yes, the amount of useful teaching materials that have been developed for teachers and schools to foster virtue and character is impressive, just as are the attempts to empirically prove their effectiveness. It is important that such teaching materials are available now, in particular for already exemplary teachers who are looking for means to “teach” character in other ways. My worry is that all these projects, sample lessons, formats and assignments are not going to be very effective if the teachers who use them are not virtuous.

We could even go a step further and ask whether a kind of “intervention-based character education” does not precisely make it irrelevant who the teacher is as a person. All the teacher has to do is deliver the scripted lesson – otherwise its effectiveness cannot be guaranteed. This suggest role modelling can actually interfere with character education, or at least a particular understanding of it.

If we give role modelling the place it deserves, I think we should first be concerned about teachers’ own virtuousness and the way this reveals itself in the relationship with children. Somewhat paradoxically, we could say that precisely because character education is in the end about promoting students’ characters, we should not “fix” thembut rather ourselves, as parents and teachers.

How can we be good role models of virtue? An interesting book that discusses what is involved in being a (moral) role model is Bryan Warnick’s Imitation and Education. A Philosophical Inquiry into Learning by Example (2008). The conclusion I draw is that being a role model is more easily said than done. I will give two examples.

First, what does it mean for teachers to be an example of something? Let’s take a look at the figure “1”. It is an example of a figure just as are “2”, “3” etc. So, the figure “1” is as much an example of a figure as all other figures. Nothing more, nothing less.

There is, however, a second way in which we talk about examples. When we say that Lionel Messi is an example of a footballer, he is not a footballer just like any other. What we mean is that Messi is a paradigmatic example, an excellent specimen that shows what “real” football is about.

The problem with teachers as paradigmatic examples of virtue is that we are probably aiming too high.

Warnick avoids these extremes and argues that examples have a virtue in a way that underscores, displays or conveys the idea of virtue to an observer. So, role models are not just virtuous, but they attract students’ attention because they make them notice something extraordinary about virtue.

The second reason why being a role model is complicated has to do with the question of what you want to achieve by being a virtuous role model. You may want students to follow your example, but does that mean they copy or imitate your behaviour? Imitation, or “observational learning” as psychologist Albert Bandura called it, is indeed an extremely important learning mechanism. However, the problem with treating modelling purely as a non-cognitive form of mimicry is that it does not provide students with the means to question teachers’ moral authority.

What one is after in role modelling is known as “emulation” (Kristjánsson, 2006; Sanderse, 2012). In renaissance culture, artists first translated classical Roman works, then tried to imitate them and finally attempted an emulation, which included improving the original. When a student emulates a teacher, he does not just copy the teacher’s behaviour, but knows what character trait the teacher is a model of, thinks about whether this trait is a virtue or not, and deliberates about what it means for him to exercise this virtue. If this is what we are after, role modelling is more than just “being yourself”, as if the moral lessons to be drawn from your behaviour are obvious.

While I think the moral quality of teachers is fundamental in character education, being a role model is not self-evident or easy. First, simply being your authentic self is not going to make students emulate you. Much more is needed to make teachers more reflective in their own moral behaviour, and enable them to explain to students why and how they teach as they do.

Second, teachers cannot be a role model on their own. Teachers may desperately want to be a moral role model, but if a moral school ethos is absent, no one will recognise their behaviour as an example of virtuousness.

Dr. Wouter Sanderse, former Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. Wouter holds a practice-based research chair on Teachers’ Professional Ethics at Fontys Universty of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands.

Email: wsanderse@fontys.nl