Read Time: 6 minutes

A group of students float in a river on a raft.

A raft launched into a current will travel no matter what. Its occupants can steer it, but a raft on a river will, without question, end up downstream. And just as a river will move a raft, a teacher’s moral character will move a classroom.

Richard Osguthorpe is drawn to rivers: their flow, their challenge, and the opportunity for people to forge bonds on the water. In his research, the newest dean of the McKay School of Education explores a subject with as many eddies, currents, and challenges as his beloved rivers: the moral work of teaching.

“Whatever the lens you view morality and ethics through, there’s no question that that space is a rich one—and unavoidable in a school classroom,” Osguthorpe said. “You are going to engage morally with your students.”

In other words, in the current of a classroom’s day-to-day flow, a teacher’s moral character is always present, like a river guide’s paddle steering a raft. The only real question is the depth of the teacher’s “paddle,” or moral purpose.

Several close-up images of floating on a raft: a hand holding a cord, an oar in the water, someone buckling their life vest, and a group of students on the water.

It’s easy to miss the profound implications of the moral work of teaching. The quickly made connection is seeing that students might absorb their teacher’s moral character just as a raft’s passengers absorb a spray of river water.

However, Osguthorpe makes a clear distinction between “teaching morality” and “teaching morally.” The first involves character education, ethics instruction, and other curricula specifically aimed to impart value to students. Teaching morally aligns every practice with what is “good, right, virtuous, and caring,” he said. Teachers who infuse their work with moral goodness improve as teachers and also find fulfillment, enhanced common cause, and deeper connections to students.

“You can justify teaching morally just for the sake of teaching morally. It needs no other justification,” he said. “That moral approach to teaching is sometimes done outside the view of students. I could say, ‘My students will never know if I’m mailing it in on my preparation; I’m just going to wing it.’ But I’m not weighing [that] fact . . . in deciding how I should prepare. It puts a lot of responsibility on the teacher. But I also like to say that that’s the only way we gain access to the rewards.”

That moral work, Osguthorpe said, is obvious when McKay School students talk about why they want to teach: to help children, say, or to positively shape the future. “The purpose of the undergraduate class I teach is helping them understand the moral work of their future practice so that they can hold onto the high ideals and noble purposes we hold out for the education of the young,” he said. “If we can help them understand [that], they’ll be able to use those ideals as what one might call ‘north stars’ to guide their practice.”

A group of students floating on a river in a raft.

That guidance is not limited to teachers, Osguthorpe said. “You can engage morally while working with someone with a speech disorder. You can do it respectfully, kindly, and compassionately. We can look through moral lenses at the professionals we’re preparing and determine the dispositions of a teacher, a clinician, a practitioner, a counselor, a leader, or an administrator that are needed to engage meaningfully in those practices.”

In all his efforts, Osguthorpe said, he is “riveted on” the idea that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41–42).

“We often talk about the power, but it’s all about the influence,” he said. “That’s all we’re trying to do. We are trying to exert influence. And that influence should be maintained only ‘by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, . . . without hypocrisy, and without guile.’

These are the spiritual elements of whatever the practice may be. When we do it in ways that align with those principles, we engage in the best kind of practice. But it also gives us access to those moral rewards. And those rewards last for the eternities.”


Written by Stacey Kratz

Photography by Bradley Slade