Professional Ethics In Teaching: The Training And Development Challenge
Senior Project Officer
Training and Development Directorate
NSW Department of Education and Training
This paper addresses the challenges and constraints in the implementation of training and development programs with regard to professional ethics in teaching in large education systems.
The scope of the training and development challenge is revealed by posing a series of questions. Some of these questions go the heart of the professional learning discourse. The use of case studies as a professional learning strategy is explored and examples of cases are included.
•Is it possible to train people in ethical conduct?
The term ‘ethical conduct’ brings to the fore a debate about the distinctions between codes of conduct and their purposes and ethical principles and their place in the teaching profession. Some would argue that codes of conduct mandate specific behaviours in particular situations but do not promote individual adherence to ethical principles. The grey areas in decision making that confront most teachers on a regular basis arise in the face of competing interests and values. Codes of conduct may assist, but not give clear definition to, teachers’ decision making. In other words the organisation or system can mandate what not to do in particular situations but it is impossible to list all possible situations that arise. This becomes the territory of ethical decision making. The delivery of training related to codes of conduct may be possible. Training individuals to adhere to particular ethical principles when making decisions may not be possible.
•Can ethics training/ education be self paced or does it require facilitation and/ or team learning?
Many approaches to ethics training/ education require an external or trained facilitator working with small groups of people. Expertise in the facilitation of professional learning in small groups and knowledge of ethics is assumed. The distribution of this expertise and knowledge across all school sites is not even. Ethics training conceived as a formal learning program delivered to teachers becomes difficult because of the unavailability of skilled facilitators. It also ignores the ways beginning teachers in particular learn to teach and ‘become’ teachers.
In the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET), significant components of the beginning teacher induction program are presented in the form of self paced learning modules. Indeed, much of beginning teachers’ professional learning during the induction phase occurs through collaborative action and reflection, individual reflection and observation of others’ practice. This professional learning is also linked to personal growth and each person’s reflection on, and modification to, assumptions about his or her role and work.
•Is ethics training a process of learning the prevailing (and system sanctioned) codes of behaviour? How can the requirement for ethics training be reconciled with best practice in professional learning?
The impact of workplace cultures is intertwined with ethics training and codes of conduct. Professional socialisation in the workplace is a significant component of the induction period for beginning teachers. The associated personal learning that takes place involves the identification of principles upon which to operate in a given workplace and the reconciliation of these principles with the values and understandings held by the individual.
Lacey refers to a strategic compliance adopted by beginning teachers when there is a misalignment of assumptions prevailing in the workplace and those held by beginning teachers. The complication in the delivery of ethics training through a workplace learning model of teacher professional development lies in the ability of those in the workplace who are immersed in the prevailing norms, to analyse and question prevailing culture rather than simply transmit existing values and understandings without critical appraisal. The unequal power relationships between novice teachers and experienced teachers too often results in strategic compliance and subjugation of individual ethical principles. The result is ethical behaviour based on compliance with externally imposed codes – manifested in bureaucratic dependency where responsibility for individual action is surrendered – rather than the development of each teacher’s ethical principles and the consequent development of independent critical analysis, judgement and ethical action.
•If the workplace is the focus of ethics training how does the employer ensure consistency in approach to ethics training?
A problem in adopting a workplace learning model of teacher professional development arises when supervisors and mentors of beginning teachers are themselves novices in their respective roles. In some instances beginning teachers are appointed to schools that are difficult to staff and these schools have relatively young and inexperienced executive staff.
The depth and breadth of experience of supervisors and mentors varies considerably across education systems. A workplace learning model of teacher professional development may need to be supplemented by additional training for supervisors and mentors and support provided for inter-school networks.
For a workplace learning model of teacher professional development to be most effective, beginning teachers need access to professional role models and professional climates
In 1998, a DET pilot induction program in an isolated western NSW central school included such supplementation. It involved the provision of mentoring support from beyond the school for beginning teachers and enhanced access to expertise and knowledge in the district office, state office and in other schools.
•Should ethics training be delivered as part of preservice training rather than during the induction phase? Is ethics training more effective following periods of experience in the workplace? eg. extended practicum or internship?
Beginning teachers’ evaluative comments on the effectiveness of formal learning programs prior to the first year of teaching suggest that formal learning of professional ethics suffers from the same weaknesses as system mandated ethical behaviour. The constraints that apply to the delivery of ethics training in a workplace learning model of teacher professional development also apply to an approach that integrates ethics training with school based components of teacher education programs.
•Is the use of case studies an effective strategy in ethics training?
The use of case studies may go some way to providing consistency in the delivery of ethics training for beginning teachers and provide a context for professional dialogue and consideration of competing value positions. The provision of decision making frameworks devoid of context does not move beyond transmission of mandated responses to particular situations.
Case studies, in lieu of lived experience, and in anticipation of such experience, permit dialogue about competing perspectives, group and individual reflection and the collective and individual reconsideration of value positions. The development of professional ethics and the emergence of each individual’s commitment to ethical principles is a dynamic process – in contrast to the relatively passive acceptance of mandated practices.
Approaches to decision making assist in the consideration of case studies. Ethical decision-making can be described as the intersection of three key components.
There is a range of approaches to the resolution of ethical issues. One approach might be to ascertain “facts” that might have a bearing on a decision. However “facts” are often contested; and “facts” by themselves may describe what is, but not necessarily what ought to be. In addition to getting the “facts”, resolving an ethical issue also requires an examination of values.
Approaches to ethical decision-making have been categorised in the following ways.
•Justice approaches focus on how fairly or unfairly actions distribute benefits to members of a group
•Rights approaches to decision-making assume that each person has a fundamental right to be respected and treated as a free and rational person
•Virtue approaches to decision-making focus on characteristics, attitudes and dispositions – integrity, honesty, trustworthiness – that enable people to develop their human potential
•The utilitarian approaches to decision making advanced by philosophers such as Bentham and Mill, regard ethical actions as those producing the greatest difference of benefits over harms
•Common good approaches to decision-making regard ethical behaviour as that which advances the good of the whole community. Individuals or groups are not to be exploited at the expense of others
•Social relativism approaches to decision-making regard values of different cultures and groups as being grounded in a particular social context or reality. It therefore becomes difficult for a person from one culture of group to pass judgement on the values of another.
The use of case studies may have merit as a professional learning strategy. Their appearance, however, in employer-developed materials generates a further ethical dilemma: any hint of uncertainty in teachers’ professional practice arising from competing value positions is unacceptable in the contemporary societal climate.
Case studies that generate professional dialogue surrounding the practice of teaching must contain uncertainties. Teaching is characterised by uncertainty. The application of a code of conduct provides some guidance in these situations. Mandated professional conduct, however, doesn’t permit consideration of competing value positions inherent in professional judgement.
Some writers argue that autonomy in judgement is the essence of professionalism . The removal of scope for professional judgement based on ethical principles diminishes the standing of teaching as a profession and inhibits the emergence of an individual’s commitment to ethical principles.
The education employers are accountable to the community at large. In this context, and when the welfare and education of young people are at stake, uncertainty in professional conduct and the actions of teachers becomes unacceptable.
In grappling with the issue of ethics in teaching the employer faces a dilemma in acknowledging the uncertainties surrounding the professional practices of teachers through the use of case studies and at the same time providing a framework for professional conduct that is acceptable to the community.
Case study, values, decision making and school change
Innovations and changes in school structures and practices are often contested and debated vigorously among teachers. Sometimes debate may lead to indecision where some decision may be required. The value positions of teachers are fundamental in these debates. Consider different approaches to decision making in the context of a proposed school change.
A school has determined that the learning experiences of its year 7 students are contributing to poor learning outcomes and undesirable approaches to work in subsequent years of schooling. The school proposes to implement, on a trial basis, a teaching teams approach for half of the Year 7 intake in the following year. (Not all teachers in the school are willing to embrace the teaching teams approach – hence the trial with half year 7.) The trial will require a reallocation of resources and rooms, the reallocation of teaching duties for many, and restructuring of the school’s curriculum.
•In what ways might the utilitarian approach and the fairness approach conflict in this situation?
•How might a focus on virtues influence an individual’s engagement with the proposed change?
•Does the common good approach have a bearing on the proposal?
•What conflicts may arise when the proposal is addressed from the perspective of rights? Can these conflicts be resolved?
•What would you consider to be ethical conduct on the part of the principal and individual teachers in contributing to the decision making process?
It could be argued that some approaches to decision making are applied more readily than others in the context of education and public service. For example, a utilitarian approach to the allocation of resources in a school setting may lead to disadvantage for individuals or minority groups of students, and it could give rise to the view that “the ends justify the means.” Circumstances such as these could contradict a code of conduct which requires, for instance, that all students be treated equitably.
Should a music class of six students be included in the curriculum at the expense of a third commerce class of thirteen students? Small classes in specialist subjects might never be part of a school curriculum if utilitarianism characterised all decision-making in secondary schools.
The limits of utilitarianism as an approach to ethical decision making is illustrated by the hypothetical example of the director of a hospital who has five patients who each need different organ transplants or they will soon die. A healthy young person is admitted for a toenail operation. By applying utilitarianism, the director could save five lives at the cost of only one – the greatest benefit to the greatest number. In this example the application of utilitarianism is thought of as macabre and affronting because it challenges broadly accepted value positions of individuals and the ethical principles on which society is founded.
Using Kant’s approach to ethics it might be argued that ethical conduct of teachers should be determined by the concept of ‘duty’, and furthermore, that an action or decision should only be regarded as ethical if it could be applied as a general rule for everyone to follow. In the context of education “duty” is expressed as the duty to care for students. It might also include duty to have pride in self, duty to set the best example to others, duty to colleagues, duty to the school, duty to public education and duty to obey the law.
However there may be conflicts between duties. Furthermore duty implies that ethical conduct arises from a sense of obligation and discipline; whereas the ideal would have the individual wanting to engage in ethical conduct.
Examples of case studies
Consider the following case studies and possible responses in the light of the previous discussion and the frameworks for decision making. If you were to provide guidance to beginning teachers in relation to these case studies what would you say and what might you do?
•Which documents provided by the employing authority, or specific parts of these, impinge on each case study?
•In which situations is clear and unambiguous guidance provided by the relevant documents?
•In which situations are teachers required to make professional judgements based on ethical principles?
•What are the competing value positions?
•How would you resolve these?
Case study 1
A young male beginning teacher was coaching a junior hockey team after school on the school oval and at the end of one of the training sessions it started to drizzle. In the gathering gloom and cold two of the team members who lived most distant from the school asked politely for a lift part of the way home. Public transport was not available and the teacher wanted to get away too. Rather than wait around or refuse them, the teacher gave them a lift. A cleaner saw the two students getting into the teacher’s car.
•Why might the teacher have made the decision to give the students a lift? Is there a conflict of duty involved?
•What are the possible ramifications of this course of action by the teacher?
•Does this action constitute ethical conduct? Is gender an issue affecting decisions in this situation?
•If you, as a colleague, had seen this occurring what would your response have been? What principles underpin your action or decision?
Case study 2
A teacher, newly appointed to a small central school in a country town, had walked to the school after dinner one evening and was working alone on end of term reports in the staffroom. A female student in year 10 who had run away from a violent argument at home, saw the light on at the school and rushed in seeking sanctuary. She was very distressed and fearful.
•What decisions did the teacher face in this situation?
The teacher offered to accompany the student to the police station or to a relative’s house. The girl was too fearful to leave the staffroom. She put on the teacher’s raincoat and stayed away from the windows fearing that those out looking for her might see her. Because there was no outside telephone line that the teacher could access from the staffroom, the teacher offered to leave the girl at the school and to go to get some assistance. The girl was too frightened to be left alone.
•What are the teacher’s professional responsibilities in this situation?
•What actions might the teacher have taken to protect his or her own situation?
•What ethical principles might have informed the teacher’actions at this stage?
The teacher, accompanied by the student went to the main administrative section of the school to use a phone but the student wouldn’t let the teacher call the police. At this point the teacher became more aware that the situation also involved an issue of Aboriginality.
•What ethical decisions did this teacher have to make?
•If you were the principal of this school, what would you regard asethical conduct for this teacher?
Case study 3
A single male teacher appointed to a small country school became involved in town sport and associated social activities. One Saturday evening he was with team-mates socialising and having a few drinks at a post-game barbecue. Later in the evening several male and female students from year 12 arrived at the barbecue by car. They had all been drinking and continued to drink at the barbecue.
•What are the implications for the teacher?
•Would it be considered ethical conduct for this teacher to remain at the barbecue?
As the evening progressed a very friendly rapport developed between the teacher and the students. One of the teacher’s team-mates who was clearly “over the limit” invited a couple of the students, who had also been drinking, to go for a drive down the street to get some more beer.
•What are the implications for the ethical conduct of the teacher?
•Are there any decisions he should make?
•On what basis should these decisions be made?
After the departure of the ‘beer expedition’ one of the female students who remained at the barbecue had the undivided attention of the teacher. It became apparent to others at the barbecue that the teacher and the student were getting on very well.
•What are the implications for the teacher in this situation?
•What are the implications for the student?
On return from the excursion down the street, the team mate suggested that the teacher, together with the students, go with him to a party at the weir about six kilometres out of town. “There’s plenty of room in the back of the ute,” was the encouraging comment from the team mate. Instead of going to the weir the teacher offered to walk the female student home. He left the barbecue with the female student.
•What decisions are appropriate in these circumstances? What would be considered ethical conduct for the teacher?
•If you were at the barbecue what decisions or actions could/ should you take? What are implications of the different decisions?
•If you were the parents of the students what would you consider to be ethical conduct?
•If you were the principal what would you consider to be ethical conduct?
Case study 4
A teacher newly appointed to a school found the school community to be very welcoming and supportive. Parents went out of their way to show a genuine interest in the new teachers and to introduce themselves. One parent who was very supportive of the school engaged the teacher in friendly conversation one afternoon at the local shops. During the course of the conversation the parent expressed grave concerns for her/ his child’s progress in another teacher’s class. The newly appointed teacher already had reservations about the work of this other teacher, and these reservations were reinforced by what the parent had just said. The parent asked for the teacher’s opinion and sought advice on what to do.
•What should the teacher do in this situation?
•What are the factors that might influence the teacher’s decision to respond in a particular way?
•Does the parent have a ‘right’ to your professional advice and support?
What are the conflicts of ‘duty’ in this instance? What approaches to decision making assist in the resolution of these conflicts?
•Who else might be in a better position to provide advice to the parent?
Case study 5
A beginning teacher in a large school who was on playground duty, was approached by a student from her/ his own class together with a friend from another class. The friend claimed she was being picked on by another teacher. She didn’t want to tell her parents because she feared that her Dad would “get wild” and come up to the school and make things worse. She was scared of the Principal. The teacher listened and showed interest and concern for the student.
•What would constitute ethical conduct on the part of the teacher?
In each of the above cases, several responses are possible. Some action is clearly guided by a code of conduct. Other decisions and actions are not. One of the purposes of using these types of case studies is to provoke a range of possible responses. There may not be ‘correct’ answers to some questions raised or a ‘correct’ response in some situations. Determining appropriate responses will depend upon an examination of the sometimes competing value positions held by individuals and espoused by institutions.
Such examination usually requires professional dialogue and the ability of individuals to reflect on and acknowledge the implications of different decisions. In short, a comprehensive approach to ‘ethics training’ is dependent upon an open workplace culture of enquiry and professional learning. The use of case studies and effective ethics training in general is sometimes incompatible with cultures of bureaucratic dependency based on rule following and abrogation of individual responsibility for action – the antithesis of professionalism in teaching.
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