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The Ethics of Teaching

The Ethics of Teaching

Take a moment and think about your favorite teacher. Maybe he or she was your third grade teacher or your high school chemistry teacher but all of us have had at least one teacher that had a profound effect on our lives and that we consider our “favorite.” What were the qualities that the teacher possessed that made him or her your favorite teacher? Was he or she smart? Funny? Did he or she create engaging lessons that fostered student learning?

As most people think about their favorite teachers, "ethics" probably does not enter their minds. Very few people would say, “I liked that teacher because she was ethical.” But ethics is a critical element in teaching and plays an important role in a teacher’s personal and professional life. A teacher’s ethical stance will govern how he or she instructs and assesses students. Ethics also will play a role in how a teacher interacts with students, with colleagues, with administrators and with the community at large. While ethics may not be the first consideration in identifying our favorite teachers, we see the derivatives of a teacher’s ethical stance in our selection. We may identify a teacher as being “fair” because he or she is ethically dedicated to promoting equality or motivated by concepts of justice. We say that a teacher really “cared” because he or she had a universal respect for human life.

As a beginning teacher, it is important for you to identify the role that ethics plays in the profession. It is also critical that you begin to reflect on your own beliefs and consider whether the ethical responsibilities of teaching align with your personal belief structure and values. Teaching can be a difficult profession. It requires that individuals be moral exemplars in and out the classroom. In this module, we will explore the ethical responsibilities of all educators.

Moral Development

There are many ways to examine ethics philosophically. For example, Lawrence Kohlberg proposed six stages of moral development. In his view, individuals have the capacity to develop morally over their lifetime. Individuals initially base their ethical decisions on rules and regulations and act in ways to avoid punishment. As individuals develop morally, they may eventually reach a stage where their actions are based on universal principles of justice and respect for human life. In his Essays of Moral Development, Kohlberg (1981) presents the following scenario to demonstrate how individuals at different stages of moral development could act differently.

A woman was near death from a rare type of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

Using Kohlberg’s stage theory, an individual at Stage 1 may see Heinz’s actions as being unethical. Heinz broke the law and should be punished for his actions, regardless of the motivations of those actions. An individual at Stage 6, however, could argue that Heinz was acting morally despite stealing the medicine from the druggist. Heinz was acting to preserve human life that can be argued ethically to take precedent over an individual’s property values.

In her book In A Different Voice, Carol Gilligan presents a different view on ethics and moral development. Gilligan posits that actions are not solely guided by considerations of universal justice but also by views of caring. In her view, individuals develop morally through three different steps of caring. In step one, individuals initially base their ethical decisions on how those decisions care for their own needs. In Gilligan’s next step of development, individuals are guided by how their decisions care for the needs of others. In this step, individuals act to achieve the approval of others, even at the expense of their own needs in the process. Individuals who reach Gilligan’s third step of moral development consider how their decisions care for themselves and others. Their decisions are not motivated by how others may view them. Instead, their actions seek to balance caring for their own needs and the needs of others at the same time.

Moral Teachers

How do Kohlberg and Gilligan’s theories inform a teacher’s role and actions? While these theoretical approaches to ethics and moral development may seem to contrast with one another, they actually provide “a multidimensional map of the ethical terrain” for teachers (Starratt, 2004). Despite their contrasting lenses on moral development, when applied to the teaching profession, these two ethical perspectives complement each other. Teachers should be motivated by a universal respect for human life and also be guided by principles of caring. In fact, teachers have a fiduciary duty to act in a way that is in the best interest of their students. Teachers stand in a fiduciary position in relationship to their students. Inherent in a fiduciary relationship is an imbalance of power where the students place their trust /confidence in the teachers, who are responsible for caring for their students and respecting their needs. This overarching responsibility of teachers provides an ethical standard of professional practice to which professional educators must abide and has powerful practical and legal implications for their personal and professional lives.

Professional expectations do not always distinguish between teachers’ on or off-duty conduct. Accordingly, teachers must act in their private lives in a way that does not undermine their efficacy in the classroom, demean their employing school entity or damage their position as a moral exemplars in the community. These expectations can be difficult for some new teachers. For some individuals who are fresh out of college, it may mean changing behaviors that may have been acceptable in a university environment. Teachers are held to a higher moral standard and must behave in ways that are consistent with community and professional standards as codified in the Pennsylvania's Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators and the Professional Educator Discipline Act.

Besides being moral exemplars, teachers are also expected to model ethical principles through their pedagogy. Ethical lessons are implicitly communicated by the culture of caring and respect that the teacher creates and enforces as well as by his or her academic decision-making and interactions with students, colleagues, parents and community members.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who was your favorite teacher? Why? Identify the ethical dimensions inherent in the reasons you cite.
  2. What is your philosophy of teaching? How does your philosophy of teachers communicate your personal ethical code?
  3. Is it fair that teachers are held to a higher standard of conduct than other professions? Is it fair that these conduct expectations apply to a teacher’s personal life as well as his or her private life?
  4. How can teachers’ individual lessons, classroom activities and interactions with students implicitly communicate their ethical perspective?

Some Suggested Readings

  • Campbell, E. (2003).The Ethical Teacher. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
  • Kohlberg, L. (1981). Essays on Moral Development: The Philosophy of Moral Development. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Gilligan, C. (1982). In A Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Goree, K., Pyle, M., Baker, E. & Hopkins, J.(eds) (2007). Education Ethics Applied. Boston: Pearson Education.
  • Pring, R. (2001). Education As A Moral Practice. Journal of Moral Education, 30(2): 101-112
  • Staratt, R. (2004). Ethical Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.