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What Are We Missing?

Posted By Troy Hutchings, NASDTEC, Friday, November 22, 2019

Troy Hutchings, Ed.D.

Senior Policy Advisor, NASDTEC



What are We Missing?


Recently, I had the opportunity to witness something astonishing.


At a symposium on educator boundaries in New Jersey, two well-known and highly respected attorneys took the floor to share the fact pattern of a particularly difficult local case.


31-year-old high school math teacher. Sexual relationship with a 17-year-old senior. Texting. Trips. Three years of litigation. Prison time. Millions in settlements and costs. Betrayed trust. Community’s confidence shattered.


Case closed. The predator is gone, so let’s wash our hands and get back to the business of education, right?


Not so fast.


The presenters of this case study then did something remarkable – they undercut their own compelling narrative by revealing a few startling facts.


There was no evidence, for instance, of any grooming behaviors or attempts to isolate the student by the offender. In fact, there was no evidence in the transcripts that indicated that the offender was even a predator.


And his character? Everyone could vouch for him. He was once a student in the very district in which he taught. All his friends were part of the school community and his personal activities revolved around school functions. He was deeply invested in the school, his students, and the broader educational community.


“Given these facts,” the attorneys said, “it becomes necessary to ask a question that doesn’t get posed often enough – what are we missing?”


Four words. An important question that rarely gets asked.


And the simple act of asking that question shifts the narrative – it acknowledges the situational and systemic variables that curate the conditions for missteps to occur.


When we focus exclusively on the event of misconduct and try to link it to assumed character flaws, we miss a crucial point: a breach of trust and responsibility like this is not a solitary moment in time, but part of a continuum of personal interactions and decision-making.


Teachers are asked to play an increasingly expansive role in their students’ lives – counselors, mentors, confidants – without any discussion of the vulnerabilities or risks inherent within those shared spaces. The gray areas left untouched by law and policy are vast and difficult to traverse – and almost impossible to resolve on their own every single time. Virtually all professions that are characterized by intimate relationships – counseling, psychology, law, medicine – rely on professional standards and norms that help them recognize and respond appropriately when navigating those interactions.


And that’s where professional ethics comes into play.


It’s about initiating difficult conversations about the uncomfortable realities of our profession. It’s about facing, together, a broad range of situations well before a legal line has been crossed. Professional ethics – as reflected in the Model Code of Ethics for Educators – recognizes and calls attention to the potential blind spots that inevitably occur and provides a framework for sharing our collective honesty, experience, and professionalism.


So, let’s ask ourselves what might be missing – how we can give our profession permission to have those difficult but meaningful conversations.


Quite simply, these kinds of conversations have power. They inspire and cultivate a sense of practitioner agency. And most importantly, they will go a long way in collectively determining how to best navigate those relational imperatives that are unique to our profession. 


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Thanks Troy! Our board has recently adopted, to be put in rule, some language on grooming-I always share your blog with my board.
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