Troy Hutchings, Ed.D.
Senior Policy Advisor, NASDTEC
The Greater Priority
The question resonated with candor and clarity in the hushed board room.
“What is the greater priority for educators – an understanding of professional ethics or an understanding of the regulations that govern an educator’s practice?”
After listening to my testimony on professional ethics and the Model Code of Ethics for Educators, the Chair of the state’s Educator Ethics Task Force reframed the question: “As we contemplate whether to recommend additional requirements
to educator preparation programs, should the top priority for teacher candidates be an understanding of professional ethics or an understanding of regulations?”
I have worked with thousands of educators throughout the country and have come to a conclusion that will probably startle and certainly dismay parents and other community stakeholders – teachers generally have little to no knowledge of either professional
ethics or the regulatory frameworks that govern their profession.
And that’s a travesty.
Codes of conduct (e.g., laws, certification statutes and district policies) are designed to protect all stakeholders within the school community. They establish basic boundaries – the bright red lines that cannot be crossed without significant consequences.
But codes of conduct are not aspirational. They are written to establish the lowest threshold of acceptable behavior for all educators.
Professional ethics, on the other hand, are collectively agreed-on standards that prompt, guide and inform decision-making. They can be contextualized to unique settings and situations while assisting practitioners in choosing the most appropriate
Both are important. Both define and inform a professional standard-of-care. Both establish norms for professional practice. Both inspire public confidence. When used together, educators’ decisions not only bear public scrutiny, they assuredly reflect
the highest levels of beneficence and public trust – a profession acting in the best interest of those that it serves.
Yet, the question that was posed to me on that day asked me to choose one or the other – the greater priority – an understanding of professional ethics or an understanding of regulations?
I responded without reservation: “a thorough understanding of policies, statues and law should always take precedence.”
Let’s examine this a bit more closely.
Clear and unambiguous conduct absolutes are necessary in a fiduciary profession when teachers act in loco parentis with society’s most treasured resources – its children.
But it’s not enough to merely pass out a list of district policies and have educators acknowledge they have read them. Practitioners will always have insightful and germane questions pertaining to specific situations. Consider a situation that is
familiar to most educators: a district policy might state that putting a student in an employee’s personal vehicle is not allowed, but every educator will be able to provide multiple scenarios when it might be necessary. So, let’s provide opportunities
for robust discussions without judgment.
In addition, I have found that most teachers are not aware of the statutes that govern their professional license, let alone the federal and state laws that specifically apply to educators. Everyone knows that a romantic relationship between a student
and an educator is forbidden, but how does the law define “student”? Does your state do so by age, by graduation date, by supervisory relationship or some other metric? In one state, high school graduates are considered students until August 31
of the year they graduate. In another state, the defining threshold is 90 days if the educator had direct supervision of the student, and 60 days if the supervision was indirect. Consider the damaging consequences of not fully discerning the subtleties
of state specific laws!
As paradoxical as it may seem, even the Model Code of Ethics for Educators acknowledges the deference that should be given to policy and law. The very first two standards of the MCEE clearly acknowledges this regulatory priority:
MCEE I.A(1): “… understanding of the Code (MCEE) is not in itself, a defense to a charge of unethical conduct.”
MCEE I.A(2): “… knowing and upholding the procedures, policies, laws and regulations … regardless of personal views.”
In addition, there are many other MCEE standards that nod to the importance of adhering to policy and statutes.
When confronted with a new situation or one that presents significant but conflicting tensions, the first step in the decision-making process should always be to refer to applicable codes of conduct and consider their application to potential decision
points. Once the practitioner is satisfied that the minimum threshold of acceptable behavior has been cleared – which is an obligation as a state-licensed professional – then the broader ethical implications should be considered. The Model Code of Ethics for Educators is designed to afford practitioners the opportunity to discuss the situation in the context of our professional responsibility to act in the public’s best interest, while minimizing professional risk to themselves and the schooling community.
I was able to provide an unwavering response to the Chair’s question because a solid grounding in law, regulation and policy should be a prerequisite given the immensely important duties ascribed to educators.
But it was only a partial answer.
Educators not only need to be law abiding; they need to be ethical as well. And that’s a career-long objective that the MCEE can facilitate.
MCEE Standards: I.B.5, IV.A.4, IV.B.3, IV.C.1, IV.D.1, IV.D.2, V.A.4, V.A.5, V.B.1, V.C.2, V.C.3