Troy Hutchings, Ed.D.
Senior Policy Advisor, NASDTEC
June 25, 2015: Shifting the Narrative
Since the introduction of the Model Code of Ethics for Educators (MCEE) five years ago, I have had the opportunity to see first-hand how it is being used by practitioners, preservice candidates and educator groups across the country. Their enthusiastic implementation of the Code is impressive.
More than anything else, I have been able to witness how the conversations engendered by the MCEE are making a significant difference already in the function and trajectory of our profession.
The Model Code of Ethics for Educators was unveiled at the historic National Press Club in Washington D.C. on June 25, 2015. As we commemorate its five-year anniversary, let’s take a step back and reflect on its origins, as well as its current and future use.
The discussions that led to the MCEE’s creation started within one organization: National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC). Founded in 1928, NASDTEC represents state and provincial departments of education and professional standards boards that are responsible for the preparation, licensure, and – if necessary – the sanctioning of K-12 certified personnel.
In 1997, NASDTEC established an annual conference devoted solely to the topic of educator ethics, as well as the investigation and adjudication of educator misconduct. Known as the Professional Practices Institute (PPI), the conference is regularly attended by attorneys, investigators, state directors, education preparation providers and district officials. Attendee conversations in the meeting rooms and hallways of the PPI helped fuel the early discussions that eventually led to the development of the MCEE.
Between 2012 and 2014, NASDTEC organized a series of purposeful initiatives – symposiums, surveys, webinars, presentations, meetings with professional organization partners – to affirm the need and assess the support for the development of a professional code of ethics.
In the spring of 2014, professional educational organizations selected a diverse and representative group of P-12 stakeholders from across the country – practicing paraprofessionals, teachers, school administrators, district superintendents and state department of education officials from around the country – to serve on the MCEE Task Force. The group met for the first time in Baltimore, Maryland in June 2014 and began a year-long process of drafting a code of ethics.
After numerous face-to-face and virtual meetings, the MCEE Task Force disseminated a draft edition of the code for public comment in February 2015. Based on the feedback it received, the final draft of the document was unveiled at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on June 25, 2015.
The beauty of the Code – and something that I certainly didn’t anticipate – is that its utility to the education profession does not seem to have limitations. The more I work with practitioners as they engage with the MCEE, the more I realize that it cannot easily be summed up with a quick and easy phrase like “professional norms,” “guide to ethical behavior,” “or statement of values.” Those brief descriptions do not do justice to the full potential of the Code as a tool for educators and the profession.
Consider the middle school English teacher whose choice of literature upset some parents: “Using the MCEE, in conjunction with guidelines from the National Council of Teachers of English, I was able to explain the value of the literary selection to the parents and my principal. But just as importantly, I was able to shift the narrative from what ‘I believe is best’ to ‘as teachers, we believe.’”
Or the high school principal who shared with me that the MCEE now gives him permission to have honest, caring discussions with teachers when they may be approaching a compromising situation: “School administrators don’t always feel comfortable discussing those things with a teacher if a line hasn’t been crossed,” he said.
And when an entire elementary school implemented the MCEE into their daily practice, the changes were unmistakable. “Now we are meeting about the micro-steps prior to an issue occurring,” said one teacher, “and its far deeper than discussing ethical dilemmas – we are discussing the steps that lead to an ethical dilemma.” Another shared that “perhaps the greatest gift of the Code is setting educators on that journey of discussions.” An early childhood teacher proclaimed that “we now feel empowered as professionals.”
Of course, this makes sense.
The interpretability of The Model Code of Ethics for Educators allows for robust professional discussions and targeted applications that are unique to every schooling community.
Since its introduction, the Model Code of Ethics for Educators has been rapidly adopted by a wide range of educational organizations, including state departments of education, county offices of education, school districts and educator preparation programs. As the promotion and implementation of the MCEE continues, we should ask ourselves this germane question: What impact will professional ethics have on the everyday working lives of educators?
In a series of articles that I wrote for RealClear Politics in 2016, I envisioned a future in which professional ethics was a natural part of the preparation and professional learning of educators – as it is in other professions:
At first, the changes would be structural – teachers would receive training on professional ethics in preparation programs, have discussions involving ethical issues with mentors as they navigate the early years of their careers, and ideally, continue to get refreshers in the form of professional development in which teams of teachers revisit the principles of professional ethics … and discuss with each other how they apply to their own challenges in the classroom.
All of this would go a long way toward helping individual teachers navigate the complexities of their role and become more aware of the unintended consequences of the thousands of decisions they make on a daily basis. But over time, once the idea of professional ethics has become engrained in the field as a whole – and as important to teaching as content and pedagogy – the impact could be transformative.
Educators would avoid falling into the trap of assuming that misconduct is a discrete event and something that only happens to teachers that lose sight of their personal moral compass. Instead, it would acknowledge the collective risk that all teachers face as a result of the demands of their overlapping roles and the intensely personal relationships they are expected to follow.
In turn, this understanding would give teachers permission to approach each other in candid, professional discussions about uncomfortable subjects. This kind of professional environment would allow teachers to self-regulate as a field. And the collective awareness of professional obligations fostered by this environment would allow many situations to be addressed before damage is done and the teachers’ reputations – and students’ lives – face irrevocable harm.
But that is just the beginning. If these kinds of conversations are brought to light in transparent ways, parents and the community as a whole also could understand the challenges that teachers face … over time, this understanding could lead to a much deeper respect for teachers – and the profession as a whole. Perhaps more than anything, that’s what professional ethics can bring to the field – a rethinking of teaching as a true profession, in the eyes of policymakers, the public, and most importantly, in the eyes of teachers themselves.
Although this work is just beginning, the initiative to empower educators through the development and implementation of a professional code of ethics may have a far greater impact than we could have initially imagined.
And that’s because the concept of professional ethics generally – and the MCEE in particular – places responsibility back in the hands of the practitioner. Perhaps most importantly, the Code is successfully engendering collective conversations which, as the middle school English so artfully articulated: “… shifts the narrative from what ‘I believe is best’ to ‘as teachers, we believe.’”
 Hutchings, T. (2016). Professional ethics and professionalizing education, RealClear Politics. October 21, 2016.