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Ethics and Educators
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Welcome to "Ethics and Educators" a blog dedicated to the important conversations related to professional decision making in today's P-12 classrooms. NASDTEC hopes that "Ethics and Educators" will provide a venue that permits professional educators to explore topics associated with professional ethics in education, and more specifically, the Model Code of Ethics for Educators. Our goal is that Ethics and Educators will be a community space that illuminates, clarifies and inspires. Consider how you might like to contribute – perhaps through sharing questions and comments in response to the blogs, submitting topics for discussion, or even contributing as a writer. This blog is managed by the National Council for the Advancement of Educator Ethics (NCAEE) under the guidance of NASDTEC Senior Advisor, Dr. Troy Hutchings.

 

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Professional Ethics: It's All About the "We"

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, January 22, 2020

 

Troy Hutchings, Ed.D.

Senior Policy Advisor, NASDTEC

 

 

Professional Ethics: It’s All About the “We”

 

During her opening remarks at this year’s Professional Practices Institute, the current NASDTEC President shared a line from a series of well-known commercials to illustrate the collective knowledge held by the conference attendees:

 

We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.” 

 

The tagline communicates experience, a resulting professional wisdom, and perhaps most critically, it infers trust.

 

I couldn’t help but consider how that slogan embodies the kind of agency that professional ethics strives to achieve. At its very core, professional ethics makes a promise: “You can trust us – we are acting in the public’s best interest.”

 

But what assurance does the public have that we are acting in its best interest? After all, this is a profession that values and even relishes professional autonomy – which works well with teaching methodologies and classroom protocol, but it may not necessarily inspire public confidence when serious situations occur.

 

Social psychologist Albert Bandura, provides insight through a concept he calls “collective agency … people’s shared belief in their collective power to produce desired results.”[1] In other words, practitioners working together to navigate the complexities of a profession that has multiple duties, overlapping obligations, and a staggering amount of high-stakes responsibilities.

 

Collective agency has the potential to tap into the shared wisdom of educators – their experiences, their preparation, their knowledge, and when used with the Model Code of Ethics for Educators, the profession’s collective values.

 

But most importantly, there is an exciting and dynamic synergy involved when colleagues work together in response to emerging situations and issues. It connects us to each other as educators, and as professionals – regardless of the grade levels or subject areas that we teach.

 

I have witnessed literally hundreds of educator groups working together to resolve ethical dilemmas – in schools as well as workshop and research settings – where collective agency is occurring in a vibrant manner. Practitioners discussing together the competing tensions, possible risks and consequences of complex situations that may be unique to their learning community. Laughter and stories always emerge – resulting in a shared honesty and transparency. And by using a common set of standards – the Model Code of Ethics for Educators – they have a guide in working towards a common solution.

 

  • Third grade teachers in a suburban elementary school created a professional response to parents who were insisting that teachers utilize personal social media platforms for communication purposes.
  • Coaches at a small rural high school realized that they were all facing the same dilemma – the one student who has no way to get home late at night after an athletic event. Together, they created a solution that didn’t involve placing students in their personal vehicles – yet ensured student safety.
  • High school educators who were implementing SEL strategies into their classrooms were concerned about how to cultivate caring relationships in a safe manner. They created agreed-upon boundaries – which actually enhanced the teacher-student relationship, while at the same time ensuring professional integrity.

Professional ethics speaks with one voice. It relies on the shared wisdom and experiences of practitioners when responding to the unique variables present in each situation. It removes decision-making from the wheelhouse of an individualized personal morality and places it in the hands of a collective and unified profession.

 

By exercising collective agency, there will rarely be accusations related to conflict-of-interest, self-serving decisions, or immunity from the common good. Quite simply, it inspires public confidence.

 

In a profession that routinely considers decision-making as an individual and isolated endeavor, let’s recognize the efficacy of collective agency.

 

It’s all about the “we.”

 

WE know a thing or two, because WE’VE seen a thing or two.”   



[1] Bandura, A. (2000). Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 75-78.

 

 

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The Greater Priority

Posted By Administration, Sunday, January 5, 2020

 

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 presentation 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 course-of-action.

                                                                          

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.[1]

 

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.

 

 

 



[1] MCEE 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) 

 

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You Went to College - Just Teach!

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, December 17, 2019

 

Troy Hutchings, Ed.D.

Senior Policy Advisor, NASDTEC

 

 

You Went to College – Just Teach!

 

I was terrified – it was my first teaching job, and I only had two weeks to prepare.

 

Teaching middle school students isn’t what terrified me. But starting my career in the early 80’s meant the only curricular road map was a textbook. And that was severely outdated.

 

No state standards. No internet. Inadequate texts.

 

I sheepishly entered the principal’s office and asked, “What content should 8th graders be learning in their English classes – what should I be teaching?”

 

“You went to college – just teach,” she replied with a smile.

 

It was probably the only answer she could give – an honest confession exposing a gap that was present in our profession.

 

State teaching and learning standards, as we know them today, simply didn’t exist in the late 70's and early 80's. Words and phrases that we now take for granted – benchmarks, competencies, direct instructional lesson planning, instructional scaffolding, learning objectives, cross-walking standards to curriculum – were not a part of our professional lexicon. 

 

For those of us at the middle and high school levels, to “just teach” meant that we frequently went a bit rogue. We often found ourselves in curricular and pedagogical silos. What was being taught varied greatly between teachers. And most importantly, there were extreme differences between what students might be learning – even within the same course, school, district and state.

 

So much of what I chose to teach in the pre-standards era was based on my own values, experiences and preferences. And I was not unique. As crazy and chaotic as that sounds now, it was often the norm.

 

So, what does any of this have to do with professional ethics?

 

I am finding striking similarities in the discussions I have with educators about the field of ethics. Without common professional ethics standards, practitioners are left on their own with only their personal values and experiences as a guide – which means a high degree of isolation and variance between educators in determining appropriate courses-of-action when interacting with students, parents and other stakeholders.

 

Today, it would be unconscionable to ignore district, state and national standards when curriculum mapping. Yet, we are one of the few fiduciary professions that has not had ethics standards with which to align to our daily decision-making – and we can’t disregard the fact that we are in a high-risk profession where seemingly insignificant decisions can cause irreparable damage.

 

The education profession has made great strides since I first started teaching. Teacher candidates today know what needs to be taught because content standards are now part of the DNA of our profession. Lesson plans, objectives, unit plans – they are all linked to collectively agreed-upon standards.

 

And now it’s time to do the same with standards in professional ethics. Since 2015, the Model Code of Ethics for Educators (MCEE) has been available as a mechanism to bridge that gap – allowing educators to collectively determine responses to the complexities of their practice in a way that aligns to the values of the profession.

 

But let’s be perfectly clear about this set of professional standards.

 

The Model Code of Ethics for Educators is not meant to be used for evaluation or assessment. It is not a set of rules. It is not about right or wrong. It does not tell us what to do, or even what not to do. It is not meant to bind or constrain educators.

 

Quite simply, it is an invitation.

 

Professional ethics invites practitioners to collectively determine how to best navigate the intense demands of the overlapping roles and personal relationships they are expected to foster by using the MCEE standards as a guide. Key concepts that are present in all professional codes – transparency, risks, unintended consequences, implications, equity, appearance of impropriety, communication, conflict of interest, confidentiality, multiple relationships, role ambiguity – are at the core of the standards contained within the MCEE.

 

Other professions – law, counseling, medicine, finance, psychology – all have a long history of integrating their codes of ethics and ethics standards into their professional frameworks.

 

It is as foundational to their practitioners as content standards are to educators.

 

It is time we do the same.

 

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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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A Precarious Balance

Posted By Troy Hutchings, NASDTEC, Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Troy Hutchings, Ed.D.

Senior Policy Advisor, NASDTEC

 

 

A Precarious Balance

 

I guess it would be an understatement to say that parenting can be a bit chaotic at times – a juggling act that can rarely be accomplished alone.

 

The time a father got stuck in a late meeting at work, it was an educator who rescued his 10-year old daughter from a rainstorm as she waited for him on a street corner. Or the time lunch money was needed on a field trip, it was a teacher who covered the cost.

 

There always seems to be an educator who quietly provides an assist at exactly the right time. I am sure many of us can relate.

 

But it goes beyond helping parents.

 

Ask anyone about the teacher who made a difference. Sure, you will hear about inspired learning. But you are just as likely to hear something more personal – like the young adult who recently shared with me that “… there has been nobody like her. She kept me from veering into the ditch – and when I did, she pulled me out with love.”

 

We revere and honor those educators who make personal investments into the lives of their students. It’s a recognized benchmark of professional excellence.

 

Yet, every educator will tell you this is dangerous terrain filled with ethical landmines.

 

Remember the educator who provided a ride for the father’s daughter when it was pouring rain? She violated district policy by placing a student in a personal vehicle. And the teacher who provided lunch money – he risked accusations of bias and favoritism.

 

Education is a profession where contractual duties intersect with the human condition. And as caring human beings we can’t just turn our backs. In fact, that is why many of us became educators.

 

But this can result in a professional tension that is rarely discussed – and for many, is present every day in their practice as educators. Consider the following perspectives from various teachers who were interviewed as part of a national research study[1]:

  • “One of my students came to me in private and told me she was scared to walk home. I was concerned about her. It was dark. She had been sexually assaulted before. I’m trying to protect her and make sure she gets home from school safely. I gave her my cell number and told her to call me when she got home. The next day, I was called into the principal’s office ...”
  • “It seems we are actually at odds with a natural human reaction – and we are being asked to challenge that reaction. We’re being asked to put that aside in the face of a rule as opposed to simply responding the way humans should respond.”
  • “We are stuck between two opposites – what is the human thing to do and what is the policy?  We keep getting straight-jacketed into the bounds in which we operate.”
  • “Our job is to interact with human beings, and you have to have elements of humanity in those interactions in order to have any kind of genuine connection – to truly teach.”
  • “It came down to a decision. I have to make sure I have my job. So, having my job is more important than doing something that is humane.”

Imagine the uncertainty of feeling trapped with only binary choices. The ethical dilemma should never be reduced to a choice that pits policy against compassion – or keeping a job as opposed to responding humanely.

 

Professional ethics asks entirely different questions. How does one act with compassion as a practitioner? What does compassion look like in the context of the uniqueness of every schooling community? At what point should we intervene outside the scope of our prescribed duties? How can I best be transparent in my actions? How far is too far? What shall I do when I feel myself becoming consumed by the needs of a singular situation or student?

 

The answers are most likely not found in policy or statute. Nor can they be relegated to simply completing an ethics check-the-box training at the beginning of the school year.

 

In the field of professional ethics, the answers always reside with the practitioners. Professional ethics demands honest and transparent discussions about the issues that all practitioners face, while working together to create appropriate solutions. The real power comes from no longer having to go it alone.

 

To not have those discussions – to push them to the side?

 

In the words of another experienced teacher – a research participant from the same study: “The balance is more precarious because those ethics are getting pushed farther and farther under the fringes – and where does that leave us?”



[1] Hutchings, T. & Norris, A. (2014). Categorical domains of ethical dilemmas faced by teachers: A typology.                   Unpublished raw data.

 

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