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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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You Went to College - Just Teach!

Posted By Troy Hutchings, NASDTEC, Tuesday, December 17, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, July 15, 2020

 

 

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 And that was severely outdated.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
Updated: Wednesday, July 15, 2020

 

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
Updated: Wednesday, July 15, 2020

 

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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Please, Just Tell Me What to Do!

Posted By Troy Hutchings, NASDTEC, Thursday, October 10, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, July 15, 2020

 

Troy Hutchings, Ed.D.

Senior Policy Advisor, NASDTEC

 

“Please, Just Tell Me What to Do!”

This past week I had the privilege of working with a group of preservice candidates who are currently immersed in their student teaching semester. The look on their faces said it all – exhausted and overwhelmed.

The general topic of our discussion was professional ethics and the virtue of practitioner decision-making that aligns to professional standards. The specific focus, however, was on “navigating the gray” by using the Model Code of Ethics for Educators as a collective tool for crafting resolutions to complex issues.

About an hour into our time together, one of the participants stated in exasperation: “My head is about to explode. Please, just tell me what to do!” 

I had missed the mark entirely.

I failed to remember what it was like to be in their shoes. For our newest educators, each day is a struggle to navigate the seemingly endless crush of student needs while still trying to learn content, craft lessons and implement individualized learning plans. And as daunting as the pedagogical workload is for a new educator, the emotional fatigue from making hundreds of non-trivial daily decisions in isolation can be just as overwhelming.

But here’s the catch – it’s not just beginning teachers who are pleading “just tell me what to do!” Teachers, at every level of professional experience, also confront countless complex decisions in their daily practice with only their personal values as a guide.

Unlike the licensed practitioners of other professions, teachers do not receive adequate training in professional ethics. More importantly, the education profession does not provide its practitioners with an understanding of how a code of professional ethics can provide a framework for evaluating difficult issues and offer assurances for both the decision-making process and the outcomes.

When the student teachers and I finished our time together, one of them summed up the isolation of professional decision-making with a germane observation: “We talk about data, classroom management, and RTI – but I don’t remember anyone talking about ethics in our PLC. But we should. Why is this such a private matter?”

His observation was spot-on. We turn ethics into a private matter when our professional decision-making is based on our differing personal values and not on agreed-upon professional norms and standards – like those contained within the Model Code of Ethics for Educators.

Let’s be perfectly clear – the Model Code of Ethics for Educators is not THE solution. In the world of professional ethics, the solution always resides with practitioners. Kenneth Pope and Melba Vasquez, ethicists with the American Psychological Association, perhaps said it best: “The formal standards are not a substitute for an active, deliberative and creative approach to fulfilling our ethical responsibilities. They prompt, guide, and inform our ethical consideration; they do not serve as a substitute for it.”[1]

Let’s start the discussion.



[1] Pope, K. & Vasquez M.  (2007). Ethics in psychotherapy and counseling (3rd edition, p. 18). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

 

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Professional Ethics - It's About Right and Wrong, Right?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, September 24, 2019

 

Troy Hutchings, Ed.D.

Senior Policy Advisor, NASDTEC


Professional Ethics - It's  and Wrong, Right?

If only it were that simple.

Using binary terms like “right” and “wrong” might be an easy way to describe professional decision-making, but in reality, our work as educators demands a far more nuanced approach. The public may view schools as strongholds of standardization and homogeneity, but educators know that every single day, they are required to make an extraordinary number of difficult decisions, each one as varied and unique as the students and families they serve. From one moment to the next, from early morning until late at night, it’s rarely about right or wrong but how to best navigate the gray.

An elementary school administrator was recently sharing with me how parental expectations for communication with teachers at her school – phone, email, social media, text, and even video chats – resulted in a disastrous situation for a caring educator. Her first reaction was to establish a new policy to limit how and when communication with parents was to take place. But she knew that something as important as parental interaction was situational and deserved to reside in the gray. To create a mandate would force teachers to choose between doing what was “right” according to policy or choosing to communicate with parents according to professional judgement. All too often, teachers are placed in situations where they feel like they have little choice but to break policy – and it is safe to assume those decisions are typically made in isolation and without transparency.

Perhaps that is why we have often tiptoed around the topic of professional ethics, or even worse, confused it with other terms such as “dispositions,” “codes of conduct,” or “morality.” The grayness in which so many educator decisions are made is ambiguous, murky, and at times uncomfortable to discuss. But our school communities and in particular, our students, deserve an honest conversation.

Medicine, law, mental health, and other professions also deal with competing tensions that can create the same kind of gray areas that arise in education. But they have had established codes of ethics for decades, which promote discussions that inform and frame a collective professional decision-making process. Consider that the American Medical Association developed and adopted its code of ethics in 1847 so that practitioners would not be facing professional risks and complexities in isolation. A significant goal of professional ethics is to establish a shared language, one that enables practitioners to have difficult conversations with each other without defaulting to a “right” or “wrong” binary lexicon.  

We need to dispel misperceptions about professional ethics – that it is synonymous with statutes or that it is an attempt to codify morality. A code of ethics for a profession doesn’t limit the decision-making of its members. Instead, it provides guidelines that empower the practitioners of that profession to carefully and thoughtfully weigh the competing values that arise in each situation and reach a fair and rational decision. At its very core, educator ethics is about inspiring and cultivating agency among practitioners.

After conducting a workshop in Louisiana several years ago, a teacher approached me with an insight that was so on-point, I have assimilated it into virtually every presentation I have given since: “I have determined that professional ethics is not about making the RIGHT decision,” she said, “but rather having the RIGHT REASON to make a decision.”

And maybe it is just that simple. 


 

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