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.