Part IV: More Perspectives and Resolving a Few “Loose Ends”
Prior to this article, I recommend reading the following:
Just when you thought it was safe to read another of my blog-posts… you bump into another one on ethics and music education!
When my colleague and friend James Kimmel, PMEA District 7 Professional Development Chair, approached me to consider doing an “ethics workshop” for his annual in-service conference (October 9, 2017 at Ephrata Middle School), two questions immediately popped into my mind: “Why is this necessary?” and “Who would want to attend a session on ethics?”
Of course, being retired and having a little more unassigned time on my hands, I took it as a challenge and began some preliminary research.
The first thing I discovered is that almost no one in the public-school music education sector has had formal ethics training (myself included), unless you count a couple thirty-minute segments at a teacher induction or staff in-service program on sensitivity training, nondiscrimination and diversity awareness, anti-bullying or workplace sexual harassment policies, or a review of FERPA (family educational rights and privacy act) and HIPAA (health insurance portability and accountability act) as “ethics!”
Okay all you Pennsylvania music teachers: Before this blog series, did any of you ever see a copy of the Pennsylvania Code of Professional Practices and Conduct for Educators? Prior to working on this project, neither did I, nor did a single band director to whom I spoke at two large fall marching band festivals and several football games! Do you know that earning a teaching certificate from your state and becoming eligible to be hired as an educator means you automatically agree to be legally bound by the prevailing government’s “Code?” The ethical or discipline code of your state will define the proper interactions between the individual teacher, students, schools, and other professionals, and make explicit the values of the education profession as well as regional standards and expectations. Wouldn’t you agree that NOW would be a good time to learn the details of these inherent responsibilities?
What is a Fiduciary?
Educators are among the singular professions which have a “fiduciary” responsibility. The term “fiduciary” can be defined as “a person or organization that owes to another the duties of good faith and trust, the highest legal duty of one party to another, and being bound ethically to act in the other’s best interests.” Joining doctors, lawyers, clergy, and mental health therapists, educators ascribe to the highest standards of training, moral decision-making (“code of ethics”), behavior (“code of conduct”), and self-regulation and assessment of the “best practices” regarding the mastery of skills and subject areas necessary to their field. However, unlike these other professionals, teachers do not receive regular and systematic pre- and in-service training on ethics, and our “clients” are a “captive audience.” Regardless, the duty of all teachers is to act as a fiduciary in their students’ best interest and to create and maintain a safe environment for them at all times.
Ethics Violations in the News
You must have seen the news stories! In a word, the trending statistics of state and USA teacher ethics violations and misconducts are abominable! For example, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) where I taught and currently live, in the year 2015, there was a 200 percent increase in PA educator misconduct investigations (768 reports) compared to the number of complaints filed in 2011 (256). Within PDE disciplinary case resolutions in 2015, 41% resulted in job loss and a permanent revocation or surrender of the teaching certificate.
If your curiosity is a little on the morbid side, you can look up on the PDE website and find the names of more than 1740 educators (“offenders” and their “offenses”) who have violated their ethics and received discipline and/or criminal prosecutions or civil proceedings from March 2004 to June 2017.
Well, we don’t have to just pick on Pennsylvania “bad-boys” (and girls). According to https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/01/20/more-teachers-are-having-sex-with-their-students-heres-how-schools-can-stop-them/?utm_term=.6ee23703b040, the following statistics give teachers everywhere a black eye from shore to shore!
- Texas had a 27% increase over 2015-17 of alleged inappropriate teacher-student relationships
- Kentucky schools reported more than 45 sexual relationships between teachers and students in 2011, up from 25 just a year earlier.
- Alabama investigated 31 cases during the year ending July 2013, nearly triple the number it had investigated just four years earlier.
Eric Simpson shared more bad news in the Journal of Music Teacher Education. His study, “An examination of the relationship of teacher certification area to sexual misconduct: Florida as a case study,” analyzed 383 samples of FL teacher discipline cases in 2007-2010 and their area(s) of certification, with these results:
- Teachers with multiple-certifications = 35.51%
- Music teachers ~5%
- Most frequent offense = sexual misconduct 25.77%
But, 60% of the offending music teachers in the sample were disciplined for sexual misconduct!
Can the data get any worse? In 2004, the U.S. Department of Education released the results of the Shakeshaft national study by the American Association of University Women, with 9.6 percent of students reporting that they had suffered some form of sexual abuse during their school careers. According to http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2012/02/is_sexual_abuse_in_schools_very_common_.html “the list of such conduct included lewd comments, exposure to pornography, peeping in the locker room, and sexual touching or grabbing. Around one in 10 students said they had been the victim of one or more such things from a teacher or other school employee, and two-thirds of those reported the incident involved physical contact.”
If these numbers are accurate and truly representative of the student population nationwide, 4.5 million students currently in grades K-12 have suffered some form of sexual abuse by an educator or school staff member.
Another area I did not dive into during the last three articles is our legal mandate to report colleagues who violate “The Code,” especially for sexual misconduct. My own state’s regulations (similar to most) are as follows:
“All educators who know of any action, inaction or conduct which may constitute sexual abuse or exploitation or sexual misconduct are now required to file a mandatory report with the Department and shall report such misconduct to his or her chief school administrator and immediate supervisor.”
― Pennsylvania Department of Education: http://www.pspc.education.pa.gov/Educator-Discipline-System-and-Reporting/Mandatory-Reporting/Pages/default.aspx
If you are an administrator, the statute is more wide-ranging:
“Specifically, whenever you believe that an educator is involved in misconduct that implicates his or her fitness to serve children in the schools of Pennsylvania, you should report the misconduct to the Department…”
“Reporting to PDE does not relieve [the administrator] of any other duty to report to either law enforcement and/or child protective services.”
― Pennsylvania Department of Education: http://www.pspc.education.pa.gov/Educator-Discipline-System-and-Reporting/Mandatory-Reporting/Pages/default.aspx
Another moral obligation is to simply look out for our student’s welfare and keep our eyes open for any unusual behavior, conflicts, or inconsistencies.
Always looking for the signs of…
- Physical abuse
- Self-abuse or thoughts of suicide
- Sexual abuse
- Signs of neglect
- Patterns of abuse
Teachers are required to report any suspicions of child abuse, neglect, drug or alcohol use, and mental health problems.
Most school districts have an internal mechanism of reporting to school counselors or administrators any observations (or suspicions) of these issues… everything from falling asleep in class, being “accident-prone” (lots of unexplained injuries), confirming a high absentee rate, exhibiting mood swings (up and down), and coming to school with blurry or blood-shot eyes, etc. No accusations! You just handover your comments to the authorities, and report on what you see, not necessarily what your interpretations are for the causes of the problems.
Music teachers often work with students in close proximity before or after-school hours, and sometimes on weekends. As a marching band assistant, musical producer, festival chaperone, or trip sponsor, I always had the personal or cell phone number of my building principal in case I needed to reach out for help.
These are the regulations on protecting student privacy rights, and violations of which (even unintentionally) are “breaking the law.” (Sources: www.pc3connect.org/otherdocs/confidentiality%20and%20the%20law.pdf and http://searchhealthit.techtarget.com/definition/HIPAA.)
- Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 sets parameters on accessibility and disclosure of students records.
- Grassley Amendment (1994) details privacy of student participation in surveys, analysis, and evaluation.
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 provides data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information.
- Drug and alcohol treatment records of students kept by any institution receiving federal assistance are protected under Drug Abuse Office and Treatment Act (1976).
- Records of students in special education are affected by the above laws plus Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1997).
Here are few additional ethical “conundrums” on which to reflect:
- Discussing student information in open or common areas
- How many times have you walked through a busy hallway discussing news or concerns about a student with another colleague or family member?
- Avoid inadvertently disclosing any personal information about students and staff members “in public.”
- Also, one should resist speaking to students in these areas as it could become violation of student confidentiality if overheard.
- Sharing information with other colleagues who are not directly related to the student’s situation.
- You might be tempted to reveal interesting cases or anecdotes to colleagues… DON’T!
- FERPA regulations state that school officials must have a “legitimate educational interest” when sharing information.
- Just because someone is employed in the district with you does not mean they have lawful access to student info.
- There is a great risk of others passing on this information… like gossip!
- Rules of thumb: Ask yourself, “Why am I sharing this information?” and “How will it benefit the student?”
- However, you should be aware of exceptions to student privacy concerns.
- Reporting of physical abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or sexual violence.
- Suspicion of serious mental health issues that may result in danger to the student (such as suicide)
- On the occasion when a staff member working with a student is unsure how to proceed (e.g. seeking advice on disability)
The “Grandma Litmus Test”
We have talked about many principles in this series on “Ethics for Music Educators.” Here is something about the “process,” an “ethical decision-making model” based on…
- “What would grandma think about my action, behavior, or decision” and
- “How would I feel if my actions are tomorrow’s breaking news?”
Answer the following questions about the contemplated activity or decision:
- Is it legal?
- Is it consistent with the profession’s values?
- Is it consistent with the teacher’s code of conduct?
- Is it consistent with your district’s policies?
- Would you be comfortable if this decision was published online or in the newspaper (or made known to your “grandma”)?
- Does it feel right? (Is it the right thing to do?)
If you answered “NO” to any one of the questions (1, 3, and 5), do not engage in the contemplated activity and seek additional guidance.
If you answered “YES” to all of the questions (2, 4, and 6), then you may proceed with the contemplated activity. However, if you have any lingering doubts, do not hesitate to seek additional guidance.
“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
– Rear Admiral Mary Brace Hopper, an early computer programmer
Proponents of this belief will tell you to go ahead and stick your neck out, feel free to do something “for the good of the order,” and later “beg for forgiveness” if/when it goes south and your administrators say they do not approve.
This may or may not work, and I cannot label this orientation as “ethical!”
Music teachers are usually the “lone rider” in their building when it comes to doing their job. Music directors, especially those who are involved in extra-curricular activities, are deluged with making many decisions every day… sometimes even on the hour. Few people (models or mentors) will be there to help guide you in your content area.
My advice: Less experienced teachers, run everything through your fellow colleagues (informally) and principal (formally). Don’t fall back on the lame “oops” and “beg for forgiveness.” I may have felt differently when I had twice as many years of experience than the building administrators who were assigned to “supervise” me… but, even then, “venturing out without a paddle” usually did not serve the best interests of the students… There’s no reason to place “the teacher’s convenience” over the safety/welfare of the students, without first obtaining the legal and political “backup” of your bosses. “Better safe than sorry!” (I am running out of cliches!)
“Perception is reality.”
– Lee Atwater
Perceptions/appearances vs. motivation and reality: It means that your behavior and its results matter infinitely more than your intentions.
It is the responsibility of the teacher to control his or her “public brand” – how he or she wants to be perceived by students, parents, colleagues, and the public. One’s public brand can and does impact perceptions, which in turn can impinge upon effectiveness.
My advice: “Forget your rights” and be more aware of your image and how your actions will look to the public. Reputations are hard to restore. Being an effective teacher is all about trust and integrity, and (sorry, one more cliche) “your actions speak louder than words!”
Teaching is the most honorable and rewarding career on this planet. The rewards far outweigh the challenges and additional responsibilities. “Making a difference” in the lives of our music students has always inspired me, and the fact we have to uphold the highest standards in moral professionalism and behavior does not phase me in the least.
The purpose of these blog-posts on ethics, sort of a “refresher” course to reflect on our internal decision-making compass, was to reinforce Lawrence Kohlman’s sixth stage of moral development – principles of conscience – and the “best practices” of professional attitudes, values, and beliefs that guide the problem-solving we face in their daily work. Hopefully this content will promote thought-provoking discussion about doing what’s right when no one is looking… because, your mother would say, “You know better!”
Please feel free to comment… I would appreciate hearing from you!
© 2017 Paul K. Fox
Photo credits (in order): from FreeImages.com: “Ethics” by Olivier Le Moal; from pixabay.com “Ethics” by 3dman_eu, “Club” by qimono_eu, “Cube” by 3dman_eu, “Questions” by geralt_eu, “Confidential” by HypoArt, “Woman” by geralt_eu, “Board” by geralt_eu, “Males” by 3dman_eu, “Business” by Maialisa.