Our Quest for the Training of Ethical Decision-Making
With thanks to Thomas W. Bailey, attorney-at-law, collaborator on ethics-in-education workshops
This blog is dedicated to pre- and in-service educators residing and working in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
News from the Pennsylvania Department of Education
In Pennsylvania (as well as the rest of the country), the statistics on school staff misconducts have been rising alarmingly. Sample data from Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE):
Involving more than 2545 PA school staff members since 2004 when they began reporting them, PDE maintains a database of all disciplinary infractions, the names of the offenders and their offenses here.
Immorality – Immorality is conduct which offends the morals of the Commonwealth and is a bad example to the youth whose ideals a professional educator or a charter school staff member has a duty to foster and elevate.
Incompetency – Incompetency is a continuing or persistent mental or intellectual inability or incapacity to perform the services expected of a professional educator or a charter school staff member.
Intemperance – Intemperance is a loss of self-control or self-restraint, which may result from excessive conduct.
Cruelty – Cruelty is the intentional, malicious and unnecessary infliction of physical or psychological pain upon living creatures, particularly human beings.
Negligence – Negligence is a continuing or persistent action or omission in violation of a duty. A duty may be established by law, by promulgated school rules, policies or procedures, by express direction from superiors or by duties of professional responsibility, including duties prescribed by Chapter 235 (relating to Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators).
“Typically, charges initiated against a teacher on any of the grounds listed above may result in a hearing before a Professional Standards and Practices Commission (PSPC) hearing officer. If an educator elects not to contest the charges, however, a decision on the matter may be made without a hearing. When charges are brought against an educator on non-criminal grounds, the PSPC has discretion to determine if the conduct occurred, if the conduct constitutes one of the grounds for discipline, and what discipline should be imposed, if any. In contrast to cases arising on criminal grounds, the PSPC maintains full adjudicatory discretion in cases filed on the above-described grounds.”
As a music teacher for nearly a half-century (35 years full-time involvement in the public schools), not once did I experience someone other than myself and retired social studies teacher Thomas Bailey present a course, class, or even an hour-long workshop on ethics. Obviously, the growing statistics are a concern, but what do you expect when almost no PA-certified teacher you ask can name the title or content of his/her “code of conduct?” Updated frequently, a comprehensive section on this blog-site is devoted to a much-needed exploration of the definitions, research, sample case studies, and “conundrums” in professional and ethical decision-making. Here are some highlights of past articles for your perusal:
Finally, it seems that the Pennsylvania Board of Education and PDE have also awakened to this “cause.” In the last several years, there’s been significant movement in the rewriting of statues and regulations, and mandating ethics training in future pre-service, induction, and in-service programs. Below is a quick look at the history (albeit a very slow progress) sponsored by our state government.
History of PA Legislative & Executive Branch Rules Revisions
Public School Code of 1949 was written by the PA General Assembly regulating PA educators. Section 11-1122 identifies conduct which allows school entities to terminate educator contracts for “…immorality; incompetency; unsatisfactory teaching performance… intemperance; cruelty and persistent negligence in the performance of duties….”
January 2020: The Commission recommended to the PA State Board of Education “the inclusion of professional ethics in educator preparation programs, induction, and continuing professional education… Professional ethics are the accepted and collectively agreed upon standards of behavior, values, and principles that, in conjunction with applicable laws and regulations, are meant to inform and guide professional decision-making.”
September 2021: Final amendments to Chapter 49 were approved by the Council of Higher Education and by the State Board of Education and transmitted to the Senate Education Committee, House Education Committee, and the Independent Regulatory Review Commission for the final steps in the regulatory review process.
What’s Needed for the Future? Let’s Renew the Mandate to Share Knowledge and Peer Engagement in Ethics Training
Based on Thomas Bailey’s and my experience in providing more than four years of local and state educator ethics and professional decision-making workshops, we recommend the following:
Presentations should be interactive, allowing time for group discussion, question/answer periods, and “empaneling the ethics jury” to review fact scenarios of identifying levels of ethical misconduct, violations of code and/or policies, and the possible negative consequences, risks, and harm to the students, school staff, and community-at-large.
Case studies should uncover all aspects of professional educator decision-making: pedagogy, enforcement, resource allocation, relationships, and diversity, and illuminate possible ethical conflicts, contradictions, or “conundrums.”
Content should include definitions of common vocabulary (e.g. “fiduciary”), and an in-depth examination of the PA Code of Professional Practices and Conduct, Public School Code of 1949 and the Educator Discipline Act, and PA Chapter 126.
In relation to the PDE Discipline Process, all educators in the Commonwealth should be made aware of PA “governance” and its three independent branches: legislative (statutes), executive (regulations), and judicial (case law), as well as their rights for due process.
Following the research of Troy Hutchings, the principles of educator “ethical equilibrium” and understanding the differences between a “code of conduct” (more explicit and well defined) vs. a code of ethics (more open-ended, based on the circumstances/context of the situation) should be discussed comparing representative examples.
Presenters should unpack and apply the standards in the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) Model Code of Ethics for Educators (MCEE). Since the PA Board of Education endorsed the NASDTEC MCEE in January 2017, little has been publicized (even on the PSPC website) about understanding and implementation of this national “teacher code of ethics.”
Thomas Bailey and I are available to present virtual or in-person workshops on professional and ethical decision-making of educators. Please email any interest or questions here.
Teachers make as many as 1,500 decisions a day for their classes and students… that’s as many as four educational choices per minute for the average teacher given six hours of class time. Surprised? (Not if you are an educator!) Check out this corroborating research:
Of course it can be exhausting… and as fast as “things” happen, even mind-numbing at times!
What do educators rely on for guidance, a sort of internal “ethical compass” for making these decisions, many of which are snap judgments?
Teacher “chops” (professional experience)
Peer and administrative support
Personal moral code (derived from one’s life experiences and upbringing)
Aspirations, values, and beliefs generally agreed upon by educational practitioners
State’s code of conduct and other regulations, statutes, policies, and case law
Or all of the above?
At this juncture during my workshops on ethics, I usually quote Dr. Oliver Dreon, Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Digital Learning Studio at Millersville University of Pennsylvania and one of the authors of the Educator Ethics and Conduct Tool Kit of the Pennsylvania Professional Standards and Practices Commission:
“From a decision-making standpoint, I tend to look at it from the perspective of Ethical Equilibrium (work by Troy Hutchings). Teachers weigh the moral (personal) dimensions with regulatory ones (the law) with the ethics of the profession… While focusing on consequences is important, I worry that teachers may interpret this to mean that as long as they don’t break the law, they can still be unprofessional and immoral.”
– Dr. Oliver Dreon
From college students participating in their first field observations to rookie teachers (and even veterans in the field), I recommend searching the term “ethics” on the website of your State Board of Education. In Pennsylvania, checkout the following:
Now enters probably the single most valuable document of our time, an all-encompassing philosophy for embracing the highest standards of what it means to be an ethical educator: the Model Code of Ethics for Educators (MCEE), developed under the leadership of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC). With the collaboration of numerous development partners including the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, Council of Chief State School Officers, and American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education – to name a few – MCEE is comprised of five core principles (like spokes in a wheel – all with equal emphasis), 18 sections, and 86 standards.
“The purpose of the Model Code of Ethics for Educators (MCEE) is to serve as a shared ethical guide for future and current educators faced with the complexities of P-12 education. The code establishes principles for ethical best practice, mindfulness, self-reflection and decision-making, setting the groundwork for self-regulation and self-accountability. The establishment of this professional code of ethics by educators for educators honors the public trust and upholds the dignity of the profession.”
Although pre- and in-service training on both are essential, the differences between a “code of conduct” and a “code of ethics” are vast. Codes of conduct like the Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Pennsylvania teachers are specific mandates and prohibitions that govern educator actions. A code of ethics is a set of principles that guide professional decision making, not necessarily issues of “right or wrong” (more shades of grey) nor defined in exact terms of law or policies. Codes of ethics are more open-ended, a selection of possible choices, usually depended on the context or circumstances of the situation.
“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.”
The music teacher and administrator colleagues with whom I have been privileged to work for more than 40 years are highly dedicated and competent visionaries who focus on “making a difference” in the lives of their students, modeling “moral professionalism” and the highest ethical standards for their classes, schools, and communities, in support of maintaining the overall integrity of the profession.
However, let’s unpack some of “the wisdom” of MCEE as it addresses the rare “nay-sayers” and entrenched teacher attitudes, failing to understand “the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do…” (Potter Stewart) or “doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when doing the wrong thing is legal” (Aldo Leopold).
Here are sample negative responses, MCEE “exemplars,” and proposed assimilations for thoughtful and interactive peer discussion. Bring these to your next staff meeting or workshop, and apply them to a few mock scenarios (like these from my past blog ).
Principle I: Responsibility to the Profession
The professional educator is aware that trust in the profession depends upon a level of professional conduct and responsibility that may be higher than required by law. This entails holding one and other educators to the same ethical standards.
“I didn’t know it was wrong…”
Section I, A, 1: Acknowledging that lack of awareness, knowledge, or understanding of the Code is not, in itself, a defense to a charge of unethical conduct;
My comment: The old adage, “ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes
“What’s the problem? I didn’t break the law!
MCEE Section I, A, 5: Refraining from professional or personal activity that may lead to reducing one’s effectiveness within the school community;
My comment: Any on or off-duty conduct or inappropriate language that undermines a teacher’s efficacy in the classroom, damages his/her position as a “moral exemplar” in the community, or demeans the employing school entity may result in loss of job, suspension or revocation of license, and/or other disciplinary sanctions.
“I’m not a rat fink…”
MCEE Section I, B, 2: Maintaining fidelity to the Code by taking proactive steps when having reason to believe that another educator may be approaching or involved in an unethical compromising situation;
My comment: As a professional with “fiduciary” responsibilities, we must look out for the welfare of our students, proactively protecting them from harm by embracing all provisions of “mandatory reporting.”
“What’s in it for me?”
MCEE Section I, C, 3: Enhancing one’s professional effectiveness by staying current with ethical principles and decisions from relevant sources including professional organizations;
MCEE Section I, C, 4: Actively participating in educational and professional organizations and associations;
Principle II: Responsibility for Professional Competence
The professional educator is committed to the highest levels of professional and ethical practice, including demonstration of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required for professional competence.
“What’s the big deal about standards?”
Section II, A, 1: Incorporating into one’s practice state and national standards, including those specific to one’s discipline;
“Not another ‘flavor-of-the-month’ in-service program!”
Section II, A, 5: Reflecting upon and assessing one’s professional skills, content knowledge, and competency on an ongoing basis;
Section II, A, 6: Committing to ongoing professional development
My comment: Always “raising the bar,” being a member of a “profession” (like medical personnel, counselors, attorneys, etc.) requires the loftiest benchmarks of self-regulation and assessment, ongoing training, retooling, and self-improvement plans, revision and enforcement of “best practices,” and application of 21st Century learning skills.
“I needed to give him credit?”
MCEE Section II, B, 1: Appropriately recognizing others’ work by citing data or materials from published, unpublished, or electronic sources when disseminating information;
My comment: Especially during this period of online/virtual/remote education brought on by COVID-19, we must reference the owners of intellectual property (including sheet music) that we use and abide by all copyright regulations. In general, it is always “best practice” to cite research or authorship “giving credit where credit is due!”
“I’m just a music teacher! Don’t ask me to do anything else!”
MCEE Section II, C, 2: Working to engage the school community to close achievement, opportunity, and attainment gaps;
My comment: We teach “the whole child,” not a specialty or specific content area! I believe our ultimate mission is to facilitate our students’ capacity and desire to learn, inspire self-direction and self-confidence, and foster future success in life.
Principle III: Responsibility to Students
The professional educator has a primary obligation to treat students with dignity and respect. The professional educator promotes the health, safety, and well being of students by establishing and maintaining appropriate verbal, physical, emotional, and social boundaries.
“It’s just a gift…”
MCEE Section III, A, 5: Considering the implication of accepting gifts from or giving gifts to students;
My comment: It is not appropriate to give a gift to a student lacking an educational purpose. In some cases, this may be defined as a “sexual misconduct.” It begs the larger question: “Do you ensure that all of your interactions with students serve an educational purpose and occur in a setting consistent with that purpose?” Also from the PA Professional Standards and Practices Commission: “Teachers should refrain from accepting gifts or favors that might impair or appear to impair professional judgment.”
“You should never touch a student!”
MCEE Section III, A, 6: Engaging in physical contact with students only when there is a clearly defined purpose that benefits the student and continually keeps the safety and well-being of the student in mind;
My comment: We were told this warning in methods classes. However, as I mentioned in a previous blog here, this “rule” has little support in research or common “best practices.” It has been my experience that on occasion, most elementary instrumental teachers assist their students in acquiring the correct playing posture and hand positions by using some (limited) physical contact. Consoling an upset student with a pat on the shoulder is not out-of-line either. The factors that may contribute to the moment being judged “okay” vs. “inappropriate” boil down to:
Length of time
Frequency or patterns of repetition
Comfort level of the student
Age level of the student
Happening in public
Who started it?
“My students are my friends!”
MCEE Section III, A, 7: Avoiding multiple relationships with students which might impair objectivity and increase the risk of harm to student learning or well-being or decrease educator effectiveness;
My comment: You cannot be their “friend.” You are their teacher, an authority figure that is looking out for them and doing what is necessary (“fiduciary” responsibilities) for their health and welfare… perhaps at times things they do not want you to do. Crossing the teacher/student boundary with familiarity, informality, and being their “confidant” or “friend” are more than just unprofessional acts – they can foster a dual relationship where roles are less defined, an ambiguity that may lead to additional inappropriate actions and educator misconduct.
“He’s weird…” or “He’s not one of us!”
MCEE Section III, B, 2: Respecting the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual student including, but not limited to, actual and perceived gender, gender expression, gender identity, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and culture;
My comment: Check your prejudices and personal biases at the door. Being a teacher is all about sensitivity and caring of all individuals – students, parents, staff, etc. Embracing today’s focus on reprogramming community attitudes on “diversity,” an educator daily models the values of empathy, compassion, acceptance, and appreciation, not just settling with the “lower bar” of tolerance, allowance, and compliance!
“Wait ’til you hear what happened in class today!”
MCEE Section III, C, 1: Respecting the privacy of students and the need to hold in confidence certain forms of student communications, documents, or information obtained in the course of practice;
My comments: Gossiping about and “carrying tales” home or in the teachers’ room are serious breaches of the care and trust as well as your fiduciary responsibilities assigned to you on behalf of your students. As for “regulations,” your indiscretion may be a violation of your students’ confidentiality rights (“a federal crime” according to Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Grassley Amendment, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). You are only permitted to share information about a student with another teacher, counselor, or administrator who is on a “needs-to-know” basis or is actively engaged in helping this student.
Principle IV: Responsibility to the School Community
The professional educator promotes positive relationships and effective interactions with members of the school community while maintaining professional boundaries.
“Don’t tell my parents!”
MCEE Section IV, A, 1: Communicating with parents/guardians in a timely and respectful manner that represents the students’ best interests;
My comment: I wish I had a nickel every time a student plead with me, “Don’t call my mom!” It is part of “moral professionalism,” your “code,” and good ethical standards to originate meaningful two-way dialogue, and if necessary, confront the parents of underachieving children. I also believe it goes on long way to nurture your relationships in the community if you notify parents when their kid has done something remarkable… “I caught him being good” or “The improvement has been extraordinary!”
“Did you hear what a staff member said about you… in front of the kids?”
MCEE Section IV, B, 1: Respecting colleagues as fellow professionals and maintaining civility when differences arise;
MCEE Section IV, B, 2: Resolving conflicts, whenever possible, privately and respectfully, and in accordance with district policy;
My comment: Before you bring up the matter with your supervisor or building administrator (which you have the right and even responsibility to do, especially if the students hear any improper speech first-hand or that the incidents rise to the level of bullying or aggressive behavior), first confirm the story. Talk to the unhappy team member one-on-one. Be calm and sensitive, but hold your ground: you must assert that his/her behavior/language is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the future.
“Not another TEAM meeting?”
MCEE Section IV, B, 4: Collaborating with colleagues in a manner that supports academic achievement and related goals that promote the best interests of students;
My comment: We work together to insure that all educational goals are met. Open and interactive peer partnerships are helpful in the review, design, and application of new lessons, methods, media, and music.
“I was just teasing her…”
MCEE Section IV, B, 8: Working to ensure a workplace environment that is free from harassment.
My comment: Be extremely careful in the practice of any behavior or language of a kidding, sarcastic, cynical, or joking manner. It can be misinterpreted regardless of your intentions… and it can hurt someone’s feelings. And it is never appropriate or “professional” to “put down” another person.
“Don’t ask for permission… beg for forgiveness.”
MCEE Section IV, C, 3: Maintaining the highest professional standards of accuracy, honesty, and appropriate disclosure of information when representing the school or district within the community and in public communications;
My comment: Yes, I have heard this “view” a lot, advocates of whom will tell you to go ahead and stick your neck out to do something “for the good of the order,” and if needed later, “beg for forgiveness” if you decision is met with disapproval from administration. 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 three times as many years of experience under my belt than the supervisors who were assigned to “manage” 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. Besides, why not take advantage of the legal and political backup of your bosses if they are kept “in the loop?”
“He’s our preferred dealer and always takes care of us.”
MCEE Section IV, D, 4: Considering the implications of offering or accepting gifts and/or preferential treatment by vendors or an individual in a position of professional influence or power;
My comment: Formerly called “sweetheart deals” with music companies, you are on “shaky” ethical ground (and may also have “crossed the line” violating state laws/statutes) if you negotiate the rights of exclusive access to your school’s or booster’s purchasing. If you have any questions about your school’s policy on outside vendors, seek advice from your district’s business manager.
Principle V: Responsible and Ethical Use of Technology
The professional educator considers the impact of consuming, creating, distributing, and communicating information through all technologies. The ethical educator is vigilant to ensure appropriate boundaries of time, place, and role are maintained when using electronic communication.
“Isn’t use of social media forbidden?”
MCEE Section V, A, 1: Using social media responsibly, transparently, and primarily for purposes of teaching and learning per school and district policy. The professional educator considers the ramifications pf using social media and direct communications via technology on one’s interactions with students, colleagues, and the general public.
My comment: Professional educators’ use of a dedicated website or other social network application enables users to communicate with each other by posting information, comments, messages, images, etc. and “learn” together. However, using social media for sharing social interactions and personal relationships with your students, parents, and staff is unethical and dangerous. As they say, “a post (or snap) is forever.” Communicating digitally or electronically with students may lead to the blurring of appropriate teacher-student boundaries and create additional challenges to maintaining and protecting confidentiality.
The Final Word
In Pennsylvania (as well as the rest of the country), the statistics on school staff misconduct reports are rising alarmingly. Your own state’s “code of conduct” and the MCEE should help to clarify misunderstandings, but it has been my experience that the majority of educators do not receive regular collegiate, induction, or in-service training on educator ethics or moral professionalism. Luckily, we are fortunate to have access to many mock scenarios (see below) from state departments of education to review/discuss among ourselves common ethical conflicts and “conundrums” dealing with pedagogy, enforcement, resource allocation, relationships, and diversity. We all need to “refresh” our understanding of these issues from time to time and revisit “our codes” frequently to help “demagnetize” (and re-adjust) our decision-making compass.
Please peruse the ethics category of this blog-site for other articles and sample references below.
Empaneling the “Ethic Jury” to Review Mock Case Studies
The study of morality in professional decision-making is essential to pre- and in-service training of music teachers. Our goal should be to reinforce recommendations for the avoidance of inappropriate behavior (or even the appearance of impropriety), and defining and modeling the “best practices” of a “fiduciary” by promoting trust, fostering a safe environment for learning, acting in the best interests of our students, and upholding the overall integrity of the profession.
Full discussions and samples of “the codes” (ethics and conduct), professional aspirations, and government policies/statutes – a proverbial “curriculum” exploring ethics for music educators – have been posted at this blog-site. You should peruse these first before proceeding further:
All of these should be “required” reading. Few of us have ever received a full-blown class or induction program on ethics. Now is the time to study this topic, and as ethics expert Dr. Troy Hutchings would say, to view it through multiple perspectives – “the lens of…”
“Ethos of care”
The purpose of this blog is to provide supplemental materials for personal reflection, possibly inspiring thought-provoking group dialogue during methods classes, professional development workshops, or music staff meetings.
It is more important to know why something is wrong, rather than simply labeling the degree of misconduct or likely discipline action. However, for the purpose of introspection during this exercise, we will first recognize “the problem” presented in each re-enactment. We will use these “color-coded” criteria, and allow “snap judgments” in the simulated evaluation by a “jury of our peers.” Put on your thinking caps! You may be surprised with the incongruities of your first impressions once the likely outcomes of these stories are revealed!
Use this tool to judge the severity of the upcoming case studies.
DEGREES OF MISCONDUCT (from bad to worst)
GREEN (not illustrated) = not a misconduct
BLUE (not illustrated) = inappropriate, unwise, or “bad for appearances” – but no consequences
PURPLE = “Unprofessional” – unlikely to result in serious consequences except possible damage to one’s professional reputation
GOLD = “Immoral” – no guarantee of consequences except may result in lowering the year-end teacher evaluation score, earning a “warning” or “write-up” by the principal/supervisor, or consideration for a job re-assignment
ORANGE = “Unethical” – which will result in discipline action and possible loss or suspension of certificate
RED = “Illegal” – which may add criminal penalties, fines, jail time, etc. All it takes is a felony or misdemeanor conviction to lose your job… and your certificate… even if it is unrelated to your employment or taking place at school.
Essential Ethical Questions
It is important to analyze your response to these reflections during your assessment of each ethical dispute:
What possible issues/concerns might this scenario raise?
How could this situation become a violation of the law, the “Code” or other school/district policies?
In this situation, what are some potential negative consequences for the teacher, students, parents, and/or school staff?
How would this episode affect a teacher’s efficacy in his/her classroom, demean the employing school entity, or damage her position as a moral exemplar in the community?
Melissa S. was a 23-year-old high school music teacher who also supervised the production of the school musical. After months of practices, Miss S. became very close to several seniors including David, the male lead in the musical. She and David began sharing emails and texts with one another. Most of the communications were playfully flirtatious but not overtly sexual. Immediately after graduation, however, Miss S. and David began dating and became sexually intimate. After discovering the relationship, David’s parents filed a complaint against Miss S. with the district superintendent.
My drum major was suspended because she smoked pot and was caught. I needed her to run the half time show we had been practicing for months and so I attempted to convince administration that she had to participate because it was part of my curriculum and part of her grade. I decided the other kids shouldn’t be punished because of her idiocy so I worked hard to keep her in the show.
This assumes the principal will make the ethical decision in allowing or prohibiting the student leader to participate.
Let’s put this choice squarely on your shoulders (where it usually sits). What would you do if you were the one that discovered your soloist, lead, accompanist, or drum major was drinking on a school music trip? What if he or she was the one performer you counted on for an outstanding adjudication?
You walk into the Disney World cafeteria, see your student has a wine cooler on his/her tray sitting at the tables. Since no one else sees you standing there, you walk out as if nothing has happened.
You are taking your high school music department to Orlando. Because of the size of the trip, you have to put it out on bid. One company offers a generous “under the table” deal: “If you choose our travel agency for the Florida trip, we will throw-in the gift of a new conductor’s podium and set of two dozen music stands.” You decide to go with them.
James C. is a middle school music teacher who was arrested for drunk driving. After several months, the teacher goes to court and is convicted of the offense. When the district moves to have Mr. C fired for his conviction, he argues that this offense has no influence over his ability to instruct his students. Also, the episode happened during the weekend on his private time.
Mrs. K is a high school choral director whose husband recently divorced her. During a lesson one day, she breaks down in front of her class. In an attempt to calm the students, she explains her emotional state and discusses the end of her marriage. After school that day, a male student visits Mrs. K to see if she has recovered. The student explains that his parents are also divorcing and he understands her feelings. The student begins stopping in to see Mrs. K more frequently and the pair begins spending more time outside of class supporting each other. Mrs. K’s colleagues start to become suspicious of her relationship with the student and report the teacher’s actions to their principal.
Food for Thought – Suggestive Answers
Please keep in mind my disclaimer, “I am not an attorney, a member of a human resource staff, nor a research scholar or expert on school ethics.” However, although retired, I continue to teach (part-time) and face day-to-day decision-making… now for more than 40 years. These are my responses to the above cases. I welcome your comments, and any input from highly respected leaders in the field of educator ethics like Dr. Troy Hutchings (Chair of Education, University of Phoenix) and Dr. Oliver Dreon (Associate Professor, Millersville State University of Pennsylvania).
RESPONSE TO CASE #
ETHICS VIOLATION:In my opinion, this would likely result in loss of employment and revocation of her certificate. The debate in some areas of the world supports that it may be permissible to have an intimate relationship with a former student as long as it did not start while the student was at school. We have learned that the American Psychological Association has an ethical guideline of non-fraternization for at least two years post-treatment, while the National Association of Social Workers has a one year moratorium for sexual involvement with a client. However, frankly, in the teaching profession, due to the inherent power imbalance that can influence inappropriate relationships between teachers and students or former students – even after graduation: Are either of these models relevant?
ETHICS VIOLATION:Most would say this was a serious noncompliance with the school district’s drug and alcohol policy, violation of the local laws governing underage consumption, and likely breach of your fiduciary responsibility. No decision is a decision… walking away means you condone the behavior. What if the drinker becomes sick or has an accident and gets hurt “on your watch?”
ETHICS VIOLATION:Better check your state’s code of ethics. From the Pennsylvania Code of Professional Practices and Conduct, “No educator is permitted to accept personal or financial gain or advantage (other than their contractual compensation package) through their work in a school system.” Interpretations may disagree on a “true-life” experience: At a music conference, I was invited to a special dinner celebrating the “best clients” by a vendor representative who insisted on picking up the tab. Minimal infraction? Would you change your misconduct rating if the party took place at Hooters? How about at a strip club?
ETHICS VIOLATION:The convicted drunk driver did not win his argument. He probably would lose his job and faced criminal penalties! Although he may still hold his teaching certificate, it is unlikely he will ever be considered for employment as a teacher in any state.
ETHICS VIOLATION:Did you initially interpret this as the choral director being misguided, emotionally immature, and only exhibiting unprofessional conduct by allowing the sharing their mutual feelings and experiences? According to the author of this scenario, after investigation, she was asked to resign from her position, and she complied. She did not lose her certificate… but could have depending on state or district regulations and the extent of her off-school behavior.
Of course, ETHICAL ISSUES are not always black and white… no one will ever agree on one definitive set of moral standards. My purpose here was only to inspire thinking and a fresh perspective on this topic… probably succeeding in creating more questions than answers in your mind.
Definitions and Revisiting MCEE
To summarize, lets review the well-stated foundations of “right or wrong” making up our “ethical equilibrium,” and these concepts that represent the compass of decision-making in education:
Personal Morality: “Personal values and beliefs derived from one’s life experiences… subjective and may or may not align with community mores.”
Regulations of Law: “Policies, statues, and judicial activity that articulate conduct absolutes.”
Professional Ethics: “Professional ethical standards that assist practitioners within situation and systemic contexts in choosing the best course-of-action.”
Professional Dispositions: “Agreed upon professional attitudes, values and beliefs to be held by educational practitioners.”
Finally, at this juncture, it would be most appropriate for you to recap your thoughts and correlate your “judgments” of the above scenarios with the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification Model Code of Ethics for Educators. If you have not read this comprehensive document, “do it now!” You should also review your own state’s code of ethics.
This is all about BALANCE and exercising extreme care and sensitivity in meeting the needs of our students. Keep “fighting the good fight” and your commitment to ETHICS and the highest standards of what E.A. Wynn refers to as “moral professionalism” in his research article, “The Moral Dimension of Teaching.”
Special Thanks to These Sources of Mock Scenarios
Pennsylvania Educator Ethics and Conduct Toolkit by Dr. Oliver Dreon, Sandi Sheppeard, and the Professional Standards and Practices Commission
Nebraska Professional Practices Commission
Connecticut Teacher Education & Mentoring Program
Featured photo credit from FreeImages.com:
“Ethics” by Olivier Le Moal
Remaining photo credits in order from pixabay.com:
Regardless of whether you are a first-year teacher, recently hired or transferred, or someone who has many years of experience, we know that little training is provided for handling our daily contradictions or controversies in school ethics. This investigation illustrates several additional obstacles in maintaining appropriate professional and ethical behavior and exploring the application of the moral decision-making “compass” for educators. Here we will rehash more modern-day dilemmas using “mock scenarios” in the workplace, encourage you to reflect and respond to “what would you do?” and even re-orient you to the paradoxes in which you may encounter that may not seem to offer an obvious resolution.
It’s time to put on your “thinking caps!” What are your initial impressions of a few of these “conundrums” or conflicts?
Privacy protection versus “open door” meetings with students?
Acceptance of congratulatory “musical hugs” versus the practice of avoiding all physical contact from students?
To foster meaningful scrutiny and study of the bulleted issues in bold above, we will sort these problems by Principle III “Responsibility to Students” and Principle IV “Responsibility to the School Community” of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) “Model Code of Ethics for Educators” (MCEE): https://www.nasdtec.net/general/custom.asp?page=MCEE_Doc. In addition, whenever possible, a link to a scenario or case study about the subject will be shared. It is recommended that, in a small group of your peers, you view each video/text resource and assess its ramifications on the ethical appearances (professional image) and actions (intent and interpretation). In my opinion, this is the BEST way to study ethical dilemmas. Here are a few key essential questions to help promote in-depth dialogue:
What possible ethical concerns might this scenario raise?
How could this situation become a violation of state law, the “Code” or school/district policies?
In this situation, what are some potential negative consequences for the teacher, student, parents, school staff, and/or community?
How would this episode affect a teacher’s efficacy in his/her classroom, demean the employing school entity, or damage his/her position as a moral exemplar in the community?
CONUNDRUM: Coming home from a successful musical performance, my wife noticed on my tuxedo stains of stage make-up caused by several actors’ “musical hugs.” “Should you let the performers hug you backstage?” she asked, and scolded me to “be more careful!”
“No touch” policies for teachers in schools really do not make a lot of sense. There are many who agree that casual contact like a pat on the back may even be helpful. See:
MY ADVICE: Music teachers “touch” their students all the time; it is part of the natural process of assisting them to hold and play a new instrument. I am not opposed to an occasional celebratory or consoling hug. The factors that may contribute to the moment being judged “okay” vs. “inappropriate” boil down to:
Length of time
Frequency or patterns of repetition
Comfort level of the student
Age level of the student
Being in public
Who started it?
If a child is in distress, pulling him/her aside from the rest of the class and consoling with a light/half/side hug should not be a problem. This issue is one that requires judgement based on common sense – don’t encourage repeated contacts or “get carried away.”
REMEMBER – NEVER GOSSIP! Discussing an incident or behavior concern with another teacher in the hallway between classes or sitting down in the teacher’s room is never advisable, and it is probably illegal! Educators must, at all costs, avoid inadvertently disclosing personal information about the lives or actions of our students “in public.” Even carrying on a conversation with a student in an open or common area that could be construed as a “private matter” may be accidentally overheard, and therefore violate a student’s privacy rights.
EXCEPTIONS to third-party disclosure prohibitions (source):
Other educators or officials within the same school who have legitimate educational interests in the student.
When disclosure of information is necessary to protect the safety and health of the student.
Another school to which a student is transferring.
In order to comply with a judicial order.
Interested parties who are determining a student’s financial aid eligibility.
CONUNDRUM: How do you resolve the apparent contradiction of the recommendation of never holding a meeting alone with a student with the need to provide a safe/secure place to share information?
MY SOLUTION: Confer with your student in a place with sight-lines to the hallway (windows) but sound insulated from hearing the voices inside and/or where there is a high probability of someone interrupting and stopping the conversation.
Responsibility to the School Community
MCEE IV A 1, 2
Study scenarios and articles on INTERACTIONS WITH PARENTS AND STAFF:
CONUNDRUM: You receive a call from an angry parent who wants to know why her daughter was not awarded the lead in the school play. The mother wants a detailed assessment of her child’s skills and advice on how to prepare for future auditions.
MY SOLUTION: This is more common than you would like. This episode compels you to figure out how to wear two unique hats simultaneously – the educator and the judge. Assuming you were clear (in writing) on the requirements of the try-outs, even sharing the blank rubric that would be used for the evaluations, you are now charged to find the “best” person for each lead assignment based on a number of criteria:
Needed solo character parts in the play
Voice part of the candidate
Dramatic skills, which may be further categorized/ranked by oral/voice technique, projection, character development, understanding of text, and stage presence
Type of projection: the potential for acting a comedic vs. romantic role
Height (relevant if partnered with another character)
Of course, these expectations and targeted assessments should have been shared with everyone before the auditions were held.
Parents want “what is right” for their kids and for them to feel successful. You as the director want the ideal cast for the show, providing the best chance for the entire company’s success in performance, but must show that the entire process is impartial, consistent, and fair. As a teacher, it is your responsibility to listen to the students’ and parents’ concerns, but I feel it is not realistic nor appropriate for you to “adjudicate” each actor’s audition. I wrote about this distinction HERE in my last “Fox’s Fireside” blog-post. This is an article you can “pass around” prior to your next tryout.
MCEE IV B 1, 2, 4, 8
CONUNDRUM: Maintaining professional relationships with your teaching colleagues vs. the mandatory reporting of unethical behavior and inappropriate speech/actions.
A member of the staff is “bad mouthing” you, the principal or other school staff members in public. You are assigned to work side-by-side with him, and yet he does not interact with the staff with civility or respect, nor does he support the academic achievement and related goals that promote the best interests of students.
MY SOLUTION: Thankfully, I have had no personal experience with this scenario, but can recommend that you first try to deal directly with the unethical colleague. According to MCEE, professionals must collaborate and maintain effective and appropriate relationships with the faculty, “resolving conflicts, whenever possible, privately and respectfully and in accordance with district policy.” Before you bring up the matter with your supervisor or building administrator (which you have the right and even responsibility to do, especially if the students hear any improper speech first-hand or that the incidents rise to the level of bullying or aggressive behavior), talk to the unhappy team member one-on-one. Be calm and sensitive, but hold your ground: you must assert that his/her behavior/language is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the future.
As for anything that is a violation of the teachers’ code of ethical conduct, you are mandated to report the transgressions of a colleague that threaten the health and safety of the students, especially any observations (or even suspicions) of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse/misconducts.
As for one’s “freedom of expression” to complain about administrators or co-workers, especially in the use of social media, the National Education Association responds:
“Let’s debunk the free speech myth: Many teachers believe they have the absolute First Amendment right to post anything they want on social networking sites, including party pix and diatribes about the boss. After all, they’re on their own time and using their own resources. Sadly, the courts say otherwise.”
As a follow-up, visit additional resources in “Becoming a Music Educator.” Please feel free to leave your comments and links to share other scenarios of ethical “conundrums.”
This is an expanded version of an excerpt from my August 30, 2017 blog-post multi-part series entitled “Ethics for Music Educators II,” crossing over to multiple categories and perspectives for veteran music teachers, new or pre-service educators, and retirees, and touching on the timely issues of ethics, student/teacher safety, professional development, and personal branding.
The Paradox: Online Technology Pitfalls vs. Innovations in Education
This may be hard to believe, but when I started teaching in 1978, “social media” did not exist. If you can imagine this, there was no Internet yet, and most of us did not have computers. Flip or smart phones and tablets were only the subject of science fiction or Star Trek episodes. Guidelines for use or to avoid abuse of social media were not even a “seed” in our imaginations.
When MySpace and Facebook came upon the scene in 2003 and 2004, most school administrators recommended “stay away from these.” The online sharing and archiving of photos initiated the adoption of many other social media apps (Flickr and later Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, etc), which provoked new challenges in maintaining privacy, appropriateness, and professionalism. Danger, danger, danger!
However, very soon after, school leaders starting rolling out revolutionary “technology” such as “teacher pages” and school webpages, online bulletin board services, interactive forums, virtual learning environments like Blackboard and Blended Schools, and other educational tools which encouraged two-way communications among students in the class and the teacher. All of this is here to stay… so how should we use technology safely?
Cons – Negatives – Warnings
Paraphrasing current and past postings from the Pennsylvania Department of Education Professional Standards and Practices Commission Educator Ethics and Conduct Toolkit,social media and other digital communications may perpetuate the following problems:
Communicating digitally or electronically with students may lead to the blurring of appropriate teacher-student boundaries and create additional challenges to maintaining and protecting confidentiality.
Texts, emails, and social media postings are not private, and may be seen by others, forwarded, and/or copied or printed.
Out of context, they may be misinterpreted, appear to be inappropriate, and/or lead to a violation of “The Code.”
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.
“Let’s debunk the free speech myth: Many teachers believe they have the absolute First Amendment right to post anything they want on social networking sites, including party pix and diatribes about the boss. After all, they’re on their own time and using their own resources. Sadly, the courts say otherwise.”
– National Education Association
There are a lot of pretty scary scenarios out there modeling “real” ethical dilemmas for teachers in the use of emerging technology and social media. If you can, take the time to preview a few of these case studies and videos:
Many have said that Facebook and educators, in particular, should never mix. Although not entirely accurate or perhaps fair to the social media “giant” (you can carefully set-up private, content-specific Facebook groups with restricted access and limited privileges), this seems to be supported by one news story about a Math teacher who loss her job because she failed to notice changes in her Facebook privacy settings, and the other, a clever Facebook vs. teacher presentation by R. Osterman. In my opinion, both of these should be “required viewing” by all college music education majors and current educators in all subject areas.
Pros – Positives – Recommendations
By no means are we implying that all forms of technology are “bad” or “dangerous” for music teachers. For example, some of us have explored the valuable web-based music education platforms of SmartMusic (MakeMusic, Inc.) and MusicFirst, and I can give you a handful of fantastic (free) links to online resources for the teaching of music theory, ear-training, and even sight-singing:
One of my favorite music educator blog-sites is Mrs. Miracle’s Music Room. Her March 2017 post, “Social Media for Music Teachers,” provides excellent insights into the safe and philosophically-sound use of Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. I cannot recall how many times I visited YouTube’s exhaustive library of recordings, sharing with my students both good and bad examples of the orchestral literature we were studying.
“Some people mistakenly assume that social media doesn’t apply to them. Take music teachers. Their work is done in person, one student at a time, right? Not at all. If you’re a music teacher and you don’t already have a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a Tumblr blog set up for your music studio, you’re not taking advantage of all of the ways that social media can help your students. As the TakeLessons team notes: the Internet has enabled students to learn music from anywhere, often from teachers who are Skyping halfway across the country.” – Amanda Green
Here are several supplemental resources provided in NAfME Music in a Minuet:
Guiding questions about the above links from the PA Professional Standards and Practices Commission:
“After examining these resource guides for emerging technology, did any of the guidelines surprise you?”
“Do you envision any problem for you personally in adhering to these guidelines?”
During my sessions on ethics in music education, I quote these ten rules from the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence:
Know your school district or state’s policies on social media.
Never “friend” or “follow” students on your personal accounts.
Keep your profile photos clean
Do not affiliate yourself with your school on a personal profile.
Do not geo-tag your posts with your school’s location.
“Snaps” are forever! Anyone can take a screen shot of your posts.
Never mention your school or the names of staff or students in any post.
Set your Instagram account to private.
Never complain about your job online.
Never post photos of your students on social media
The final word, the most eloquent and comprehensive guide for all of us to use in our daily decision-making in the profession is the Model Code of Ethics for Educators, created by the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC).
“The Model Code of Ethics for Educators (MCEE) serves as a guide for future and current educators faced with the complexities of P-12 education. The code establishes principles for ethical best practice, mindfulness, self-reflection, and decision-making, setting the groundwork for self-regulation and self-accountability. The establishment of this professional code of ethics by educators for educators honors the public trust and upholds the dignity of the profession.” – NASDTEC
Here is the specific section applicable to social media and other technology. I cannot imagine that, after all of this, there is anything else left to say!
Photo credits (in order) from Pixabay.com: “Internet” by TheDigitalArtist, “notes” by Alehandra, “social-media” by mohamed_hassan, “network” by geralt, “Facebook” by Simon, “Internet” (2) by TheDigitalArtist, “portrait” by Karla_Campos, “woman” by shy_kurji, “smartphone” by TeroVesalainen, and “connection” by TheDigitalArtist.