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A Precarious Balance

By Troy Hutchings, Ed.D.

Originally posted in Ethics and Educators on November 5, 2019

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 likelyto hear something more personal – like the young adultwho 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 everyday 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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