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

Troy Hutchings, Ed. D

Originally published in Ethics and Educators on September 24, 2019

It’s not that simple.

Using binary terms such as “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 a stronghold 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, its 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 would be 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 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 their counterparts in a variety of other fields, 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, resulting in discussions that inform and frame a collective professional decision-making process. The American Medical Association, for example, developed its code of ethics in 1847 so that their 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 without defaulting to a “right” or “wrong” lexicon.

We need to dispel misperceptions about professional ethics – that it is synonymous with statutes or that it is a codified morality. A code of ethics for a profession doesn’t limit decision-making for its members. Instead, it provides guidelines that empower practitioners 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 a conducting a workshop in Louisiana several years ago, a teacher approached me with an insight that was on-point: “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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