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Professional Ethics: It’s All About the “We”

By Troy Hutchings, Ed.D.

Originally published in Ethics and Educators January 22, 2020

During her opening remarks at this year’s Professional Practices Institute, the current NASDTEC President shared a line from a series of well-known commercials to illustrate the collective knowledge held by the conference attendees:

We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

The tagline communicates experience, a resulting professional wisdom, and perhaps most critically, it infers trust.

I couldn’t help but consider how that slogan embodies the kind of agency that professional ethics strives to achieve. At its very core, professional ethics makes a promise: “You can trust us – we are acting in the public’s best interest.”

But what assurance does the public have that we are acting in its best interest? After all, this is a profession that values and even relishes professional autonomy – which works well with teaching methodologies and classroom protocol, but it may not necessarily inspire public confidence when serious situations occur.

Social psychologist, Albert Bandura, provides insight through a concept he calls “collective agency … people’s shared belief in their collective power to produce desired results.”1 In other words, practitioners working together to navigate the complexities of a profession that has multiple duties, overlapping obligations, and a staggering number of high-stakes responsibilities.

Collective agency has the potential to tap into the shared wisdom of educators – their experiences, their preparation, their knowledge, and when used with the Model Code of Ethics for Educators, the profession’s collective values.

But most importantly, there is an exciting and dynamic synergy involved when colleagues work together in response to emerging situations and issues. It connects us to each other as educators, and as professionals – regardless of the grade levels or subject areas that we teach.

I have witnessed literally hundreds of educator groups working together to resolve ethical dilemmas – in schools as well as workshop and research settings – where collective agency is occurring in a vibrant manner. Practitioners discussing together the competing tensions, possible risks and consequences of complex situations that may be unique to their learning community. Laughter and stories always emerge resulting in a shared honesty and transparency. And by using a common set of standards – the Model Code of Ethics for Educators – they have a guide in working towards a common solution.

  • Teachers in a suburban elementary school created a professional response to parents who were insisting that teachers utilize personal social media platforms to communicate.

  • Coaches at a small rural high school realized that they were all facing the same dilemma – the one student who has no way to get home late at night after an athletic event. Together, they created a solution that didn’t involve placing students in their personal vehicles – yet ensured student safety.

  • High school educators who were implementing SEL strategies into their classrooms were concerned about how to cultivate caring relationships in a safe manner. They created agreed- upon boundaries – which actually enhanced the teacher-student relationship, while at the same time ensuring professional integrity.

Professional ethics speaks with one voice. It relies on the shared wisdom and experiences of practitioners when responding to the unique variables present in each situation. It removes decision- making from the wheelhouse of an individualized personal morality and places it in the hands of a collective and unified profession.

By exercising collective agency, there will rarely be accusations related to conflict-of-interest, self- serving decisions, or immunity from the common good. Quite simply, it inspires public confidence.

In a profession that routinely considers decision-making as an individual and isolated endeavor, let’s recognize the efficacy of collective agency.

It’s all about the “we.”

WE know a thing or two, because WE’VE seen a thing or two.”

1 Bandura, A. (2000). Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 75-78.

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