A Guide for Teachers Facing Thorny Ethical Dilemmas
“That boy is a snake, and has to be watched!”
This was the statement that broke the camel’s back. My colleague stood up from his seat in the staff room and unleashed a verbal tirade upon the fellow teacher who spoke it. It’s been 20 years, but it could have happened yesterday: A student recently elected to a leadership position wasn’t admired by some members of the faculty, and his qualifications and personal character became fodder for discussion in the staff room.
My friend found that an open — and openly insensitive — conversation about a child to be highly unethical and shared his feelings without hesitation or consideration of volume. While I just wanted to finish my sandwich, instead I found myself sandwiched between two colleagues as they moved toward one another.
Cooler heads prevailed and things settled down, but the question remained: What are we to do when presented with a thorny ethical dilemma like this? We’ll return to the challenge of toxic talk in the staff room in a moment, but let’s start with other issues that come up from time to time:
The over-involved parent
Teach long enough and eventually you’ll meet the parent who attempts to curry favor with you (and finagle an increase in their child’s grades) by lavishing you with praise, intimations of friendship and perhaps expensive gifts during the holiday season.
While some parents may be genuinely interested in you as a person, you cannot let a personal connection to a parent sway your decision-making. I once had a parent offer to treat me to lunch at a local restaurant as a thank you for my hard work with their child. I politely declined the invitation and reinforced the point that no thanks were necessary.
Be sure to keep those boundaries clear; otherwise you’ll find yourself in messy situations. On that note, do not friend parents on social media websites. You need boundaries, and they need to be easy to see.
Grades — and grade changes — are another area where things can get thorny. Depending on your subject matter, a final grade in a class can be the deciding factor on a student’s academic track, so it’s not uncommon for a parent to push for a higher grade.
Be sure to share your grading policy at the beginning of the school year and to give parents and students opportunities for feedback. Stating the policy and allowing feedback are important — you’ll rely upon them in case a grading question arises. Do not change a grade, regardless of who is leaning on you, if it has not been earned.
Testing! Testing! Testing! The drumbeat of high-stakes standardized testing poses an ethical dilemma of how much “teaching to the test” will play a role in your instructional decisions. The natural inclination for many teachers is to let test preparation become the center of their instructional universe. The very best teachers realize that students are most successful on standardized tests when their teachers present high-quality lesson plans that engage them deeply and challenge them to do their best.
You’ll be subject to a constant chorus of marketing from companies promising that the latest and greatest worksheet will lead to testing success. Do your best to ignore that pressure, and spend time honing your classroom activities and getting to know your students well enough to help them as best as possible.
Lightly engaged colleagues
In even the highest-performing organizations, a small subset of the population will be lightly engaged with the work being done. You’ll have colleagues in your building who will turn in the lowest level of work and who attempt to get you do the same.
By dragging you to their level of work, they’re reinforcing their own behavior and ethical choices. The best thing you can do is avoid these people.
Toxic talk in the staff room
And now we return to the staff room. While lightly engaged colleagues pose one kind of challenge, you’ll also inevitably encounter a teacher who is nothing short of toxic. It’s extremely tempting to go toe-to-toe with toxic people (as seen in my Great Staff Room Brouhaha of two decades ago), but I recommend voting with your feet.
Move away from people and conversations that attempt to drag down children. Remember that this person’s negative behavior is far more about them and how they view themselves than about the children. Let your positive attitude and kind language about the children counteract what they attempt to spread.
By the way: While writing this piece, I tracked down that class president. This “snake” of a child is now a decorated combat veteran with a beautiful family and a great life. That just reminds me that when it comes to working with children, we have to keep our view on the long term.