Educator Ethics – The Foundation


An Unavoidable Truth: The Landscape Is Treacherous and Inattentiveness Is Inexcusable

By Troy Hutchings, Ed. D., Educator Ethics, ETS, Princeton, N.J.

Think of the attributes we most admire in teachers: a caring demeanor, the willingness to go above and beyond time spent in the classroom to help students, an ability to reach children who are disconnected and the personal knowledge of their students that can help each one find his or her passion. Unfortunately in some situations, these same attributes could result in unintended consequences that could ultimately damage the trust that connects students, families, teachers and schools. These kinds of situations don't usually make headlines, but unintended consequences happen every day — creating risks for educators and students that are unlike those confronted by professionals in other fields.

That's not to say that educators should step back from caring for their students. Few committed teachers would be willing to do so, and as a society, we value the teachers who go above and beyond their classroom duties the most. But what we, both individually and as a profession, need to do is acknowledge the vulnerabilities we face as educators. The uncomfortable truth is that seemingly insignificant missteps can, over time, impact our students, our careers, our schools and communities, as well as the integrity of the profession — whether we break laws or school policies, or not.

So how does all of this tie back to professional ethics? Other fiduciary professions have long recognized the risks that are inherent in a relationship when individuals entrust their greatest assets to a profession's practitioner. That's why codes of ethics have been developed for those who serve in the fields of law, mental health, medicine, finance, law enforcement and many others. That's why an intentional focus on ingrained and reflexive professional decision-making skills is emphasized at the preservice and inservice levels in those same professions. Similarly, a professional code of ethics and related training can help educators recognize these difficult gray areas when they arise.

The gray areas left untouched by law and policy are vast, complex, and highly dependent on the school, student, teacher, and situation. And these complex situations are almost impossible for teachers to resolve correctly on their own every single time. The landscape for educators is treacherous and reliance on personal judgment, personal morality, or personal instincts to protect themselves and their students is not enough.

In the second edition of Spotlight on Educator Ethics, we are honored to highlight two voices that clearly articulate the presence of professional risks in education. Jill Connett, Director of Academics at an elementary school in North Carolina, merges her recent doctoral research regarding parents' expectations of teachers with the realities of the schooling environment. As an administrator, she is uniquely positioned to see how an educator's ethos of compassion might actually result in unintended consequences — which impacts the entire schooling environment. Her article, "Relationships and Restraining Orders: How Parental Expectations May Pose Professional Risks," is a compelling read on the risks that are inherent to our profession.

Our other featured writer, Frederick Lane, is a nationally recognized expert in the areas of cyber safety, digital misconduct, personal privacy, and other topics at the intersection of law, technology, and schooling. You may have seen him on "60 Minutes," CNN, "Good Morning America," "Nightline," "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," or a host of other news programs and media outlets. As an attorney and author of nine books, Lane has been frequently called to share his expertise as an expert witness in judicial hearings. In his article, "Educator Ethics: The Life You Save May Be Your Own," Lane leverages his own experience to discuss an unavoidable truth: the cyber landscape for educators is treacherous and inattentiveness is inexcusable.

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Relationships and Restraining Orders: How Parental Expectations May Pose Professional Risks

By Jill Connett, Ed.D., Episcopal Day School, Director of Academics, Southern Pines, N.C.

After working for 25 years as an educator in a variety of school settings, I have learned that cultivating relational capital with parents is essential to understanding and supporting children and their unique needs. But what I didn't understand until recently was how professional boundaries are difficult to maintain when parent expectations also include personal relationships.

To better understand how elementary school parents view parental-schooling relationships, I recently completed a research study where I facilitated separate focus groups involving the parents of traditional public, private, charter and U.S. Department of Defense students. The findings were not unexpected: parents are most concerned with (1) how they are made to feel, (2) how connected they are with what is happening in the school, and more specifically, their children's' classrooms, and (3) if they are informed of student expectations and success.

Such expectations sound logical and are probably reflective of what we all expect from effective schools. But the emergent data also pointed to something unique about today's elementary school parents — their expectations are all related to communication. The participants in this study desired a personal relationship with their child's teacher, while simultaneously expecting continuous communication through phone calls, email, texts, social media and even video to augment their face-to-face interactions. The majority of the focus group participants not only had their teachers' personal cell phone numbers, they did not hesitate to communicate with them throughout the school day, during the evening or even on weekends.

What's the big deal, right? I must admit, that as a school administrator of a private elementary school, I frequently lauded my teachers for their beyond-the-school-day communication efforts with parents — until this past year. One situation started rather innocuously. A well-intentioned teacher shared her phone number with a parent of a newly enrolled student as a sign of support. Over time, professional communications developed into a personal friendship that involved the families of both parties. As personal connections further developed, information was shared that led the teacher to suspect parental neglect and possible child abuse. Because the relationship was fostered outside the boundaries of school, the situation escalated into harassing phone calls and texts targeting the teacher, as well as personal disparagement in the virtual world. What started out as a mechanism to support a new student, resulted in an unexpected situation involving police reports, restraining orders, disruptions to the school environment, and an incredibly competent teacher being slandered repeatedly and publicly on social media using details from her private life.

Communication is helpful, expected and a part of everyday life. Parents have a right to stay informed. Likewise, educators have a professional imperative to promote positive relationships and effective interactions with the parents and guardians of their students. Yet, safeguards should be in place to protect all stakeholders. There is a great need for administrators, classroom educators, and parents to have open and ongoing discussions about how to build relational capital, while maintaining professional boundaries.

I am now facilitating purposeful and meaningful conversations among the teachers at my school about the everyday tensions they face in their teaching practice. And they seem relieved to finally have the permission to simply discuss how boundaries can be maintained, while still promoting meaningful relationships with students and their parents.

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Educator Ethics: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

By Frederick Lane, Esq., Author, Attorney, Lecturer, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Over the past several months, I've been working on my latest book, Cybertraps for Expecting Moms & Dads. One of the topics that I cover in that book are the risks that so many people (particularly Millennials) are willing to take in their quest for the perfect, epically viral social media photo. People scale buildings, dangle from bridge beams, and jump up and down on the edge of cliffs.

Most of the locations in these photos are equipped with fences, railings or other physical barriers to protect people from physical harm. Unfortunately, the combination of digital devices and social media all too often encourages people to disregard clear warning signs.

The same thing is increasingly true in our schools. Educators know that on the other side of teacher-student boundaries is a steep slope leading to misconduct. Unfortunately, cell phones and seemingly endless communication options have created new opportunities for direct, surreptitious interactions between educators and students. Even more dangerous and enticing is the implicit intimacy of electronic communication.

There are a small number of educators who purposely push past moral and ethical boundaries and plunge down the slope. The teaching profession obviously should do everything it can to identify and weed out such predators. Many offenders, however, are teachers who take their first small steps toward those boundaries with the best of intentions and then suddenly find themselves cartwheeling out of control.

A classic example of this phenomenon came to light in 2012. According to newspaper reports, at the beginning of the 2011–12 school year, Erin Sayar, a high school English teacher in Brooklyn, began tutoring a 16-year-old male student. The boy's girlfriend later saw the two acting flirtatiously and hacked into his Facebook® account, where she saw intimate messages from Sayar. During an investigation into their relationship, which had become sexual, administrators learned that Sayar and the young man had exchanged nearly 4,000 text messages over a 17-day period. In the pre-cell phone, pre-social media era, it would have been much more difficult for the two to communicate that frequently (and presumably, at nonprofessional times of the day) without raising suspicions.

Based on my research over the past five-plus years, there is no question that cell phones and social media have weakened the social, moral and legal barriers that are designed to keep educators from accidentally tumbling down the slope of an inappropriate relationship. Our lives have sped up immeasurably over the past decade, and as a result, we increasingly act before we think. And thanks to changes in technology, most of the actions we take — including those that we should know will get us into trouble — require just a single mouse click or the press of a button.

We need to strengthen the barriers that are designed to prevent misconduct. The best tool for doing so is thorough and effective ethics training at every level of the profession, from pre-certification through in-service professional development. Even better, we should encourage schools to incorporate ethics and cyber ethics into K–12 curricula, so that teaching candidates enter certification programs with a solid grounding in these critically important concepts. These steps are imperative, not merely for the teaching profession but for society as a whole.

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