Models of perfect behaviour

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Teachers are in a unique position as ethical and moral leaders by example.

So how should they behave in class? William K Kay finds a book that will help them do the right thing

THE ETHICAL TEACHER. By Elizabeth Campbell. Open University Press pound;18.99.

Timely and ground-breaking, this book is primarily concerned with ethical issues within the realities of schooling. Though it is written with reference to a large range of literature, including works from Britain, Australia and Canada, it is aimed at classroom teachers. How do you cope in the face of conflicting demands from the school administration and your pupils?

The first of the three sections discusses moral agency and ethical knowledge, and looks for a broad consensus beyond relativism. While aware of theoretical complexity, it assumes that the good teacher is humane, fair, honest, compassionate, truthful, moderate and concerned for the pupils' welfare.

Lists of core ethical principles have been identified by researchers and in debate and, while there is disagreement about interpretation and application, Elizabeth Campbell assumes it is possible to operate within the generally non-relativist framework.

This is especially so for teachers, as their moral and ethical standards are inherently public. They are observed by pupils, visible to colleagues and open to scrutiny by administrators. So, Campbell argues, ethical knowledge should become more explicit, and professional practice more virtue-based. Ethical complexity should be seen as a form of knowledge rather than as a kind of fog that hangs over the classroom, giving technical procedures pre-eminence, however good or bad.

The teacher is, by necessity, an ethical person whose example is inevitably copied by pupils for good or ill. In this sense teachers are different from other professional groups: people do not imitate the behaviour of their doctors or lawyers in the way children imitate their teachers. There are inevitable moral messages contained within the conduct of the classroom.

Books are shared, opinions are respected, help is given - or not. Even subtly, by the choice of disciplinary methods and in classroom management, the teacher conveys values and attitudes. Should teachers apologise to pupils? Should teachers allow group punishments knowing they discriminate against some pupils? Should teachers overlook misbehaviour by dominant pupils in the interests of winning favour with them?

Outside the classroom, there are equally vital issues to consider.

Teachers, for example, may be unhappy with policies coming out of the headteacher's office. Part two illustrates and highlights these dilemmas.

The headteacher wishes to give good grades to a student teacher who is obviously unsuitable and the classroom teacher is pressed to accede.

Children's rights may be violated by intrusive assessment procedures. Or the teacher may discover plagiarism, which, according to school policy, merits a heavy punishment even though, in this instance, the conscientious pupil is having to look after an infirm parent and the plagiarism from the internet indicates lack of time rather than dishonesty.

These issues are also brought to a head in relationships between teachers.

A careful study of the pressure put on individuals by teaching unions highlights a fundamental tension between loyalty to the teaching group, the unionised demands for obedience, and the best interests of the pupils. In one instance in Australia, class teachers were practically coerced into going on strike even though they disagreed with the grounds for the dispute; they knew that if they resisted the strike their professional lives would be undermined.

Part three focuses on the link between moral accountability and professionalism, and draws together a definition of professionalism that emphasises self-regulation. Consequently, it places a stress on enhancing the professional self-confidence of teachers to carry out their school-based responsibilities without the crippling burdens imposed by government or the false collegiality that simply reflects the cynicism of the dominant teacher in the staffroom.

This book is important for at least eight reasons:

* It moves the centre of gravity of teaching away from the bureaucratic bastions of power to the teacher in his or her interaction with pupils; it provides good reasons for resisting the imposition of technical and one-size-fits-all solutions to educational problems.

* It helps redefine professionalism and places the responsibility for professional judgment on the individual teacher rather than within a manual written by somebody else; it reasserts professional autonomy.

* It will help improve the ethics of teachers by drawing attention to the damage caused by sarcasm or unfairness and a multitude of other unethical tendencies and practices.

* It will help to improve the morality of pupils by ensuring that teachers model more sensitive ethical behaviour.

* By improving schools in this way, it will help reduce school phobias, truancy, bullying and all the other reasons pupils give for disliking their educational experience.

* It will offer a new dimension to teacher training and a fresh concern for the inspection process, one that will allow leeway for individual judgments made by ethically concerned teachers.

* It has implications for citizenship, as our duty to one another and the state is fundamentally an ethical matter.

* It has implications for religious education, as it highlights the importance of moral and ethical teachings within religious belief systems.

So, is there anything wrong with the ideas in this book? Perhaps the emphasis on ethics in teacher training would simply lead to rampant individualism as one person claims one thing is unethical and another something else. More practically, research on the psychology of moral development may imply that different kinds of reasoning are prevalent at each stage, and that this makes universalising moral principles problematic.

Additionally, to train teachers in ethics on the assumption of a consensus may require further complicated research and links with current legislation on human rights. Yet, these caveats aside, this book opens the door to welcome new educational possibilities.

William K Kay is a senior lecturer in religious education at King's College London

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