As public servants tasked with the enormous responsibility of helping to create educated, responsible, and ethical citizens, public school teachers have a host of complex duties that require endless combinations of skills and decision-making strategies. Among some of the important responsibilities teachers have outside of general instruction are adhering to codes of professional and personal ethics.
Working in the public sector requires specific guidelines to be followed to navigate the tenuous borders that separate the public from the private, the personal and the professional spheres, and less well-defined separations within the institutional context. With the difficult nature of this balance in mind, it is fair to assume that there are a few general rules about ethics that all teachers should follow as they represent the basic foundations of public service. One of the most important of these is the respect for the position in that it should not be used to advance any personal, religious, political or other agenda. Children in public schools must be able to think for themselves in ways that are safe and appropriate but ethically speaking, public school teachers have limitations in terms of how much and what kind of guidance they provide.
Before this discussion on the opinions and “agendas” of public school teachers begins, it is critical to point out that teachers are not left to their own devices when confronting ethical dilemmas.
The Code of Ethics as published by the National Education Association (NEA) is specific in its guidelines about how to foster student development and maintain ethical soundness. All teachers are obligated to follow the NEA Code of Ethics if they are union members, which currently most teachers are. Furthermore, in order to pass board certification in all states, potential teachers are tested on their knowledge and understanding of what the code promotes. This accepted standard for ethical behavior for teachers, among other things, regulates how teachers balance their personal feelings and opinions with their duties as impartial educators. In fact, the opening section of this code entitled “Commitment to the Student” discusses these matters in depth and it seems that by putting them at the forefront of the code, denotes particular emphasis on the issue.
The core ethical behaviors expected for teachers is contained within the concept of knowing when and how to separate the private versus public self. Various organizations aimed at offering guidance to public school teachers recognize how the inherent difficulty in separating the two distinct “selves” is what drives some of the core problems in public education. To mitigate this problem, in its preamble, the NEA Code of Ethics addresses this problem before all others.
The preamble states that all teachers should work to “stimulate the spirit of inquiry, the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, and the thoughtful formulation of worthy goals” (NEA, 2002). To achieve these goals, the organization lays out several clear guidelines to follow, most of which distinctly address matters of the necessary divisions between the public and private spheres. For instance, the primary statement that is the first on the list following the preamble is that an educator, “Shall not unreasonably restrain the student from independent action in the pursuit of learning” which is followed closely in theme and intent by the second rule, that an educator “Shall not unreasonably deny the student access to varying points of view” (NEA, 2002).
Coulter (2002) suggests that public school teachers, as dedicated public servants who must remain without impartiality or bias, face a “grand dichotomy” (26) when they try to navigate the private versus public nature of their students. On the one hand, they are encouraged to see children as individuals who require space to grow and develop according to their talents. On the other hand, however, children in the public school context are also seen as “charges” who are subordinate to their teachers and school administrators and who lack privacy in terms of parental and administrative communication. Coulter (2002) suggests that “children need the protection of privacy to form their own identities. They [children] try out new roles and need to be sheltered from some of consequences of these attempts so that they feel confident to keep trying” (27) and as ethical public servants, public school teachers need to be wary of dangerous problems or patterns in these developmental efforts, but if none exist, they should let children develop on their own course.
To address this tension between the public and private sentiments of educators versus the requirement that they adhere to a higher form of ethical authority, such as the one expressed by the NEA, it seems best to utilize two case studies, one that is entirely fictional and one that represents contemporary legislation to mandate opinion and ethics in the public classroom.