Recognising that the ethical practice of teachers does not reside in codes alone, a group of teacher educators at Deakin and Monash Universities
has initiated a research project that offers a framework for thinking about professional ethics.
The ‘Professional ethics of English language teachers’ project involves secondary school teachers from the south-eastern region of Melbourne. It
aims to capture significantly different examples of how English language teachers negotiate the connection between professional standards,
accountability and ethics. The research is, nevertheless, relevant to all teachers.
In the following article, Professor Brenton Doecke, Associate Professor Alex Kostogriz and Ms Bella Illesca, all of Deakin University, and Dr
Graham Parr of Monash University, discuss their research, which began in 2009 and runs until the end of 2010.
Professional standards present an ideal that teachers sometimes feel is impossible to achieve in their day-to-day practice.
Worse, they can make teachers feel they are always judged against a set of ‘dos and don’ts’.
The popular media certainly encourage people to judge what teachers do, and the My School website arguably exacerbates this situation,
making teachers feel they are continually in the spotlight.
Faced with a situation where everyone seems to have an opinion about teaching, it can be difficult for teachers to feel confident about the
decisions they make to meet the needs of young people in their care.
In this respect, professional standards, such as those formulated by the Victorian Institute of Teaching, can prove a valuable resource,
allowing teachers to point to a shared set of values and beliefs to justify their decisions.
This leads to the subject of professional ethics, not simply as a code that sets limits to professional practice, but as a life-affirming
responsiveness to others, to social and cultural differences, and to the multiplicity of abilities and needs of children in our schools.
Teaching is already situated in relation to others in that teachers are obliged to respond to their students. Everyone is saying ‘Here I am!’ –
a call every teacher recognises and struggles to answer.
For at this level of responsiveness there are no codes of conduct that will unfailingly enable a teacher to make the right decision. How one acts
ethically is played out fully only in relation to this particular student on this particular day.
Although the teachers participating in our research project share certain values and assumptions, they undoubtedly have very different teaching
experiences, and their classroom practices are not necessarily transparent to professionals working in other educational settings.
The professional challenges they face at each site also vary greatly. The inquiry into the professional ethics of teachers has a distinctly
collaborative nature. It involves observations, a joint construction of classroom practice accounts and group discussions by participating teachers.
This approach has generated a shared sense of the professional context in which the teacher is operating and an atmosphere of trust in which teachers
are prepared to talk about their pedagogical practice and share their understanding of professional ethics.
The question that has been asked of the research data is not whether the lessons observed actually achieve the teachers’ stated aims. But rather, the
key question is how the teacher responds to the needs of the students in their classroom, and the kinds of human sociability that are enacted through such practices.
Data analysed so far shows that teachers, as members of the profession, can draw up a code of practice. However, there is more to being an ethical
professional than following rules.
Professional ethics inevitably come down to decisions made by individual teachers. They have to balance ‘situated’ or context-specific responses to
students and colleagues with wider ideals of professional practice.
Hence, besides addressing the broader contexts of influence on the profession to develop codes of professional ethics, this project sheds some light
on how teachers conceive of ethics in their local practices, particularly in the domain of classroom events.
This area of concern enables us to investigate the teachers’ sense of responsibility and how they negotiate or make their decisions while responding
to differences in the classroom and to the broader demands of a community.
The preliminary findings help us develop a notion of professional ethics which involves both professional obligation and moral decision-making.
The significance of this project lies in the development of a situated perspective on the professional ethics of teachers and in its participatory
approach to research design and implementation.
These two features of the project ensure rich collaborative possibilities for rethinking the professional ethics of teachers relationally.
They generate significant potential for intervention in debates over the standards of professional practice in multicultural and socially diverse classrooms.
Furthermore, this project emphasises the primacy of ethics in quality teaching. The urgent need to improve teaching is inseparable from raising an
awareness of professional ethics as a foundation of respectful and responsible practice.
By emphasising the central role of recognition of, and responsiveness to, sociocultural difference, the project taps into teachers’ understandings of
ethics as an inseparable part of everyday relations.
The reconceptualisation of ethics in this way engages directly with the needs of teachers, students and professional communities in times of major curriculum reform.
To educate young people ethically is to raise their awareness of social justice and responsibility, qualities made imperative in a multicultural and
multivoiced society like Australia.
Brenton Doecke, Alex Kostogriz, Graham Parr & Bella Illesca