9 Ethics

What does it mean to be an ethical teacher?

By: T. Burrell




“In teaching, as in life more generally, core principles relating to virtues such as honesty, justice, fairness, care, empathy, integrity, courage, respect and responsibility should guide conduct and interpersonal relations” (Campbell, 2006, p.32). These virtues are a good description of what an ethical teacher should be, but the use of these virtues can be a difficult task when a teacher is faced with so many unpredictable situations in the classroom and in the school system. The teacher’s knowledge of what ethics is and the practice of it, will aid the teacher in making the best decision when ethical predicaments arise in their daily teaching lives.




Ethical knowledge is an intrinsic feature of awareness between moral and ethical principles. A teacher’s possession of these principles will allow teachers to display moral and ethical values, which includes a sense of right and wrong, treating others with respect, being objective, patient and compassionate. Embodying ethical knowledge gives the teacher the ability to practice their teaching skills with morals and ethics and not just viewing their job as being teaching only. It goes beyond the curriculum, assessment and technical conditions of the profession. The practicing of ethical knowledge by the teacher can be modeled by returning graded papers to the student in a timely manner, by being sensitive to the use of classroom materials that may offend some students, using precaution when displaying a student’s work or by selecting student achievement without bias. The use of ethical knowledge by a teacher can be expressed by the way a teacher projects the tone of his/her voice towards the student, by avoiding student embarrassment and by reminding students of how their behavior can affect other classmates. There are many ways to show how a teacher can demonstrate their ethical knowledge, but a teacher can only do but so much to implement moral and ethical behavior on a daily basis. As we may know, teaching can be a very demanding profession, with moments of chaos, frustration and unexpected events of the day. This tells us that a teacher’s reaction to these situations cannot be choreographed and why the practice of ethical knowledge can help teachers become aware of their “ethical” behavior when such events occur (Campbell).




The personal ethics for each individual teacher varies according to the teacher’s belief of what is ethical. Each teacher may believe that their interpretation of ethics is being practiced in their behavior and in their personal lives and if this is true, then he/she is demonstrating “ethical principles” and “virtues” of a “moral person” and a “moral professional (Covaleskie,2005,p. 134).” By demonstrating the characteristics of ethics and virtue in the classroom with the use of actions, attitudes and words will make a positive impact on the many students that the teacher will come into contact with throughout their teaching career. This demonstration of ethics will also let the student know, “that if I respect you, then you can respect me” (Campbell).





Classroom ethics involve issues the teacher comes into contact with on daily basis concerning their students within the classroom. A teacher is placed in the position of deciding what is the ethical thing to do when issues such as student consideration, content coverage and assessment arises. The assessment issue or better “known as grading” should have “fair standards” that shows the student’s knowledge of the curricula. The teacher has to decide what impact the grade given, will have on the student’s future career choices, the school’s reputation and the parents of the student. The teacher also has to decide the best way to explain to a student why they received an unsatisfactory grade on a specific assignment. The explanation may not be an easy one, but it is only to help improve the student’s academic performance. The content the teacher brings into the classroom questions the teacher’s ethics of what “subject matter” they want to include in their instructions. The teacher has to decide whether there will be enough time to cover each skill of the content area and if there is, “Should some critical thinking skills be included even though my school does not require its coverage? Or, should I just leave out the difficult parts of the course content, even though the students will need it (Kienzler)?” The teacher also has to decide which actions to take, especially when considering the emotional needs of the student. Content of a subject matter that is being discussed in the classroom may reflect upon the home-life of a student whose mother and father maybe going through a divorce or the loss of a parent. How does a teacher deal with these issues in the classroom? And how certain subject matter is taught? Each of these questions requires “that one is not only doing the right thing, but doing it in the right way, at the right time and for the right reasons” (Covaleskie, 2005, p.134).





The ethics of the school may not agree with the ethics of a teacher. A teacher may be faced with numerous moral problems when it concerns the school’s leadership practice of disciplining students. The teacher may question the reason behind the discipline and whether or not it will deter or increase future student behavior (Colnerud,2006,p.378). Ethical tensions do exist within schools among individual teachers (Allison,2003,p.124). A teacher may see a colleague mistreating a student and try to make a decision of whether or not to intervene in the situation. “The teacher cannot bring himself/herself to intervene; the teacher says that fear is the reason for their silence and that intervening is considered to be a breach of loyalty (Colnerud, 2006, p.378).” This is a clear example of what teachers deal with on a daily basis in relation to the ethics of their colleagues.

The National Education Association’s preamble for its code of ethics.

“The Educator, believing in the worth and dignity of each human being, recognizes the supreme importance of the pursuit of truth, devotion to excellence and nurture of the democratic principles. Essential to these goals is the protection of freedom to learn and to teach and the guarantee of equal educational opportunity for all. The educatior accepts the responsibility to adhere to the highest ethical standards.”





Teachers encounter ethical dilemmas throughout their teaching careers. This brings up the question, “How do teachers deal with deciding what is the right or wrong thing to do when such dilemmas arise?” When a teacher is faced with ethical and moral dilemmas concerning their students and profession, they use specific codes of ethics written by many educational organizations to help them make ethical decisions. Teachers do need a guide when they are faced with the decisions of what to do if a child has a learning disability, what content matter should be taught, what should be done in defense of a student and a number of other events that will require ethical decisions. The National Education Association (NEA) has created a code of ethics for the different occupational needs of the teaching profession. The NEA created their code of ethics in 1975, which is divided into two sections. The first section lists eight ethical commitments the teacher has to the student and the second section also lists eight ethical commitments the teacher has to his/her profession(Brady, Buchotz and Keller).


National Education Association Ethics Indicators for Educators:

Commitment to the Student

Restraint of individual action and pursuit of learning

Access to varying points of view

Do not distort subject matter

Protect students from harm

Do not embarrass or disparage

Do not discriminate

Do not use professional relationship for private advantage

Do not disclose confidential information



Commitment to the Profession

Do not make false statements in application of a position

Do not misrepresent qualifications

Do not assist someone unqualified gain entry into the profession

Do not make false statements concerning a candidate’s qualifications

Do not assist a noneducator in the unauthorized practice of teaching

Do not disclose personal information about a colleague unless required by law

Do not knowingly make false statements about a colleague

Do not accept any gift or favor that might influence professional decisions





Possessing what is takes to be an ethical teacher can be a difficult task for many teachers, especially when he/she encounters unsuspecting events on a daily basis that will require an ethical decision, which may not be the exact right answer. Hopefully, it will be the ethical answer. This decision making is a great responsibility placed on the teacher, no matter how long one has been in the profession. One can only hope that the years or months of teaching has taught you enough to know what to do when ethical dilemmas occur in the classroom or within the school system.






Allison, Derek J. (2004). Reviews the book “The Ethical Teacher,” by Elizabeth Campbell. American Journal of Education. 111(1), 122-126.
Brady, Michael P., Bucholz, Jessica L., & Keller, Cassandra L. (2007). Teachers Ethical Dilemmas: What Would You Do? Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(2), 60-64.

Campbell, Elizabeth. (2006). Ethical Knowledge in Teaching: A Moral Imperative of Professionalism. Education Canada. 46(4), 32-35.

Colnerud, Gunnel. (2006). Teacher ethics as a research problem: syntheses achieved and new issues. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice. 12(3), 365-385.

Covaleskie, John F. (2005). Ethical Teachers: Ethical People. Philosophy of Education Yearbook, 34-136.

Kienzler, Donna. (2004). Teaching Ethics Isn’t Enough. Journal of Business Communication. 41(3), 292-301.




Application Questions

1. What is ethical knowledge?

Choose the best answer.

A. Intrisic features of awareness between moral and ethical principles.

B. Knowing what is good or evil

C. Practicing ethics

D. The practice of common sense


2. When a teacher demonstrates characteristics of ethics in the classroom it causes what to occur?

Choose the best answer.

A. Behavioral change of students

B. Depletion of student interest

C. Lack of class participation

D. Positive impact on many students
3. What should teacher assessment practice include?

Choose the best answer

A. Bias factors

B. Fair standards

C. Instructional objectives

D. Opinions of the teacher
4. Many teachers do not intervene whey they see their colleague mistreating a student due to what factor?

Choose the best answer.

A. Confidentiality

B. Embarrassment

C. Fear

D. Respect



5. What do teachers use as a guide or reference, when they need to make an ethical decision?

Choose the best answer.

A. Code of ethics for educators

B. Law books

C. School policies

D. Teacher’s code of ethics
Answer Key:

1. A

2. D

3. B

4. C

5. A


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