All too familiar are stories in the media of the unethical choices that a minority of educators have made. Not understanding the ethical obligations teachers face can detrimentally affect students, harm teacher credibility and erode the public’s trust. Overarching of these issues are advances in innovation and access to online networking meaning the ethical implications teachers will likely face are increasing.
Behind the attention-grabbing headline, however, is a more mundane reality, which while not excusing such incidents, may partly, explain them? Parallel to a steady erosion of formality in wider society, new communication modes (including email, texting, and social networking) have radically altering the relationship between pupils and teachers.
In the ‘dark’ past teachers simply did not exist outside of school. A distance with clear role boundaries existed, which should not and were not crossed. Now, contact outside the classroom in many schools is being actively encouraged – school web portals linking teachers, students and whanau, where students (and teachers) upload or download assignments, email each other questions and answers, post announcements and even chat in real time, are increasingly common. The old ‘fixed’ distance has shortened, with boundaries, between professional and private, home and school, formal and informal are blurring.
At issue is, that e-tools while allowing greater access, also may give an illusion of private space. This of course is a fallacy, as recent political events have proven. While schools create web portals and actively encouraging online contact between staff and student, there are also numerous guidelines warning against the use of Facebook, or giving out personal mobile numbers or email addresses. In a previous school, I found myself in such a position accompanying a school ski trip, where I was one of three mini-van drivers. While the school provided a mobile phone for such occasions, it was a limited resource. Others were using them, and I had to ask myself, what do I do? Risk ‘losing’ a student on a large public ski-field, or give them my own mobile number, but once it’s happened, once a number is out…
At other times, I have made a judgement and given emails as references for University or job applications, simply because it needed a quick turnaround. The issue is that an email or text, or chat is a very much one-to-one thing, even on a school site. While I’ve not yet been in this situation, I could imagine being at home marking online – “live” – maybe late in the evening. If messaged do I respond, do I start discussing work with a student who’s also online? Outside of a professional environment, it could potentially be much easier to make comments (even innocuously) that are misread, or misinterpreted. Another impact is on work/life balance – there is a real expectation that teachers can be available at the convenience of the student or parent, with the expectation that text or email means an instant response.
In the UK the ATL (2008) report as many as one in 10 teachers have experienced some form of cyberbullying, of those 63% received unwelcome emails, 26% offensive messages posted about them on social media, and 28% were sent abusive text messages. The health consequences can be serious as bullying leads to low self-confidence, impacts on effectiveness, and can lead to loss of productivity and illness.
The NZ Education Council Code of Ethics and Hall’s (2001) guiding questions provide guidelines to maintaining professional relationships and following best teaching practise. Guidelines are however not always clear-cut, although Hall’s questions do provide a framework to solve ethical dilemmas through decision-making, that could allow a teacher to, with care and consideration, take action to solve issues.
Association of Teachers and Lecturers. (2008, March 17-20). Over 60% Of Secondary Teachers Say Pupils Have Been Affected By Cyberbullying, Atl Survey. Annual Conference Press Release. Atl.org.uk. Retrieved from https://www.atl.org.uk/Images/17%20March%202008%20-%20Annual%20conf%20-%20Cyberbullying%20March%202008%20FINAL.pdf
Education Council. (2017, July 1). The Education Council Code of Ethics for Certificated Teachers. Retrieved from https://educationcouncil.org.nz/content/developing-code-of-professional-responsibility
Hall, A. (2001). What ought I to do, all things considered? An approach to the exploration of ethical problems by teachers. Paper presented at the IIPE Conference, Brisbane. Retrieved from http://www.educationalleaders.govt.nz/Culture/Developing-leaders/What-Ought-I-to-Do-All-Things-Considered-An-Approach-to-the-Exploration-of-Ethical-Problems-by-Teachers