Matthew Lynch: Helping Teachers Develop a Code of Ethics

An individual code of ethics is a complex, necessary foundation for successful teaching, writes Matthew Lynch.

A code of ethics that is specific to the individual comes into play in everyday situations experienced by teachers. It could be in a situation where an influential parent asks for special favors for his child, while dealing with an impudent student or an impertinent remark that comes from him or her, while dealing with colleagues, or at any point while performing the daily duties of the job.

Matthew Lynch

In actuality, all actions and responses are a function of a personal code of ethics, which is the foundation for differences in teachers’ styles of dealing with students and school-related situations. A code of ethics will help a teaching professional to negotiate difficult times during the life of their careers. They allow teachers to decipher the right thing to do based on their perspective, and to take responsibility for and stand by their decisions.

Another ideal to be realized in the process of abiding by one’s code of ethics is to make quick and prudent decisions.  Ethically correct decisions ought not to be dragged on or delayed for long periods of time before putting them into practice.  If the code of ethics is strong, a teacher will be able to make decisions on the spot and have the conviction to bear the consequences.  Too much pondering or hesitation in acting takes the impact out of even the soundest ethical decisions, and must therefore be avoided.

Ultimately, it is individual-specific responses to what individuals think is right and what is wrong that provide insight into an individual’s code of ethics.  It is for that very reason that this particular code of ethics is not a stringent formulated one.  Individuals can appropriate and set guidelines for themselves, as per what they think is right, and depend upon these guidelines to solve dilemmas and complex situations in educational situations.  Individual codes of ethics are not formal codes laid out by organizations and institutions to be obligatorily adhered to by their members.

Instead individual codes of ethics are intangible moral guidelines that an individual appropriates of his or her own accord. The next relevant point in the discussion is whether or not individual codes of ethics are inborn in humans.  Many debates have taken place on this question however the opinions remain divided at this point.  A more accommodating view finds relevance in the belief that humans are born with a vague sense of the moral legitimacy of various issues and situations.

The degree of stringency that an individual attaches to this is a result of what he or she has experienced through interaction with others, as well as spiritual and religious wisdom, reasoning ability, and secular guides during the course of life.  Quite understandably then, the development of one’s personal code of ethics revolves around a loose framework with which everyone is endowed. The process of achieving a personal code of ethics however is a continuous and never-ending one.

Ethical guidance can be derived from any sources. It can even reach us sub- consciously through seemingly non-influential aphorisms one hears by chance, or maybe a bumper sticker observed while driving.  The idea comes across and seeps into one’s conscience, even unconsciously at times. Influences too play a strong role in shaping an individual’s code of ethics.  Humans are imitative creatures and that’s why we seek role models and tend to replicate their thoughts and actions to some extent.  Individuals select models from a number of possibilities with whom they associate—it could be a father, mother, grandfather, teacher, and/or a mentor for example.

This model selection process is observable in children when they want to do everything mommy or daddy does.  Likewise, in adulthood, when one is faced with questions like “what should I do?” or “am I approaching the problem in the correct manner?” one impulsively frames the question into “what would my father have done had he faced such a circumstance?” or “is my response to the issue similar to what that Jane would have done?” This largely happens on a sub-conscious level, but nonetheless plays a part in the final decision-making of an individual.

Some people look beyond their immediate family or daily contacts for models to emulate. For them, historical or literary figures provide enough substance to be replicated and they set them as role models.  People wear “WWJD” bands to remind them to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” in a moral or ethical situation with which they are faced. The vast majority of people who are rooted in spirituality or religion tend to derive ethical guidance from religious scriptures, spiritual guides, and spiritual/religious focused books. It is not uncommon to find cases where moral precepts or stories that are a part of holy books like The Koran, The Torah or The Bibleserve as guides to an individual’s understanding of ethical matters.

It is ultimately for the purpose of moral guidance that famous figures from all walks of life are taught about in schools—with the intent that students may use the wisdom of these great legacies as a guide for their personal behavior and decision-making processes. Parents play a part by ensuring that they choose the most morally sound educational tools (e.g., specific schools, teachers, books) for their children so that their children establish ethical values from “good” examples.

Self-help books focused on moral awareness have recently exploded the book market, and serve as another source of ethical guidance.  Today, bookstores are flooded with moral guides to provide assistance to good parenting, becoming a good spouse or succeeding in business through ethical means.  The knowledge of right and wrong can be derived in almost any area.

Factors that affect the development of an individual’s code of ethics do not work in isolation.  Instead, they work in close proximity to each other, and collectively shape the final outcome in the form of problem solving.  The varied responses among different individuals, given the same situation, are determined by the extent to which coordination of various influential factors occurs. In fact, if we look closely, we can see that this is the case with every new craft that one attempts to learn or master.  Various factors, when congregated in coordination make a complete package.

In the case of codes of ethics, it is from these factors that an individual selects attributes that go into making a final decision.  And the entire process is involuntary and automatic rather than being imposed on an individual. When a teacher sees something happening that his or her code of ethics does not allow, he or she would not have to think twice–his or her inherent code of ethics would immediately guide him or her to make the apt decision.  The process is so spontaneous that there is no room for having second thoughts about the decision before putting it into practice.

Dr. Matthew Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. Dr. Lynch is the author of three books; It’s Time for Change: School Reform for the Next Decade (Rowman & Littlefield December, 2012), A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories (Routledge February 26, 2012), and The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching (Pearson 2013). Please visit his website at www.drmattlynch.com for more information.

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