Dr Shirley Van Nuland

Ethics and the Teaching Profession: Why what we value, think and do really matters, presented by Dr Shirley Van Nuland.

In the Annual Lecture 2022, Dr Shirley Van Nuland discusses how ethics are intertwined with teaching and the crucial role that teaching professionals have in the leadership of change. She is joined for a Q&A Session by GTC Scotland Chief Executive and Registrar Dr Pauline Stephen, and for a reflection on her lecture by Dr Yannis Chatzantonis, Principal Teacher Pedagogy and Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies Teacher at James Young High School.

Dr Van Nuland’s lecture is available to view below alongside transcripts of the lecture and her article for Teaching Scotland Magazine.

Annual lecture recording


Transcript: Ethics and the Teaching Profession


Ethics and the Teaching Profession

Teaching Scotland article

Dr Van Nuland discusses how ethics are intertwined with teaching and the crucial role that teaching professionals have in the leadership of change.

Read the article

Teaching is a complex process. Teaching is about building relationships, about knowing our students needs, and responding to those relationships and needs – a process that really matters. Kenyon-Smith (2017) states: “Quality in learning and teaching evolves through new thinking and challenges.” It happens over time as we grow and mature as teachers. As a relational quest, teaching is “far more … layered” (Campbell, 2008) than a teacher's proficiency in presenting curricula requirements and instructional strategies. Teaching requires attention to its subtleties, those elements that are often indefinable that are morally and ethically infused but nevertheless perceived.

Being involved in education as a teacher is more than definitions (what is education?), theories (as important as these are), political ideologies from nation states/educational institutions, reports or accolades. Re-framing the narratives that exist in media through our teacher voices allows us to highlight the joys and hopes characteristic in teaching with “a more comprehensive and nuanced discussion of teaching that goes well beyond the current narratives” (Farley & Chamberlain, 2021). Using a strengths-based perspective, teachers’ voices can be heard, and the messages we give “are those we deem desirable for the education of our students” (Biesta, 2015).

Almost everything a teacher does daily when interacting with students has weight: questions, assignments, discussions, dispute resolution, curricular selection where teachers individually are faced with ethical choices. Ethics are essential to teaching and are perhaps more important in teaching than in any other profession (Truscott & Crook, 2016). Various types of ethical codes exist as seen by Frankel (1989) as “the collective conscience of a profession”: aspirational (stating ideals), educational (providing practical guidance), or regulatory (providing rules governing conduct).

Alternative conceptions of ethical professionalism can be found: the ethics of care and caring (Bergmark, 2020); the ethics of hospitality (Ruitenberg, 2015); and the ethics of teaching: image of the teacher as the self-cultivated individual (Higgins, 2003). These can be applied in developing ethical codes. These three ideals go well beyond the nature of duty and obligation and “explore the complex ways of seeing, feeling, and responding to others that give life to teacher professionalism and inform the serious work of developing a professional ethics of teaching” (Maxwell & Schwimmer, 2016).

The ethical reasoning process

Even though rules and regulations exist for teachers to guide practice, teachers must base their actions on their professional judgement, thus moving beyond technical application of rules and regulations. In making these judgements, a deliberate ethical reasoning process will help when we’re challenged with new situations to meet the ethical expectations we face.

The more often we encounter new situations and repeat the process, “our personal ethical values become increasingly congruent with professional ethical values” (Truscott & Rourke, 2018). With this process, a deliberate reflection on experience, a type of ‘self-research’, making ethical decisions that are justifiable and professionally appropriate will become more intuitive for us.

Truscott and Rourke (2016) suggest that reasoning ethically can be accomplished by listening, feeling, thinking, and acting as a process of ethical deliberation. Questions can guide the process:

  • Listen: Why now? Understand the social conditions of our decisions and actions without rushing into a decision;
  • Feel: What do my feelings tell me about what is important? Consider how we feel about the circumstances encouraging an inward look and honestly taking stock of our true intentions;
  • Think: Does a relevant standard/document exist? Shift our personal ethics so that we can feel differently about what we may prefer to do; and
  • Act: What are the likely consequences of my options? Choose the alternative least likely to cause harm and do the most benefit (in that order) and carry out the best course of action.

When deliberately and critically reflecting on our actual actions (and not what we think we do), we “deduce the otherwise inaccessible nature of our ethical intuitions and intentions” (Truscott & Crook, 2015).

A constant circular process flow: consequences (act) > relationships (listen) > intentions (feel) > duties (feel)
The process of ethical reasoning

By using deliberate ethical reasoning processes, teachers further develop their professional competence, “the cornerstone of professional practice” (Truscott and Crook 2016). Professional practice comes about through specialised knowledge, intensive preparation, a code of conduct, an emphasis on continued learning, and public service (Clarke & Erickson, 2003).

Four essential components for professional practice and professional competence are knowledge, skill, judgment, and diligence. The knowledge base for teaching is constantly evolving which requires continuing study on our part to remain current. With skill we apply the knowledge effectively as we progress from basic teaching to a proficiency for specific teaching procedures. This non-static component necessitates that we stay current in the field. The application of knowledge and skills requires judgement, often acquired through much practice and through self-research or reflection. Continued growth is essential for professional competence which, in turn, requires that we teach to the best of our ability with each student (Truscott & Crook, 2016).    

Our ethics are intertwined with our teaching. A statement from GTC Scotland’s response to the Muir Review neatly captures this: “Teaching is complex work, both relationally and intellectually. Developing teacher professionalism is about the way we are as professionals; it informs who we are, how we act, what we know and do, and what we prioritise. Teachers and teaching really matter so how we learn, grow, and develop throughout our careers is important and needs to be prioritised.” (GTC Scotland, 2021)


Bergmark, U. (2020). Rethinking researcher–teacher roles and relationships in educational action research through the use of Nel Noddings’ ethics of care. Educational Action Research, 28(3), 331–344.

Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. European Journal of Education, 50(1) 75–87.

Campbell, E. (2008). The ethics of teaching as a moral profession, Curriculum Inquiry, 38(4), 357–385.

Clarke, A., & Erickson, G. (2003). Teacher inquiry: A defining feature of professional practice. In A. Clarke & G. Erickson (Eds.), Teacher inquiry: living the research in everyday practice (pp 1–6). London: Routledge.

Farley, A. N. & Chamberlain, L. M. (2021). The teachers are not alright: A call for research and policy on teacher stress and well-being. The New Educator, 17(3), 305–323.

Frankel, M. (1989). Professional codes: Why, how, and with what impact? Journal of Business Ethics, 8(2-3), 109–115.

General Teaching Council for Scotland. (2021). GTC Scotland’s response to the Muir Review: Education Reform Consultation. Edinburgh: GTC Scotland.

Higgins, C. (2003). Teaching and the good life: A critique of the ascetic ideal in education. Educational Theory, 53(2), 131–154.

Kenyon-Smith, S. (2017). Teacher professional learning: Changing the routines of practice. In K. Smith & J. Loughran (Eds.), Quality learning teachers changing their practice (pp. 19–27). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Maxwell, B., & Schwimmer, M. (2016). Seeking the elusive ethical base of teacher professionalism in Canadian codes of ethics. Teaching and Teacher Education, 59, 468-480.

McKenna, M. (2019). Introduction. In C. Chapman (Ed.). Making sense of education reform: Where next for Scottish education? Manchester, UK: Association of Directors of Education in Scotland/The Staff College. Retrieved from Making sense of education reform: Where next for Scottish education? - Policy Scotland (

Ruitenberg, C. (2015). Unlocking the world: Education in an ethic of hospitality. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Truscott, D., & Crook, K. H. (2016). Ethics and law for teachers (2nd ed.). Toronto,

Truscott, D., & Rourke, L. (2018).  Teaching professional ethics and law: Blending the professional expectations and reflective practice approaches. In B. Maxwell, N. Tanchuk, & C. Scramstad (Eds.), Professional ethics education and law for Canadian teachers (pp. 135–153). Association for Teacher Education Association canadienne pour la formation des enseignants. Retrieved from Professional-ethics-and-law-for-Canadian-teachers-1.pdf ( ISBN 978-0-9947451-8-7