Reconnecting with teacher ethics

Yannis Chatzantonis
Yannis Chatzantonis

Teaching is a constant exercise in contextual judgment. Most of our judgments are about questions of technique – about the curriculum, pedagogy or assessment – about what and how we teach. However, some of the decisions that we face go beyond the mechanisms of learning. These decisions are not merely about ‘the work’ at hand; they extend well beyond the walls of the classroom and affect us in significant ways.

Indeed, they play an important role in the formation of our professional identities – in the ways in which we think about our professional selves. This is because these judgments arise from questions about the ultimate aim of why, as teachers, we do what we do. In other words, they involve ethical, rather than technical, deliberation.

What role does this type of ethical thinking play in the life of teachers in Scotland?

On the one hand, this is an easy question to answer. Policy encodes the life of teachers and, in Scotland, it prescribes not just goals for professional practice but also norms of acceptable moral behaviour and, more aspirationally, selects the moral objectives that our practice ought to achieve.

Both the Professional Standards for Teachers and the Code of Professionalism and Conduct prescribe a set of regulatory ethical expectations that guide teachers’ professional actions, behaviour and language. In a way, therefore, policy places us from the start in an ethical context. If you work as a teacher in Scotland, you agree to abide by certain ethical standards and to meet a set of moral aims. This is the first way in which ethics appears in the lives of Scottish teachers – in the guise of policy regulations, expectations and aspirations.

But ethics runs deeper than policy. Teaching possesses a deeper ethical dimension than the regulation of behaviour: rather than morally neutral, the act of teaching is itself a value-laden act, connected as it is to our collective, personal and professional visions of the good – and to the achievement of certain social and individual virtues.

This is even more so in the case of Scottish education. Curriculum for Excellence is a virtue-based curriculum, centred on the development of the Four Capacities, which are focused on the acquisition of intellectual and affective virtues.

“Values, therefore, are at the heart of what we do – they are the ends and motives which the means of learning and teaching seek to achieve”

This means that, in Scotland, our curriculum requires us to ask first and foremost: what is a person entitled to? And then, what kinds of people we want children to be and to become? And, finally, which potentials should we help them realise? Which skills, knowledge and dispositions should we help them develop? The questions of educational means (what and how shall we teach to support the development of these virtues) are important – but can only be posed and answered after we have responded to the questions about human virtues and educational aims and purposes.

Values, therefore, are at the heart of what we do – they are the ends and motives which the means of learning and teaching seek to achieve. This much is made clear by the Professional Standards, which embed questions of pedagogical practice within an overarching ethical framework in the form of Professional Values (social justice, trust and respect, and integrity) that our practice ought to embody.

Making values the foundation upon which professional learning and practice stand shows that ethics underlie our approach to curriculum and pedagogy. In other words, our pedagogical judgments are not merely based on considerations of effectiveness – they are not just about curricular expertise or pedagogical efficiency and expediency. They are ultimately motivated by ethical considerations.

If education is an exercise in the possession of these virtues and the enactment of these values – intellectual, affective or political (political because they relate to the attainment of certain communal goods) – then schooling, teaching and education are fundamentally ethical activities.

In other words, all our everyday decisions and judgements, pastoral or pedagogical, take place and acquire their meaning in the wider context of how we conceptualise justice: how we think of a just person living in a just society. Or, to put it differently, teaching a young person comes with a notion of what it is to lead a good life. The way we conceptualise this notion furnishes us with the purposes for which we teach. It is the real driver shaping our professional identities – and defining our existence as teachers.

Education, then, has aims that go beyond the mundane, beyond the technical, beyond learning, beyond the work itself. It is those aims that, albeit often implicit and unarticulated, stand in the background of our busy every day professional lives, giving the practice of teaching its deep ethical character and establishing the affinity of education to aims that escape the confines of pedagogy, forming a web of purposefulness that lends our acts and identities cohesion.

We need to foster this ethical dimension of teaching in Scotland. The tendency to restrict teaching to the realm of technique also restricts the opportunity for the exercise of ethical judgment. Policy should, therefore, acknowledge and engage teachers as ethical agents, and enable them to bring the deep ethical background of their practice to the fore.

In other words, we ought to support teachers, along with children and their parents, to be active and valued interlocutors in the great continuous discussion about the aims, goods and virtues that their professional life seeks to embody.

About the author

Yannis Chatzantonis is PT Pedagogy and an RMPS teacher at the James Young High School. He is a member of GTC Scotland’s Ethics Expert Panel, which has been convened for the review of COPAC.