Education Opinion

Now What?

By Susan Graham — July 23, 2010 4 min read
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In the opening chapter of their new book, Now What? Confronting and Resolving Ethical Questions, authors Sarah and Calvin MacKenzie state

Schools are among the most complex institutions in our society. The relationships and interactions that unfold within their walls raise a ceaseless array of ethical questions and concerns. Teachers especially are confronted at nearly every turn with tasks and opportunities that have ethical implications. There is no escape from the constant need to recognize and do the right thing.... School settings are full of potential pitfalls and dilemmas that challenge even our best efforts to act ethically.

Hummm, is that really what the public school workplace looks like when viewed from the ivory towers of academia? Sounds like a rather grim wallow among the unwashed masses. But the MacKenzies build their book from experiences shared with them by practicing teachers, the problems are real. While those scenarios make up the bulk of the text, the book begins with an overview of ethics and some general ethical principles or Rules of Ethics.

The first is The Golden Rule, or, as my son used to put it, “Would you like it if I did it to you?” Of course the reality is that “It’s not fair!” tends to carry the codicil of "....to me or my interests.” Whereas, “All’s fair in love and war” seems to be a popular option when it works in our favor.

The Rule of Benevolence is the second ethical benchmark addressed. As a “utilitarian” rule of ethics. “This rule holds that one should act in ways that conduce to the greatest good for the greatest number or the least harm to the greatest number.” The MacKenzies cite both Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb and affirmative action as applications. It’s a commendable mindset, but I wonder if any of us can really presume to determine what will result in the greatest good for the greatest number and least harm to the greatest number. Who is deserving of benevolence and who presumes to act as benefactor? That seems to be an ethical dilemma in itself.

The Rule of Universality seems straightforward in asking “Would it be acceptable if everyone did it? " The MacKenzies ask “What if everyone ‘borrowed’ a ream of paper from the supply room?” Well, in my mind, stealing is stealing even if no one else did it and any real teacher knows they wouldn’t have access to the supply room after hours anyway. A stickier, trickier application might be, “If a teacher allows a student to redo a specific assignment, is she then obligated to allow other students to redo a different assignment?” That’s a universal teacher dilemma that can involve administrators, colleagues parents, and impact student learning.

Finally, there is the Rule of Publicity which asks, “Would it be acceptable behavior in everyone knew about it?” The authors refer to it as the “kid on your shoulder” rule: Would you do it if your own child were sitting on your shoulder watching you?” There are many things I have done and continue to do that I do not want my children observing over my shoulder. Use your imagination and talk among yourselves. Enough said......Even teachers have a right to some degree of privacy in both their personal and professional lives.

To their credit, the MacKenzies acknowledge that while the rules are clear in theory, the devil is in the details of application. But as they offer case studies and discussion that determine “correct” ethical actions, something is missing. The discussions seem to be a little too quick presume motives, intentions, experiences, and judgments of others. There is surety of ethical rectitude that does not encourage the reader to delve too deeply into the self examination and determination which forms the core of ethical behavior.

But I think what bothers me the most is that there seems to be a overriding assumption that the authors and the reader are somehow on a higher ethical ground than the general teaching population and therefore have the authority to make judgments about the ethics of others. That’s unethical. In analyzing the scenarios presented, the discussions too often trespass on my personal ethical baseline which is

Assume good intentions.

When confronted with an ethical dilemma, if we assume good intentions, we are more likely to dig deeper for information and practice self reflection before judging the actions and ethics of others. That kind of open and inquiring habit of mind seems to be a foundational disposition for effective educators. A reflective practitioner might consider

  • Am I applying personal or professional ethical standards in this situation?
  • Can I presume I have all the facts necessary to make an informed ethical judgment?
  • Does my ethical position require or justify imposing it the other parties involved?”
  • If I have determined that I have the obligation to act on my perception of ethical practice, am I prepared to accept responsibility for repercussions to my school, my colleagues, and my students that result from my actions?”

Perhaps these questions are exactly what the authors intended the reader to raise, because on the back cover, Deborah Meier says

This is a book that should set off needed conversations in every school, classroom, and school board meeting---and at the dinner table. Sometimes I wanted to quarrel with the authors and that's part of the book's genius. It always managed to provoke me to think and to engage with these dilemmas.

Now What? Confronting and Resolving Ethical Questions, is styled “A Handbook for Teachers” and clearly designed as a professional development tool since the authors include a schedule for a five hour workshop and a protocol for examining potential ethical dilemmas.

Because the MacKenzies encouraged me think about ethics used the Resource B: Adapted Critical Event Reflective Journal Entry to determine a plan of action for an ethical dilemma I confronted in reviewing their book.

Now What? sells for $33.95 and has approximately 146 pages of text excluding index and references. Of those pages approximately 52 of them are the scenarios collected from practicing teachers. Authors profit financially and professionally from writing books. So I’m just wondering---If one applies the four rules of ethics shared in this book, do the MacKenzies have an ethical obligated to share credit and compensation with their teacher contributors?

Now What?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.