Now What? Confronting and Resolving Ethical Questions: A Handbook for Teachers


Sarah V. Mackenzie & G. Calvin Mackenzie

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    For Peter and Pamela Vose Deborah Vose and Steven Roman John Mackenzie and Susan Nybell Rebecca Vose and Steven Schreckinger Arthur and Margaret Vose


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    As teachers, and teachers of teachers, we spend the bulk of our time focusing on techniques of pedagogy and the substance of our subject matter. We try to teach how to teach and what to teach. But in the decades of our experience, we have come to learn that there is more to successful teaching than pedagogy and substantive expertise. Good teachers must also be practitioners of ethical propriety. Teacher self-esteem requires that. Effective schools require that. But, most importantly, students require that.

    Teachers and school leaders cannot escape the need to cope with ethical challenges. They are simply an inevitable part of the professional lives we lead. No one who works in a school gets through a year without confronting difficult choices between right and wrong, dealing with a colleague or student who has acted irresponsibly, or feeling the temptation to bend the rules or the law for some perceived higher purpose.

    But most teachers and school leaders have little formal preparation for these challenges and few reliable navigational aids when they confront them. It was this recognition that led us to write this book. We believe that it fills a significant vacuum in the preparation of teachers and administrators for the real lives they will lead in their schools. And it provides guidance for those already confronting rough seas.

    This is not a treatise on ethics or an exercise in theorizing, though we have been blessed in preparing it by the excellent work of those theorists whose inquiries have raised the level of understanding and insight among all students of ethics, including us. Many of them are named in the citations throughout this book.

    But our purpose here is more practical. We have drawn from our own experiences and from the much broader range of experiences among scores of teachers and school leaders who have shared with us the details of incidents in their own lives and their own schools. We suggest some important ethical principles at the outset of this book and we offer some guidelines for how one might think about a difficult ethical dilemma.

    But we believe that the best way to heighten one's own ethical sensitivities is through practice. And we have provided dozens of cases, drawn from actual experience, to provide the grist for that kind of activity. What we hope to encourage is discussion. Put yourself in the place of the teachers and school leaders portrayed in these cases. What choices did they confront? What were the potential costs and benefits of each option for action? How would you have acted and why? We offer our own suggestions for some of these cases, though we wrap them in no pretense of perfection. For others, we leave readers to their own devices to assess and respond to the situations we pose.

    We provide no “answers” to the questions these cases raise for the simple and important reason that we believe the best answers come from reflection and discussion, not from an answer key at the back of the book. Our fond hope—and our firm belief—is that by thinking and talking about these cases, many of which will strike chords of recognition among experienced teachers, readers will come away with a clearer sense of what constitutes an ethical issue and what sorts of responses are possible and prudent. We hope that we have provided a practical guide to practical learning.

    While we take full responsibility for the contents of this book, we could not have done it alone and we did not. Nearly a hundred experienced educators provided invaluable assistance by telling us their own stories of difficult circumstances they faced and choices they had to make. These included graduate students in the Educational Leadership Program at the University of Maine, other teachers and school leaders from around the country, professional colleagues, and our brothers and sisters and their spouses in our large family where teaching is a common and treasured profession. We are deeply grateful to all of them for the time they spent with us in conversation about this project and for their candor, insights, and often, their self-criticism.

    We are grateful as well for the support we have received from the universities where we teach, the University of Maine and Colby College, and from our colleagues and the administrations of them both. Directly and indirectly, our thinking about the issues addressed in this book has been shaped and refined by the wisdom we acquired in the daily conversations with those with whom we work. We happily and gratefully list here the names of those who helped us in preparing this book in the acknowledgments.

    We wish as well to thank the good people at Corwin who shared our enthusiasm for this project from the start and who guided it smoothly from an idea to a book. Dan Alpert, our editor, served as midwife at the outset and wise counselor throughout. We also thank Megan Bedell, associate editor, who helped keep the project on track and Tomara Kafka who carefully and thoughtfully copyedited the entire book. Finally, we express our gratitude to our children and their spouses for bearing with us throughout—and for holding their tongues when they doubted that joint authorship of a book was good for a marriage. In fact, it was. And we hope that is yet another important lesson of this project.

    G.CalvinMackenzie, Bowdoinham, Maine, June 2009


    We gratefully acknowledge students and friends who supplied ideas for cases, helped us tease out the issues in particularly thorny cases or read parts of the manuscript and gave valuable feedback: Randi Arsenault, Pam Astbury, Andrew Bayer, Cindy Dean, Janet Fairman, Robert Griffin, Martha Kempe, Edie Kilgour, Rebecca Knight, Karen Larsen, Richard Lindsay, Sylvia Norton, Jonathan Moody, Susie Nybell, Gloria Smith, Tim Surrette, Terry Tibbetts, Rachelle Tome, Deborah Vose, Dan Welch, Todd West, and Terry Young.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following individuals:

    • James Anderson, Principal
    • Canaseraga Central School District, Canaseraga, NY
    • Patricia Bowman, Retired Principal and Educational Consultant
    • Inglewood, CA
    • Betty Brandenburg Yundt, Sixth-Grade Teacher and Curriculum Coordinator
    • Walker Intermediate School, Fort Knox, KY
    • Kathleen Choma, Statistics Teacher
    • South Brunswick High School, Marlboro, NJ
    • Julie Frederick, Kindergarten Teacher and Grade Level Expectation Alignment Teacher Leader
    • Viewlands Elementary School/Seattle Public Schools, Seattle, WA
    • Linda Irvin, Fourth-Grade Teacher
    • Sunflower Elementary School, Paola, KS
    • Sharon Jefferies, Third-Grade Teacher
    • Lakeville Elementary School, Orlando, FL
    • Loukea Kovanis-Wilson, Chemistry Teacher
    • Clarkston High School, Fenton, MI

    About the Authors

    Sarah V. Mackenzie is associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Maine. She has dealt with the issues examined here for many years, first in her own hands-on experiences as a teacher and teacher leader and now in her role as a professor of educational leadership. Her most recent book, Uncovering Teacher Leadership: Essays and Voices From the Field (Corwin, 2007; coedited with Richard Ackerman), is a compilation of writing focused on the inner lives of teacher leaders. They published an article in the May 2006 issue of Educational Leadership titled “Uncovering Teacher Leadership.”

    In all of her work—as a teacher and a teacher of teachers and leaders—she has recognized the critical relationship between what teachers believe about their work and how successfully they perform that work. This book focuses sharp attention on that connection and offers abundant, practical aid to teachers and teacher leaders in fostering ethical leadership successfully in their own work lives and their own schools.

    G. Calvin Mackenzie is the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government at Colby College. He has written extensively about ethics in government and has led ethics seminars for public officials across the country. He served as chair of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices and was elected a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. A political scientist by training, Mackenzie has been a government professor and scholar for more than 30 years. He has written or edited 15 books, including a leading introductory American government text and several award-winning empirical studies of the national government. His latest book, The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s (with Robert Weisbrot), was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in history.

  • Resource A. Workshop Outline: Tools for Teachers and Teacher Leaders

    We provide this agenda for a day of delving into ethical issues and helping participants analyze situations and develop some understanding of how best to deal with them. We provide times to indicate the amount of time to allot to each item; however, one could easily spend more time on each item and thus have the program last an entire eight-hour day if that is desirable.

    9:00 a.m.   Introductory Remarks (Purposes and Goals of the Workshop)

    9:15 a.m.   Facilitated Discussion of Ethical Principles and Decision Rules

    • What is an ethical issue? How do you know you're confronting one?
    • Ethical challenges in schools
      • Knowing and obeying the law
      • Conflict of interest
      • Misuse or abuse of position
      • Nonschool employment or business
      • Memberships and affiliations
      • Civility
    • Principles of ethical behavior
      • Golden rule
      • Rule of benevolence
      • Rule of universality
      • Rule of publicity

    10:30 a.m.   Break

    10:45 a.m.   Discussion of Cases

    • Use cases at the end of each chapter of this book
    • Almost all of the cases can be analyzed using the principles enumerated in the book; in fact, it is useful to try to apply all of the ethical lenses so that participants develop a sense of what the principles are and how they play out in differing situations
    • We suggest using ones that seem most appropriate to the participants and their experience

    11:45 a.m.   Participants Develop Their Own Cases

    Ask participants to provide a written description of one or more situations where they have had to confront a significant ethical issue. These should be sufficiently anonymous that they can be discussed by the workshop later in the day. Alternately, the program conveners might ask participants to develop a critical event as described in the protocol in Resource B.

    Noon   Lunch Break

    (During the lunch break the facilitator can review the situation descriptions provided by participants and organize them for use in the afternoon discussion.)

    1:00 p.m.   Discussion of Situations Provided by Workshop Participants

    Depending on the size of the group, this kind of discussion can be in small groups or with the entire group of participants. It is useful to make copies of the cases so that each group is discussing the same case.

    2:15 p.m.   Open Discussion of Issues Raised During the Day

    2:30 p.m.   Facilitator's Closing Remarks and Guidance

    Alternately, the group can generate ideas that can augment the book in providing guidance. This kind of list makes the principles more concrete and relevant to the participants.

    Resource B. Examining Critical Events

    Examining a critical event in your own professional life is a way to discover your core beliefs. It can also provide insights into useful ways to resolve conflicts you may experience with regard to fundamental philosophical differences—within yourself or between you and other teachers. Developed by the National School Reform Faculty, the Critical Incident Protocol provides a process for developing and assessing an ethical case from one's own experience through a structured conversation with colleagues.

    We have adapted the protocol so that it involves writing about an experience that is problematic because one is unsure how to proceed, especially since it prompts the participant to wonder about the ethical dimensions of a situation. An individual shares the situation, being careful to present the facts and to stop before he or she starts analyzing or reflecting on the situation.

    Listeners to the presentation ask clarifying and probing questions; then, as in many protocols, the presenter is silent while he or she listens to others discuss the ideas presented and tease out the ethical issues they see. Finally, the entire group participates in a discussion of the problem, not trying to solve it but rather to explore fully the possible approaches to thinking through the ramifications of various responses and actions.

    This kind of protocol can be used as the jumping off point for individual platforms of beliefs or for ongoing sharing and learning with regard to skill and cognitive development around ethical thinking. Teachers could use the protocol with a group where they each share a critical event in a session or where individuals have the floor for an entire session and each person's event is fully examined. The protocol, and many others, can be downloaded from As with most protocols, we suggest that they be used in the context of ongoing learning communities so that teachers feel safe in exposing their thoughts and beliefs and, at the same time, trust the legitimacy of questions and critique of their peers.

    The University of Maine Educational Leadership Faculty has developed a process for reflective writing that, in a similar vein to the Critical Incident Protocol, helps students analyze incidents in their own lives. Students use the form to clarify events for themselves, then share their understanding with others who will add their insights and provide feedback.

    We suggest that people use the form below to look at an incident where the writer has concerns about the ethical implications of a situation. The writer may also wonder about the social and political implications, too, so the reflection may help to surface and explore those as the writer seeks ways to resolve an interpersonal or intraper-sonal conflict.

    Adapted Critical Event Reflective Journal Entry

    Focus: Think about an encounter today or in the last few days that in retrospect raised some ethical questions or challenges for you. Note the time and place of the critical event.

    Describe: Recall the details of the experience: What was said, what you felt. Try to re-create and thus relive the experience. Write down all of the details you can remember. Now, give the bird's eye view (from the balcony) and the insider's view.

    Reflect: Reflect on what the experience means to you now. What do you understand more clearly about the ethical, social, or political implications, as well as your beliefs and values? Write down these understandings for yourself.






    Reconstruct: Consider the implications these insights have for your practice as you continue to wrestle with the ethical issues surfaced in this event. In what ways do you anticipate acting, thinking, and feeling differently?






    Draw up a specific action plan for your immediate next steps for dealing with this specific issue and the people and events involved in it.







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