When is helping a student not in his best interests, or fair to other students? It is a tricky question, and one of many we considered with a small group of teachers, school leaders and academics in a symposium on Teacher Ethics in Assessment yesterday (26 March 2015). We were not looking for answers, but wanted to see if there was an appetite for the discussion. Indeed, there was. We’ll be reflecting more on the debate over coming months, but you may be interested now in some of the key themes that emerged during the day.
First, teachers naturally want to help students achieve the best grades possible, but they also want to stay within the rules. However, there are many grey areas, and what is more it is not easy to draw the line. Opinions differ amongst teachers about the extent that it is alright to bend (but not break) the rules, and also whether some things are within the rules or in breach of them.
Teachers that do bend the rules are deeply uncomfortable about it, and do it in large part because of the pressure to get results, because they know others do it and because they feel they are sometimes expected to do it when necessary. Being able to talk about it was said to be cathartic.
Listening to these discussions, it seemed to me that with so many grey areas and the known pressures, it is far too crude a view to consider the teachers involved as plainly ‘unethical’ or ‘cheating’. Instead, it is rarely so black and white.
Second, there was general agreement that the teaching community is at a disadvantage when compared to other professions, as it lacks a codified ethical framework, a reference point or moral compass to guide behaviour. That is certainly not something that should be forced on the sector, but to be developed and owned from within. And many felt that teachers needed the chance to think through these issues, to discuss them during their training and before they entered the classroom, and to reflect on them through their career as part of their continuing professional development.
Third, and related to the second theme, attendees thought it would be helpful to look at how other professions ‘self-manage’ or self regulate. A code on its own does not do enough - it is not the complete picture.
We all thought the discussions timely, building upon a general sense that the profession is ready to develop in this way. Nevertheless, it is clear that none of these issues are going to be solved overnight.
I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to discuss these issues with colleagues from across the profession in such an open and positive way. We ended on an important question - how teachers find their voice. I hope there are more opportunities like this symposium, so that teachers have the chance and the space to talk about such matters with each other. For our part, we will be holding a series of focus groups with teachers later in the spring to explore these topics further, and we will continue to talk with ASCL and others as well, to do what we can to assist.