Teaching Ethics Isn't Enough: The Challenge of Being Ethical Teachers

Article excerpt

Last year I faced yet again an ethical dilemma similar to those you probably face. I had a good student who stopped coming to class and writing the assignments. Eventually, I heard through the advising office that his mother was near the end of a long struggle with cancer. It could have been some other tragedy: a rape, car accident, home fire. Near the end of the semester, the student returned and tried to make up the work; he managed to get a "C," and I thought a sad incident was closed. But it wasn't. He was soon back again, telling me he had lost his scholarship. Because of the enormous medical bills, his family could not afford to give him any more money for school; his scholarship was essential to his continued education. And yes, you guessed it. He was so close that he needed only one grade changed to get his scholarship back. He offered to do any work I requested to get a higher grade. I checked his story, and every word was true.

What would you have done? Would you have given him extra work, an opportunity no longer available to other students in the class? Would your answer change if he were one of several students in your class in the same situation? Would it matter that most, if not all, of your "C" students could probably bring their work up a grade notch with similar special consideration? These questions, of course, are ethics questions. And for me, they seem to be occurring more and more frequently.

Many of us now teach ethics, but we also need to think about our own ethics. I think we do not ordinarily do this. Wendy Wassyng Roworth (2002), chair of the American Association of University Professors' (AAUP's) Committee on Professional Ethics, says

   Most of us don't give much thought to professional ethics as we
   carry out our day to day [sic] duties as teachers.... Faculty who
   have no problem expressing views on teaching strategies, research
   methods, or university politics hesitate to question a colleague's
   conduct in the classroom, the space in which each professor reigns
   supreme.

Human nature seems to give us a tendency to see the ethics problems in our students' choices, but we sometimes overlook the ethics problems in our own choices. When we think about ethics, we generally mean teaching ethics to students, not examining our own ethics. Our own professional organization seems to reflect this tendency. Judging from the program titles and descriptions of the November ABC national conference on ethics, 59 sessions appeared to involve teaching ethics or examining business ethics, yet only 5 sessions appeared to involve ethics for teachers. Similarly, judging from the titles in the Journal of Business Communication and Business Communication Quarterly/Bulletin from 1990 to summer 2003, 53 articles appear to involve teaching ethics or examining business ethics, but only 2 articles seem to involve ethics for teachers.

Why should we consider our own ethics as teachers? For me, the concept of "ethical teacher" overlaps the concept of what Stephen Brookfield (1990) calls the "skillful teacher." Of course, the overlap is not complete. Weak teachers who try hard may be untalented, not unethical. Still, the overlap is significant. Ethical and skillful teachers care about students. They try to be inclusive, to hear all voices. Ethical and skillful teachers try to help all students learn as much as possible and to use that learning. Ethical and skillful teachers construct an environment that enables students to learn as easily as possible. They help bring the subject alive for their students by finding engaging examples and sharing their own passion for their subject. Ethical and skillful teachers help students connect with and internalize the course content. They help students learn to judge the content, issues, and skills pertinent to their academic discipline and connect that content and skills set with those of other disciplines. Ethical and skillful teachers enable students to recognize and appreciate excellence in their discipline. …