When Teachers' Ethics Come into Question ; More School Districts Warm to Lessons in Correct Conduct, Hoping to Stem a Tide of Ethical Lapses

Article excerpt

The first gift that teachers at Woodstock High School received this year wasn't a new laptop or tickets to the homecoming game. Instead, they were all handed a fresh copy of the Georgia school's version of the Ten Commandments: the Teacher Code of Ethics.

In the past, even some administrators may never have looked twice at that particular tablet. But now this seemingly obvious list of "thou shalt nots" is taking on a powerful poignancy in these densely developed hills just north of Atlanta: Over the summer, three male teachers at the school were convicted of child abuse. The three 20- somethings, all buddies, hadn't been roughing up students, but soliciting them at school for sex.

It's become a familiar and disturbing front-page story from Nashua, N.H., to Fayetteville, N.C.: Teacher as predator, teacher as cheater, teacher as con artist. And the public uproar is having an impact. For the first time here in Cherokee County, all 73 new teachers this year had to take a crash course in correct conduct.

There's no hard proof that moral missteps are on the increase among teachers; more likely, they are just getting greater publicity. What's more, teachers overall are more virtuous than the rest of the population: Less than 1 percent get in legal trouble each year, compared with about 6 percent of the general population.

Still, a growing number of school districts are warming to the idea of ethics classes. Band rooms and classrooms from Washington to Florida have seen a new threshold of questionable behavior in the last few years: being willing to change test scores to get a bonus, getting intoxicated on field trips, or gossiping about students at hair salons - only to find the kid's aunt two dryers down. Administrators are also noting more sex scandals - a growing number of which involve sexually mature middle-schoolers.

The result is that more states are opting to address ethical lapses by having a serious heart-to-heart with prospective teachers. And they're moving beyond the codes of ethics that have grown up in the past to a potentially more powerful approach: making ethics a subject of study in and of itself.

"We're living in a fast-paced world," says Vicky Brantley, Georgia's education ethics czar. "A few years ago we wouldn't have thought about some of the problems that come up today."

In Georgia, the New South's juggernaut, the state ethics manual is required reading in all 35 teachers colleges. And, as in about half the states, all teachers are also fingerprinted and their background checked against a national database list of questionable teacher prospects.

One influence behind the change is high turnover. The 120,000- person Georgia teacher corps is in constant flux, with thousands of teachers leaving and entering the system every summer. A teacher shortage has also forced the state to offer blitz courses for certification.

Both factors put pressure on administrators to get teachers on solid ground before they stand up in front of the class. "They're harping on us about ethics like never before," says Melissa Burgess, a Kennesaw (Ga.) State University senior who hopes to teach middle school.

But, says Ms. Brantley, a little professional advice never hurts.

As a deputy secretary at the Georgia Department of Standards, Brantley is on the front lines of the ethics debate. She's in such high demand that the state has now developed an "Ethics 101" videotape.

Some of her tips are very straightforward. Avoid personal e- mails to students: "It's easy for things to get out of hand." Also, don't be alone in a room with a student of the opposite sex. "Be on your guard. You want to be accessible, but not too accessible," she says.

Teachers are allowed to make mistakes. And as 75 future teachers at Kennesaw State are told by Brantley at a recent seminar, the bureaucracy tends to reward honesty with compassion. …