Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

The Impact of Religious Beliefs on Professional Ethics: A Case Study of a New Teacher

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

The Impact of Religious Beliefs on Professional Ethics: A Case Study of a New Teacher

Article excerpt

Introduction

As a helping profession, teaching is infused with actions and interactions that have ethical implications. Teachers are expected to act as moral exemplars for their students (Joseph & Efron, 1993). Yet there are few opportunities for teachers to engage in discussions about ethics--whether in pre-service education or in professional development activities after certification (Boon, 2011; Campbell, 2008). Those discussions that do occur tend to focus on procedures and legalities which are not necessarily engaging issues that arise in teachers' day-to-day relationships with students, parents, and colleagues. Since professional ethics are not only cognitive but embodied and emotional, contextualized and relational (N. H. Smith, 1997), in this article, I pay attention to teachers' experiences with professional ethics as one way to deepen and broaden the conversation. This case study of a math and science teacher aims to use a Freirean (1998) ethical framework to holistically analyze her experience of engaging with ethical issues in her practice.

Teachers' day-to-day lives are grounded by a foundation of values and beliefs, which manifests in their relationships with students and colleagues, assessment practices, and curricular choices (Higgins, 2011). This web of beliefs and values that they bring to their practice originates in both their professional and personal lives and is not necessarily compartmentalized based on the role they are playing at any given time (Barrett, 2013). Rather, epistemological, axiological, and ontological beliefs about how to determine what is true, what is right (and wrong) and proper, and what is human nature and the nature of existence are fundamental beliefs about the world that teachers (like all of us) use as a framework for their experiences (Fisher, 2013).

Beliefs about religion or beliefs that are derived from religion (which I will call religious beliefs) are fundamental to the values and beliefs of many people. Therefore, I suspect that religious beliefs may be central to the ethical stance of some teachers and that those beliefs are an aspect of their experience that warrants attention. However, in the literature, most discussion about religion in education focuses on two things: how to teach religion, and the religious views of students. There is very little information about how teachers' religious beliefs affect their teaching except, perhaps, with respect to teaching evolution (Levesque & Guillaume, 2010; White, 2009). Further, when teachers' religious beliefs are considered at all, they tend to be viewed in binary--either the teachers are religious or they are not (see, for example, Wong & Canagarajah, 2009). This ignores the complication of various religious traditions and political differences (M. U. Smith, 2013). Thus, it may be that deeply held religious beliefs influence teaching practice in subtle ways that cannot be captured or understood without a more nuanced view of religious beliefs.

The jurisdiction in which this study was conducted is the Province of Ontario, where the publicly funded K-12 education system consists of a secular system and a Roman Catholic system. While it is currently not generally possible to teach in an Ontario Catholic school without a letter from a parish priest verifying that the teacher is Catholic (see, for example, Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board, n.d.), it is important to note that, like any religious community, specific beliefs are contested within the Roman Catholic community (Pogorelc & Davidson, 2000). Thus, a case of a teacher teaching in a religious school whose beliefs may not completely correspond with the official doctrine of the school may not be an uncommon occurrence in Ontario's publicly funded system. Thus, this particular case, which examines the ways in which a teacher experiences subtle differences between institutional beliefs and values and her own, may be of relevance to teachers in the public system as well. …

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