Do the Right Thing. (But How?)
Educators across the country are faced with ethical dilemmas every day and, as one teacher shares in a look back at her first year teaching at a large urban school, they don't always know how to respond.
Halfway through the year I caught one of my 12th-graders cheating on a U.S. history test about the Progressive Era. Nothing elaborate, but three separate times I watched as her eyes wandered to her neighbor’s paper. Let’s call her Anna. On each occasion I subtly walked over and quietly reminded Anna to keep her eyes on her paper. But when I went to grade, her answers were word-for-word identical to her neighbor’s (they also happened, unfortunately for Anna, to be mostly incorrect).
What should I do? At the start of the year I had laid out explicit expectations: “If I catch you cheating, you get a zero.” End of story. Though I had taught in a variety of schools and settings, both abroad and locally, this was my first year teaching at this larger urban public high school. I hadn’t yet had to follow through on my rule.
Until recently, Anna had struggled in class; she seemed constantly to be texting or nodding off. But recently she had begun participating in discussions and regularly turning in assignments. Would her motivation dry up if she received a big red zero on her test? Yet I couldn’t fail to address her choice to cheat.
Challenging decisions involving questions of ethics, justice, and equity arise every day in classrooms, lunch cafeterias, and principals’ offices. Do you promote a student who is below grade level, but who might drop out if held back? Should a school participate in grade inflation because it will help their students get into college, even if it fails to give them an accurate measure of their strengths and weaknesses? These are challenges that face educators with surprising regularity.
These decisions can alter our students’ success in school and, in some cases, their futures. They are decisions not to be taken lightly and not to be made alone.
But rarely, it seems, do we speak openly about how to tackle these everyday dilemmas. Too often they remain private ruminations. Unlike hospitals, where doctors meet weekly to discuss vexing cases, many schools lack a regular forum or intellectual framework to meaningfully collaborate and debate hard challenges that arise in the classroom. Professor Meira Levinson and current doctoral student Jacob Fay, Ed.M.'14, have tried to spark a conversation with their collaborative new book Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries.
Levinson and Fay present six everyday school scenarios. For each they invited six scholars or educators to share thoughts and approaches for these difficult decisions.
Reading their book late this spring made me think back to the student I caught cheating. I remember agonizing over the long weekend, but by Monday it became clear. I needed to bring Anna into the conversation.
“What do you suggest I do?” I asked Anna after class. I laid out the predicament. She squirmed in her seat, puzzled and a little overwhelmed that I was seeking her opinion.
Anna tried pushing back: “I don’t know. You decide.” She wouldn’t look at me. No, I insisted, I wanted her opinion. Tentatively: “You could forgive me. ...?” Of course, I told her, I had already done so, but she had cheated and owned up to cheating, so what was the appropriate consequence?
As teachers we are charged with nurturing, inspiring, and mentoring young people as they explore and fashion their identities. Our roles are not confined to conveying facts about our discrete disciplines. I often find myself being a sounding board for my students as they learn how to tackle supporting a friend who is overworked, coming forward about bullying, standing up to a partner or, in the case of one quiet and thoughtful history lover, asking advice on how to a speak to a girl he cared for.
We try to provide our students with not only the skills to tackle five-paragraph essays and long division problems, but to meet the challenging situations life will throw their way. When we exclude our students from decisions that involve them, we pass up authentic opportunities to teach them how to grapple with hard questions — and to take ownership of their choices.
After much debate, Anna suggested I deduct 20 points from her score. And together we decided that before the next test we would meet to discuss study strategies. When the next test came, Anna chose a seat far from her peers and particularly her friends. When she turned in her paper, she was smiling. Her final grade was markedly better.
In Dilemmas of Educational Ethics, Levinson and Fay have amassed an army of 36 educators to debate moral predicaments: Should a teacher report a student who she believes has stolen a pricey iPhone, knowing the likely consequence could be expulsion, felony charges, and jail time if convicted? How should a teacher include a girl who struggles with impulse control and can be disruptive in class? Levinson and Fay have asked professors of political science, criminal justice, philosophy, education, African American studies, and urban policy. They have included the thoughts of nonprofit leaders, charter school founders, and middle and high school teachers.
Not included are the voices of young people. With this in mind, I decided to pose Levinson and Fay’s problems to my students.
At lunch, my classroom fills with students often swapping snacks: spicy Burmese fish for Vietnamese fish balls, or perhaps Brazilian sweets. While munching on hummus and pita myself one afternoon, I presented Levinson and Fay’s dilemmas.
As I knew they would, my students took each in turn, mulling it thoughtfully and conferring. Kaleidoscopically, they examined the angles. For the girl with impulse control, should she be moved to a new group? one student asked. “No,” another chimed in, “she wasn’t trying to act out. She should still be included.” “What if,” one of my students suggested, “the teacher explained to the other students that she struggled with control, and they worked on strategies together?”
Every scenario I presented followed a similar pattern: My students agreed that the young people in question had to be included, that being part of the conversation would help address the problem.
I sat back, watching my students parse the nuances of each challenge, pressing each other to dive deeper. In their book, Levinson and Fay suggest different ways for their case studies to be used as jumping off points for discussions among faculty. But listening to my students, I wondered too if such challenges could also become regular lessons for our students — helping them to sharpen their minds on problems that exist in shades of gray.
Even more important, encouraging students and staff to share the burden of hard decisions has the potential to foster trust and create more just schools. By making decisions not only transparent but also inclusive can help teachers see students holistically, rather than focus on specific incidents of misconduct; we end up holding ourselves more accountable, just as we strive for our charges to do the same. And by engaging student voices, the entire community is more likely to believe in the legitimacy of the final decisions.
Late one winter afternoon, my upper-class students were sprawled across the floor designing and coloring political party posters for a lesson on the impact of 1930s German propaganda. One young man — John, let’s say — refused to participate. He sat stubbornly to the side, brushing off the invitations of his peers. We talked quietly in the corner — me trying unsuccessfully to find out what was making him so upset. We discussed a strategy and a task he could take on, but five minutes later he was drawing designs on his hand. A team member asked for his help. Aggravated, John got up and deliberately stepped on their poster, leaving the dark outline of his sneaker.
I think back to when I taught in Boston with the nonprofit Citizen Schools extended learning day program. If a student acted out — threw a fit, cussed another student out — we had the option to send them to “Step Up.” Unlike detention, Step Up was a space and time for reflection. Students would have a chance to write about what had made them upset, to tell their stories. Then, collaboratively with the teacher and sometimes other students, they came up with a strategy for addressing the conflict and a game plan for re-entering class.
The practice is an offshoot of a national movement away from punitive school policies and punishments to a practice and philosophy termed restorative justice. Rather than the suspension or expulsion, the approach invites students to be part of creating a solution, empowering them to take responsibility for their actions and solve school conflicts.
Yet at many schools, often with thousands of students, there are no such programs or approaches — and often too little time. If a teacher wants a disruptive student out of class, security escorts the student to an office, where he or she is often treated like a troublemaker and then sent to detention to sit silently for a period of time after the last school bell rings.
Not surprisingly, research shows that disciplining students by removing them from class has long-term negative outcomes on their academic success. A structure that addresses only the effect (John acting out) rather than the cause (why John acted out) does little to prevent a similar situation from happening the next day or next week. I have never felt comfortable sending my students out. Yet I struggle with the compromise — the possible negative impact on the rest of the class.
There are no easy solutions when schools lack the structures, dedicated staff, or financial resources to support students like John. But what if schools saw everyday dilemmas as bellwethers that reveal underlying school pressure points, where schools are falling short of successfully serving students? A number of the contributors in Levinson and Fay’s book highlight the need to dive more deeply into the causes of these specific predicaments presented in the six case studies. Having more open discussions would not only lead to more ethical decisions for individual students, but also could allow teachers to identify the systemic causes of these individual cases — and help schools begin to make sustainable change.
For example, a discussion starting with how to support John could quickly ripple outward: Why do we maintain traditional detention? What will students learn from the practice? Have we measured its effectiveness? What alternatives might be more effective? By asking these questions, we can begin to unearth the root causes of many everyday challenges, and begin to rework structural barriers that impede our students’ success.
Without being able to address the underlying root causes, teachers are left to make uneasy compromises. I chose to keep John in the class, but had him work independently — making the call while juggling the needs of my other 19 students and knowing the bell was soon to ring. And while we continued our conversations — John and I — he continued to disrupt class throughout the year, and never was there time or the support to create successful sustainable strategies.
"Miss, I want to tell you. ...I’m pregnant.” Rosie was a shy senior whom I had just begun to really know over lunches and afternoon conversations. Academically she had been struggling, missing school often and inconsistently turning in assignments. It was 50–50 whether she could scrape together the credits to graduate on time.
“Miss, I want to graduate,” she said, her voice quiet but determined.
I couldn’t agree with her more: It was vital that she graduate.
Without a diploma, Rosie would face sub - stantial challenges. High school dropouts unable to compete for high-paying, high-skilled jobs, earn roughly $9,000 less a year than classmates who graduate. Fewer than one in four teen moms receive financial support from their child’s father, and half of teen mothers who drop out live below the poverty line. The impact on her baby would also be substantial — a higher likelihood of early health complications, of reading delays and lower test scores compared to babies born to older moms.
I knew, though, that Rosie was not a statistic. She is smart and thoughtful and determined — and like many teen moms, deeply motivated. She needed to graduate. But to do so, she would need our help. What should I do? A look at my grade-book confirmed that she was missing more than a dozen assignments including a major project and a test. Usually I maintained a one-week policy for submitting late work — at least a few of her assignments were a month overdue.
Rosie’s challenges are not unique. Many of my teenage students carry adult burdens. Some work as late as 3 a.m. on assembly lines to send money home to distant relatives, others rush from school to cleaning jobs to pay for heating bills. I have students who struggle with loneliness for families and homelands that are oceans away. There are others who replay memories of war, refugee camps, and flight. Some play peacemaker in volatile homes. Still others — like Rosie would soon be — are parents themselves.
We can’t ignore these real-life concerns. As teachers, it is essential to appreciate and address our students’ outside lives.
We cannot lower our expectations. But as many of the contributors in Levinson and Fay’s book point out, and as I have experienced, we can be flexible and creative in supporting each individual student.
Rosie and I met the next day to create a plan. We mapped out what assignments she was missing. I printed out new copies. I explained that for her I would make an exception to my one-week policy. It was important that she do the work, demonstrate mastery, but if it took her longer than her peers, she would not be penalized. I also reached out to a library tutor, arranging a time for her to meet daily to work through classwork and homework for both my class and others.
Equality in education need not mean treating students uniformly. Truly equitable education means seeing an individual with specific strengths and also specific needs. It means recognizing the structures and barriers that get in each student’s way and being deliberate and persistent in seeking ways to help students overcome them.
Most importantly, it requires inviting a student’s community into decisions that impact their future. It means not making those decisions alone but rather reaching beyond the classroom and fully partnering with teachers, coaches, guidance councilors, families, and, most importantly, students themselves.
Slowly, Rosie’s assignments trickled in. On numerous occasions she would spend lunches in my room, head down, working away. Some - times she would stop to talk. We spoke of her pregnancy, of her financial concerns. Once we made lists of baby names.
And then came graduation. Rosie turned in her last assignment only days before. Across the stage she walked, hair curled, nails polished, robe billowing. I couldn’t have clapped any louder.
Jessica Lander, Ed.M.'15, is a teacher and a journalist. She is a regular contributr to the Usable Knowledge blog and the Boston Globe, where she writes op-eds on education. She is the author of Driving Backwards, an award-winning nonfiction portrait of a small town in New Hampshire.
Photos by Diana Levine.