Ethics and the Law

posted Mar 13, 2013, 8:47 AM by Dawn Gernhardt   [ updated Mar 13, 2013, 8:48 AM ]

Some of the most crucial ethical dilemmas in my school are prejudice (due to the diverse student body) and the moral codes, beliefs, and values of all of the students and teachers.The profound influences on my students’ thoughts about these issues are endless, including how well they do in school, how well they do in their lives, how they make and keep friends and social relationships, how they fit or don’t fit into their families and communities, their self-esteem, belonging, and identity. One example of a real ethical challenge common to most of my students is what constitutes a moral dilemma based upon student’s beliefs, religion, and upbringing.

Students handle the situation in a variety of ways: quietly, in their peer groups, in class for the outgoing/outspoken students, privately, with their teachers, with their families, with their communities, or it just goes under the radar (sometimes people don’t have the social or ethical intelligence, exposure, or background to even understand that something is racist or may be considered unethical by some standards).

The stories I bring in to talk about these issues so far in my teacher candidate career are short stories Beauty is Truth (African American main character whose life is challenging) and American History (Hispanic American being discriminated against by her friend’s mom), and the novella Of Mice and Men (dealing with migrant farming, sexism, racism, mentally challenged people, murder, euthanasia, dealing with anger, discrimination, segregation, worker’s rights, the American dream, and disabilities). I look forward to reading Bless Me, Ultima (set in the 1940s in rural Mexico and contains adult language, and because some of the content is violent and contains sexual references), it has been included in the list of most commonly challenged books in the U.S. or Night (experiencing a concentration camp with his father in the Nazi German and having lost his faith in God and mankind) which my new co-teacher has on her potential reading list. These topics naturally present themselves in readings, when setting context and history.

My policy for journals, book selection, speech topics and more have been thus far based on what my cooperating teachers have listed in their syllabi at the start of the year. I start in a new classroom on Tuesday, January 29, and look forward to seeing my cooperating teacher’s syllabus that she introduced at the beginning of the school year. In syllabi I typically see topics that most commonly address journals, movies, speeches, grading, internet use, copyright, reading materials, grading, assessment, and plagiarism/cheating. Other legal issues that I’ve seen more commonly are special education needs and whether to teach to the test, teach to the grade, or “ensure learning” so that all students improve their knowledge and skills regardless of the test results.

Some students may come home with things “their teacher said,” that they interpret in one way, that may have been completely opposite of the teacher’s intent. The students’ thoughts arrive at home, to other teachers, and other students and that can both protect students and impact (sometimes harm the teacher).  I once had one of my son’s teachers say at the beginning of the school year, “You know kids are going to come home with lots of things from class. Remember, they also come to school with lots of things from home. I’ll take into consideration that some of what they say might not have quite happened like that if you do the same.”

One legal issue that’s likely at the heart of some students is  how students are forced to go to school when they might not want to or buy into the “system” or don’t care, about their education (at least for now, and can be common for English learners). This topic wasn’t broached in the chapters, likely because it doesn’t really impact teachers, but more students and their civil rights.

I would like to find stories and information to bring in to talk about these issues. Other than the syllabus, I’ve never heard of a teacher discussing these issues with students.  One teacher I asked said they wouldn’t want to give the students anything to look for. I’ve also seen teachers discuss the issues that relate to students during Back to School Night with parents.  


Written in response to Burke, T. English Teacher's Companion. 3rd Edition. Chapter 19 "Ethics and the Study of English" (p. 415) and Chapter 21 "English Teachers and the Law" (pg. 439).

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