Legal: Ethics and law for teachers

When speaking to teachers about legal issues, it is common for us to make the point that although compliance with the details of legislation, employer policies, codes of conduct and so on is critical, there is a deeper issue.

That deeper issue is that the law and the procedural requirements imposed on teachers and school administrators are ultimately designed to ensure that certain basic (and uncontroversial) principles relating to integrity, the welfare of staff and students and so on, are complied with.

In that context, it is important that the values that members of the teaching profession have internalised are consistent with established teacher ethics (reflected in the law), and that a teacher’s or school administrator’s “instincts” should lead them to reflect, wherETHICSe appropriate, on whether they should take certain action, such as passing on information. It is those who lack these instincts or internalised values who are most at risk of engaging in misconduct or omitting to engage in appropriate conduct such as mandatory notification. The details of the imposed obligations must be complied with, and fully so, but the deeper issue is critical.

In its interim report in mid-2014, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse touched on this issue with its emphasis on the importance of culture, that is the creation in both administrators and those being administered of a culture facilitative of creating a safe environment for children.

We have recently become aware of a most interesting short book entitled “Ethics and Law for Teachers”, by Kenneth Crook and Derek Truscott (2007, Nelson Education, Canada). The authors were an academic psychologist and a retired lawyer who had had a substantial practice in this area. The key paragraphs in the preface are as follows:

“This text evolved out of the realisation that there was no single Canadian text that covered both ethical and legal principles for teachers, despite the fact that the understanding of such is a core element in a teacher’s education.”

“Both types of texts have their place and purpose, but it is our view that teachers in training ought to be presented with an opportunity to appreciate the interconnectedness of ethics and law.”

There is large literature on both education law and educational ethics. What is valuable about this book is the manner in which it seeks to approach the issues in the manner indicated above.

The first chapter, “An Introduction to Professional Ethics”, is followed by basic descriptions of the development and organisation of education in Canada, an overview of the legal process, a chapter on teaching as a profession and then chapters which deal with specific issues: “Private life, public role”, “Negligence”, “Teacher/student boundaries” (absolutely critical and the subject of many cases handled by us), “The rights of students”, “Discipline and punishment in the classroom”, “Controversy in the classroom” and “Diversity, equity and fairness”. The final chapter, “Ethical decision making”, then draws a lot of the issues together.

Although this book is eight years old and relates to Canada, it is of considerable relevance here, given that its rationale is to attempt to show how the law flows out of the ethics and how ethical awareness is the foundation for legal compliance. In addition, there are sufficient substantial similarities between the Australian and Canadian legal systems which make the text appropriate for Australian readers.

Many educational leaders, and particularly those engaged in the mentoring of young teachers, such as school administrators, may find the book a very useful consciousness raiser and source of ideas.

Andrew Knott
TressCox Lawyers

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 120 No 5, 17 July 2015, p.28