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A Teacher Faced with an Ethical Dilemma 1

A Teacher Faced with an Ethical Dilemma

By Mary Bates, Liza Bauyon, Lea Grupe, and Erin Korol

EDUC 525
Law and Ethics
July 22, 2018


Trust is at the core of education. In order to form pedagogical

relationships with students, parents, and administration, the

teacher must work at cultivating an I-Thou attitude. It can be

difficult for a teacher to keep these relationships in tact when

faced with an ethical dilemma. This paper examines one such

scenario by analyzing three ethical schools of thought that a

teacher may consider when determining a correct judgement in

such situations so as to maintain as much trust as is possible.

A Teacher Faced with an Ethical Dilemma 2

A Teacher Faced with an Ethical Dilemma

Teaching is, by its very nature, an ethical endeavor. Martin Buber’s theory of the I-thou

relationship (Cooper, Palmer & Bresler, 2002) is found at the core of teaching and involves a

tremendous amount of trust between teachers, colleagues, students and parents. What, then, is a

teacher to do when faced with an ethical dilemma that threatens this trust? We will examine this

question through analysis of the following hypothetical scenario involving two teaching

colleagues, their students, and a position of power. We will apply various ethical schools of

thought including virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and postmodern ethics.

Imagine that Mr. Smith, the school principal, and Ms. Taylor are both ninth grade

teachers at The Best School in Calgary. The school is preparing to take the annual Provincial

Achievement Test (PAT). Mr. Smith is a long-time principal-teacher and over those years his

classes have always done very well on the PAT. Ms. Taylor is a first year teacher who looks up

to Mr. Smith as her teacher mentor. This year, both grade nine classes have many English

Second Language (ESL) students who have had great difficulty in some subject areas due to

language issues. Mr. Smith has met with Ms. Taylor and told her that they will have to assist the

ESL students who take the PAT by giving verbal cues to them during the test. Mr. Smith told

Ms. Taylor that there was no need for her to discuss this with anyone as he is the principal and

knows what it best for the students. In fact, he made it clear that it was a matter only for them as

the grade nine teachers and nobody else. He then said that there would be two exam rooms set

up, one with all grade nine ESL students and one with all remaining students. Ms. Taylor is fully

aware that Mr. Smith’s plan would constitute unprofessional conduct under the Teaching

Profession Act and is against PAT administration protocol. The test scores for the ESL students

will be invalid. Ethically, what, if anything, should Ms. Taylor do?

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Firstly, if we look at this dilemma through a virtue ethics lens, we would examine the

character of Ms. Taylor before she was faced with this situation and see if her ultimate decision

aligns with her fundamental and true character. The school has a good reputation on the PAT that

Ms. Taylor would like to continue, she is a new teacher who looks up to Mr. Smith and one

would assume she admired his character up until this point. Seeing him in this scenario may fade

this admiration if she feels he is making an unethical choice. Virtue ethics would dictate that she

not go along with his plan. Mr. Smith’s plan would be going against Alberta Education and the

Alberta Teachers’ Association, the governing bodies that Ms. Taylor values as an educator. Even

though Mr. Smith is Ms. Taylor’s superior, it does not mean she needs to follow his orders. She

needs to do what she believes is ethical and she is fully aware that his plan would invalidate the

test results. Her decision comes from the entirety of her character, not from this one

circumstance. “It is in the doing – the acting out on an ethical matter that is where the ethical

virtue of the individual is revealed” (Donlevy & Walker, 2010, cited in Ethics Handout, 2014, p.

16). Alberta Education’s PAT administration protocol is put in place to maintain the integrity

and validity of the test. Even though the results might be slightly worse if she goes against Mr.

Smith’s plan, Ms. Taylor would need to stay true to the protocol to achieve true honesty with the

results. “A decision made with practical wisdom is made with eyes wide open to all the pre-

existing elements, the contextual factors, and the consequences to those affected with the

decision” (Donlevy & Walker, 2010, cited in Ethics Handout, 2014, p. 17). Practically, this is the

best thing to do, to avoid consequences such as losing her teaching license or suspension. This

clearly trumps a possible consequence of her teaching contract not being renewed at this

particular school because of a disagreement with the principal.

Next, we may consider the viewpoint from the deontological school of ethics. In this case, “a
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person should do the right thing regardless of the consequences” (Donlevy & Walker, 2010, cited

in Ethics Handout, 2014, p. 18). It is clear again that Ms. Taylor cannot go along with Mr.

Smith’s plan as it goes against rules set out by Alberta Education which governs both of them. If

she looks at who she owes a duty to in her decision, she has obligations as a teacher to “act in

accord to ethical principles or rules” (Donlevy & Walker, 2010, cited in Ethics Handout, 2014,,

p. 18). The Provincial Achievement Test rules from Alberta Education (2018) show that all PAT

tests must be administered without any assistance from supervising teachers in any way that

would undermine the validity of student responses. Such assistance would only be condoned if

approved by the superintendent and documented as accommodation. If we look at the golden rule

of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, we can see that Ms. Taylor would not

appreciate being lied to or deceived if she were expecting her employees to administer a test in

accordance with the rules that she had set in place. If we look at it from a parent perspective,

they would expect teachers to follow protocol for their children. Perhaps a lower score from ESL

student would help identify much needed support areas in the school instead of masking them

with false results. The categorical imperative principle would say “to make an ethical decision it

must be universally applicable to all persons including the decision maker” (Donlevy & Walker,

2010, cited in Ethics Handout, 2014, p. 18). The potential consequences of Ms. Taylor deciding

not to go along with Mr. Smith’s plan could include them no longer having a friendly mentor

relationship, or Mr. Smith possibly trying to further intimidate Ms. Taylor as her superior or a

threat of her teaching contract not being renewed. Through these consequences, the principles of

honesty and trust must be upheld so she should not go forward with his plan no matter how much

she may want to keep their professional relationship strong.

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Lastly, examination from the postmodern ethics standpoint would ask what Ms. Taylor’s

immediate intuitive reaction to the ethical decision she faces. “Moral choices are rarely either

good or bad. Often it is the choice between the lesser of two evils” (Donlevy & Walker, 2010,

cited in Ethics Handout, 2014, p. 24). Her situation involves choosing between upsetting her

fellow teacher and mentor who is also her superior, and the institution for which they both

answer to and governs their conduct as educators. As a quick reaction, a postmodern view may

say that Ms. Taylor should just go ahead and agree to Mr. Smith’s plan as he’s been probably

doing this same thing for years and it isn’t really going to hurt anyone. It puts their school in a

favorable light and she looks up to him and wants to be agreeable so that her working

relationship is not affected in a negative way. As a first year teacher, she knows that she may not

have all of the experiential knowledge in this situation. The moral urge she may feel would be

that it is not the most honest thing to do, but it is also not as severe as changing marks or

answers, they would simply be assisting those students who are at a disadvantage because of

language barriers. This school of ethics “calls upon the individual, in her or his solitude, to listen

to the existential urge to be in relationship with the other and to act in a human fashion, with

care” (Donlevy & Walker, 2010, cited in Ethics Handout, 2014, p. 25). As long as Ms. Taylor is

acting free of preconceptions and fully aware of the consequences of her actions, then she must

act in the best interest of the context in which she finds herself. She is aware of the invalid test

results but that may not be as big of a deal and something that she can live with.

Ethics aside, The Alberta Teachers’ Association Code of Conduct states that the “teacher

recognizes the duty to protest through proper channels administrative policies and practices

which the teacher cannot in conscience accept” (ATA, 2018, no. 16). It also states that “the

teacher protests the assignment of duties for which the teacher is not qualified or conditions
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which make it difficult to render professional service” (ATA, 2018, no. 8). Though Ms. Taylor

may feel alright with making a slight PAT accommodation for the grade nine ESL students as

suggested by Mr. Smith, the ultimate resolution needs to be in line with the professional

organizations which govern her employment as they are in place for her protection. We feel that

she should tell Mr. Smith that she does not want to break the rules of the PAT administration set

by Alberta Education and encourage him to administer the test as per the guidelines or consult

the superintendent if he feels that the ESL students need any special accommodation. If he

continues to insist on going forward with his plan, according to section 24 of the Teaching

Profession Act, she would need to contact the superintendent or the ATA to report Mr. Smith.

She would not want to lose her teaching position simply to appease Mr. Smith and it could be a

slippery slope leading to more serious acts of dishonesty in the future if she condones his plan,

not to mention the loss of respect from other colleagues who became aware of the situation.
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Alberta Education. (2018). Public Education: Acts and Regulations: Teaching Profession Act.

Retrieved from:


Alberta Education. (2017). Security & Provincial Achievement Testing Materials. Retrieved


Alberta Teachers’ Association: Code of Professional Conduct. (2018). Retrieved from:


Cooper, D., Palmer, J., & Bresler, L. (2002). Fifty major thinkers on education: From Confucius

to Dewey. Routledge. Retrieved from:


Ethics Handout. (2014). Excerpts from the following book: Donlevy, J.K., Walker, K.W. (2010).

Working through Ethics in Education: Two Plays and Ethical Analysis. Sense

Publications, Netherlands. Retrieved