Originally published in educational Horizons Fall 1995. 8-10.

The Ethical Miseducation of Educators
1999 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed.D.

edited 4/24/19

Change-of-career entrants into teaching are perhaps the best prospect for reform in education. Mature people in their thirties, forties and even fifties, generally with a great deal of organizational experience under their belt are leaving the corporate world, leaving industry, and, having raised children, leaving the household, looking for something "new and different," something "more human," some undertaking that has concerns other than "the almighty dollar."

Undergraduate teacher candidates are commonly unselfpossessed, befuddled by pedagogical catchwords, and often all-too-ready to abandon what few ethical precepts they have for the sake of a job. In contrast, these change-of-career entrants come into education with a sharpened critical sensitivity that often leaves them dismayed upon first exposure to the ethical and political morasses not infrequently encountered in education today. That there is an ethical dimension to education need hardly be argued to this experienced group. Inexperienced undergraduates, on the contrary, generally only want to talk about technique.

Mature individuals recognize that there is almost always a trade-off to be made among the needs of an individual student, the needs of a class of students and the needs of the school at large. Even deeper are the questions as to who is to say what those needs are; and, upon what principles decisions adjudicating among those needs are to be based.

For example, here is a list of questions every classroom teacher confronts and, in effect, decides upon, whether consciously or thoughtlessly:

  1. Should a talkative student be silenced for the sake of the class?
  2. Should students be grouped so their individual sense of accomplishment is enhanced, or for the sake of the least adept among them?
  3. When should student infractions of the rules be overlooked?
  4. Should grading be based on achievement or should effort be factored in?
  5. Should students be taught to tolerate those things their parents believe are immoral?
  6. When should a teacher not follow administrative policy?
  7. When and with what vigor should a teacher intervene when students annoy, insult and injure one another?
  8. Should classroom discipline aim at behavioral change or equality of treatment?

In the public schools where I worked, interest in such questions varied inversely with the tenor of the school. If the school environment was generally calm and congenial, no one felt any need to do more than give occasional lip service to such concerns. Why rock the boat? However, in the troubled schools I spent the greater part of my career in, such questions were the incessant topics of conversation.

In my experience teaching philosophy of education at the university level I have found undergraduates to be generally dismissive of ethical concerns. They expect that their principal or their school's policies will give them ready answers. The change-of-career teacher candidates can hardly get enough discussion of such questions. They know that policies are one thing, but in-the-trench-decisions are quite another.

However, it is not just a matter of maturity. Too many teacher and administrator preparation programs produce not thinking, ethically sensitive individuals, but slogan-spouting cogs for mindless bureaucratic machines. Evidence for this harsh judgment abounds. Just pick up any standard teacher-training text -- they have such subtitles as "Introduction to Teaching" -- and you will find scant, if any, evidence that the nearly 100-year-old discipline of organizational studies exists. Teachers are generally indoctrinated to believe that organizational happenings depend on the unique actions of unique individuals in unique social structures. When something goes wrong, there's always someone -- likely a teacher -- to blame.

Administrator-trainees get a different perspective. They study organization theory in detail. And what they learn is this: organizations fall into types, their problems are typical and what's more, unavoidable. No one is necessarily to blame when something problematic happens, although it is useful not to let teachers onto this, since guilt is such a good controlling device. From this discrepancy in training, we encounter the peculiar ritual of scapegoating in which teachers are prone to take the blame for situations beyond their control, while administrators have more than enough knowledge (excuses) to "cover their assets." An typical example is that of a principal admonishing his teachers that average daily attendance has dropped. A surprising number of teachers will respond by worrying what part they played in bringing about the situation. Most administrators know better than to consider such institutional variance to be the consequence of individual action, even if they let their teachers stew in their moral misconceptions for the sake of keeping them docile.

Organizational conflicts often produce ethical dilemmas. Chart 1 indicates typical organizational conflicts not unique to schools compared with typical schooling examples

Organizational Conflict (1)
School Example
Following policy vs.
Sensitivity to individuals
Standardizing the curriculum vs. Individualization of instruction
Delegating authority vs.
Pursuit of unauthorized goals
"Real" student government activities vs. 
Free time for teachers' pets.
Process orientation vs. Product orientation
Carnegie Units vs. OBE
Expressing power vs. Maintaining morale
Compelling behavior vs.
Sustaining commitment

Chart 1

While administrator-candidates are exposed to more sophisticated approaches to personal and organizational responsibility than are teacher-candidates, they tend to be uncomfortable with questions that examine the conflicts between school administrators and the communities that employ them. Notice that I write, "the communities that employ them," not "the communities they serve." This is an important distinction to any would-be superintendent who wonders why at this late date in the Twentieth Century the average length of tenure for a superintendent is less than three years. For too many would-be school leaders, "serve" means "sell-out to the most vehement group in the community." "Democracy" is invoked to rationalize our surrender to almost any vociferous political group that places its own interests above those of the children who are compelled by law to enjoy, or suffer, our ministrations.

Without an educational ethic, a personal code, at least, for teaching and administration that is importantly independent of the local mores of the communities we work in, we, teachers and administrators, are not professionals. We are, as teachers and administrators, not even ethical beings.

See, also,


(1) These conflicts are described in James G. March and Herbert A. Simon, Organizations (New York: Wiley, 1958) and applied to the school setting in Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki, Understanding Schools (New York: Harper, 1990) pp. 195-269