Daniella Forster

What is the moral work of teachers?

Ethics is a luxury good, in the public imagination. But some researchers project that by 2050, educational ethicists will be as common in schools as bioethicists are in healthcare.

Ethics in the classroom are time sensitive. Teachers may not have time for thoughtful decision-making on the spot and there are many missed opportunities to pause. Perhaps during policy making and report card writing there is time for thoughtful decision-making. Ethical decision-making requires us to slow down, consider stakeholder feedback, school goals, important relationships and the foundations on which we rest our educational purposes. 

It asks us to think about: what are our values, as a school? And how should we live these values? When we make a line in the sand about serving the most vulnerable students, it can inform the other 5000 micro decisions made later in the classroom. But values can be ‘fuzzy’- think of the value of ‘inclusion’, ‘equity’ or ‘meritocracy’. These values remain obstinately ambiguous unless time is taken in conversation and thoughtful dialogue, to create a sense of mutual intelligibility. And if some shared understanding is possible, we next need to ask – where does the responsibility for collective, values-driven action sit.  How should the plan of action, aligned with core values, be established and sustained in a schooling environment? 

Educational ethics offers us ways of guiding the ethical core of teaching and education. As a field, educational ethics seeks to build collectivity across foundational disciplines including sociology, policy, history, philosophy, psychology, pedagogy, curriculum and technologies, and views as essential practitioner insights into the ethical dimensions of schooling and child care. It is not only the domain of philosophers, each discipline brings important perspectives to the table. But we cannot underestimate philosophy’s influence, given its long history and tradition.One could be mistaken for thinking that educational ethics is a new field.  There are established areas of educational research and practice in the ‘moral work of teachers and teaching’ , new work in ‘professional ethics and the law’ as well as in ‘moral education’ , the humanising practice of philosophy with teachers and a multi-faceted approach of the normative case study.  Many may not be aware that there is an arm of UNESCO called the International Institute of Educational Planning (IIEP)whose substantive work has been to stamp out corruption in educational systems all over the world. IIEP provides support for the grounded development, establishment and sustenance of teacher codes of ethics and conduct. It has shone a light on cheating in Australian education

So what is educational ethics, if not in the “moral work of teaching”, “professional ethics and the law” and “moral education”? Some have proposed that educational ethics can be a canopy under which these and other areas of inquiry about the ethical dimensions of schools, as well as child care, tertiary and educational policy more broadly – not just the work of teachers- can be housed. Despite the fact that teaching is ‘all over the map’, there are some ethical issues which bring educators closer to one another than to other professions, and real concern to address the demoralisation in the profession. Attention to these shared, but complex and multidimensional ethical features of teaching and ‘dilemmatic spaces’ can be raised more systematically and collectively if the field itself comes together, recognising that there have been specialised sub-fields already with histories and learning to share. This shared interest doesn’t presume homogeneity or natural agreement, except, perhaps, that education in all its forms, is inescapably, normatively loaded. 

The immediate challenge is that educational ethics has a big backyard to grow in across Australia. Growing educational ethics could allow us to explore moral issues and dilemmas specifically within the Australian education field such as researchers found in assessment practices, those critical ethical tensions which emerged during the pandemic and the lack of perceived respect for the profession of teaching. Some have recognised how Australian teachers are doing principled ethical work in the form of ‘counter conduct’ to resist demoralising pressures placed upon them. What is needed are high quality resources that enable our teachers, educational policy makers and school leaders to engage productively with these and other issues. We have broad ranging ethical concerns which need new theoretical and pedagogical tools for clarifying values, supporting ethical dialogue and leadership, as well as recognised challenges in our pre-service teacher programs for ethics education and the cultivation of morality, ‘ethical noticing’ and the ‘moral imagination‘. Proposed ethical decision-making models, the thoughtful use of our teacher codes of ethics in teacher education and normative case studies drawn from Australian researchers may be particularly useful to augment professional learning in the field here. 

The normative case study is different from other versions of short dilemmas and case studies used in introductory texts. Using normative case studies creates opportunities for thoughtful dialogue about polarising issues and dilemmas. It brings diverse viewpoints into contact and facilitates civil disagreement about what matters, what ought to be done and why whilst building understanding between differing viewpoints.  Examples of Australian-based normative case studies deal with dilemmas about teaching climate change and the influence of fossil fuel sponsorship in underfunded public schools,  and the role of religion and ethics in Australian public schools. There are many issues needing attention of educational ethics, like rethinking the idea of teacher responsibility or how to get the educational benefits of ‘controversy’ in the curriculum without causing moral panic. Other urgent issues have special resonance in Australian education such as how to ethically honour our First Nations and tell difficult truths; how to navigate our cultural diversity alongside nationalism in Australian democracy; how to triage diverse needs in our classrooms; and other big questions of the role of education in Australian society. 

Educational ethics offers opportunities for us to engage with different value-laden perspectives that challenge our biases and preferences. There are better and worse options to step forward, as ethical relativism is not a viable option for making pragmatic change. We need to better distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable ethical compromises and build understanding about how to act on shared values once we find the grounding of a reflective equilibrium. We have codes of conduct in public and independent schools as well as the early childhood sector, standards, curriculum mandates, and school cultures with questionable policies. What is the ‘norm’ in one setting might look quite different in another, even if commonalities, like the curriculum or uniform policy remain. This post hasn’t been able to point comprehensively to Australian research which could be included under the canopy of educational ethics, but it is important that we continue to develop new research in educational ethics to draw attention to both emerging and perennial normative dimensions of our educational practices and policies. For the educational ethicist it is to consult and open dialogue for professional learning in education communities that inches towards a more just system and its practices. This builds understanding of educators’ legal, social and ethical responsibilities, and provides insight into how to establish more ethical policies in education.


Daniella Forster is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, University of Newcastle and was a visiting scholar at Harvard Graduate School of Education in May this year. She is an educational ethicist, researcher and teacher educator with qualifications in philosophy and as a secondary teacher. Daniella is interested in dialogic pedagogies, ethics and epistemology, educational policy and the normative case study methodology.