When teachers' ethics come into question

More school districts warm to lessons in correct conduct, hoping to stem a tide of ethical lapses

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The first gift that teachers at Woodstock High School received this year wasn't a new laptop or tickets to the homecoming game. Instead, they were all handed a fresh copy of the Georgia school's version of the Ten Commandments: the Teacher Code of Ethics.

In the past, even some administrators may never have looked twice at that particular tablet. But now this seemingly obvious list of "thou shalt nots" is taking on a powerful poignancy in these densely developed hills just north of Atlanta: Over the summer, one male teacher at the school was convicted of child abuse, while two others were indicted. The three 20-somethings, all buddies, hadn't been roughing up students, but soliciting them at school for sex.

It's become a familiar and disturbing front-page story from Nashua, N.H., to Fayetteville, N.C.: Teacher as predator, teacher as cheater, teacher as con artist. And the public uproar is having an impact. For the first time here in Cherokee County, all 73 new teachers this year had to take a crash course in correct conduct.

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There's no hard proof that moral missteps are on the increase among teachers; more likely, they are just getting greater publicity. What's more, teachers overall are more virtuous than the rest of the population: Less than 1 percent get in legal trouble each year, compared with about 6 percent of the general population.

Still, a growing number of school districts are warming to the idea of ethics classes. Band rooms and classrooms from Washington to Florida have seen a new threshold of questionable behavior in the last few years: being willing to change test scores to get a bonus, getting intoxicated on field trips, or gossiping about students at hair salons - only to find the kid's aunt two dryers down. Administrators are also noting more sex scandals - a growing number of which involve sexually mature middle-schoolers.

The result is that more states are opting to address ethical lapses by having a serious heart-to-heart with prospective teachers. And they're moving beyond the codes of ethics that have grown up in the past to a potentially more powerful approach: making ethics a subject of study in and of itself.

"We're living in a fast-paced world," says Vicky Brantley, Georgia's education ethics czar. "A few years ago we wouldn't have thought about some of the problems that come up today."

In Georgia, the New South's juggernaut, the state ethics manual is required reading in all 35 teachers colleges. And, as in about half the states, all teachers are also fingerprinted and their background checked against a national database list of questionable teacher prospects.

One influence behind the change is high turnover. The 120,000-person Georgia teacher corps is in constant flux, with thousands of teachers leaving and entering the system every summer. A teacher shortage has also forced the state to offer blitz courses for certification.

Both factors put pressure on administrators to get teachers on solid ground before they stand up in front of the class. "They're harping on us about ethics like never before," says Melissa Burgess, a Kennesaw (Ga.) State University senior who hopes to teach middle school.

But, says Ms. Brantley, a little professional advice never hurts.

As a deputy secretary at the Georgia Department of Standards, Brantley is on the front lines of the ethics debate. She's in such high demand that the state has now developed an "Ethics 101" videotape.

Some of her tips are very straightforward. Avoid personal e-mails to students: "It's easy for things to get out of hand." Also, don't be alone in a room with a student of the opposite sex. "Be on your guard. You want to be accessible, but not too accessible," she says.

Teachers are allowed to make mistakes. And as 75 future teachers at Kennesaw State are told by Brantley at a recent seminar, the bureaucracy tends to reward honesty with compassion. It's much better, for example, to admit to having a drunk-driving conviction, even though it could become a certification issue, than to lie.

In Georgia, one of a dozen states with highly unstable teacher populations, the current tack seems to most to be pragmatic. In places with more stable teacher populations, however, the effort to tighten regulation is causing friction. In Bangor, Maine, for example, the governor and the teachers union clashed this year over a bill that demands that all teachers - even veterans - get fingerprinted.

But legal changes have made it risky for districts to ignore the problem - or to cover up embarrassing dalliances by simply sending the offender quietly away.

"It's a fact that these kinds of things are publicized much more today, and in the end, that's good," says Paul Longo, an education consultant in Sacramento, Calif. "Those states that are doing the most today to ensure that no kid is going to get molested are the ones that have faced high-publicity cases."

Certainly, there are a growing number of cases that trouble even longtime observers. Last spring, two young female teachers at the same school in Maryland were fired for carrying on relationships with boys in their classes.

But not every infraction is about sex. The trend toward bonuses for teachers whose students score well on standardized tests has led to a boom in teacher cheating. And then there are personal issues. "One teacher was fired for changing the answers on a test," Brantley says. "She said the student didn't deserve to get promoted."

Another Georgia teacher recently got into trouble for her dealings with a child's prescription drugs for hyperactivity. She found they worked so well that she started giving it to other students in the class.

And several Georgia coaches chaperoning an away-game went out for a drink after shutting out the lights on their students at a local hotel. While they were out partying, one of the student athletes became violently ill. The parents had to be called. The coaches, when they did arrive, were in no shape to deal with the emergency.

Perhaps the classic case of moral confusion happened recently in California: A young teacher was fired for downloading pornography on a school computer.

"When he was confronted, the guy said, 'Well, what's wrong with that? I can download anything I want from my home computer, so why not here?' " explains Mr. Longo, who has spent most of his career analyzing teacher misbehavior. "All the sorts of things that would ring a hundred bells for most people rang no bells for this guy. It doesn't mean he's an evil person. It means that he doesn't get it. So I guess that's why there's a need for [ethics education] for teachers."

For the young adults tumbling out of the KSU seminar, the powers that be may find it difficult to stem problems. "I understand what they're trying to do," says Jeremy Green, "but I don't think a seminar is going to stop anybody who's got his heart set on dating his students."

Some also wonder whether the trend of paying teachers bonuses for test scores isn't itself an ethical breach. At the very least, it puts pressure on teachers to do "whatever it takes" to get scores up.

What's more, the state itself is touting a new "Teach for Georgia" campaign that makes it easy for professionals in other fields to become teachers.

"What do they expect?" says Artie Peterson. "It reminds me of Rosie the Riveter times in World War II, when they were pulling people off the streets and putting them in factories."

To some veteran teachers, the idea of being "on guard" around students is a sad commentary.

At a time when people need strong personal relationships with older role models and mentors, teachers are being asked to step back into almost a managerial role, says Tom Moore, a French teacher in Bingham, Maine, who started teaching in the 1950s.

"This is all leading to an impersonal corporate state," says Mr. Moore, who protested the new fingerprinting bill in Maine. "Already, we have to do everything by committee, so we meet as a faceless corporate structure, and we have more paperwork, everything in triplicate, copies shipped to the state and to the superintendent, as if we're dealing with freight being shipped or something."

Seen in that light, some observers say teachers may just be easy targets for deeper hypocrisies in society.

"Our society has changed drastically since the 1980s," says Don Gillig, a TV-producer-turned-teacher-in-training. "Parents, especially in middle-class communities like this one, are so busy driving their SUVs to work and watching TV at night, that they're not talking to their kids. So, in effect, we have a bunch of kids who are being psychologically orphaned at the age of 14 and pawned off on the schools."

Administrators, too, have noticed a profound change in the high school culture. Many teachers are shocked at the audacity of their charges' outfits. "Kids today tend to be more provocative and sophisticated than ever," Brantley says.

Indeed, in the parking lot at Woodstock High School, farm boys saunter toward their trucks, as tough guys with slicked-back hair slide into their souped-up Asian cars, subwoofers thumping. Taking style points from Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, a good percentage of the girls are trying to look like anything but the gawky teenagers they remain.

Waiting in front of Woodstock for her daughter, Tammy Tippins, a prison guard, says that the children are not to be blamed for a teacher's moral morass. Last year, she pulled her freshman daughter out of Woodstock after the arrests of the three teachers.

"I take a hard view, and I see these guys as child molesters," says Ms. Tippins. "My daughter's reaction was, she just couldn't understand how it could happen. She asked me, 'Don't they know we're just kids?' "

As a result of the scandal, the administration tightened up the dress code. And families, at least for the moment, seem more watchful.

At the root of the problem, some say, is a generation of teachers that has come of age never having learned basic rights and wrongs.

"It's sad that we have to go out and teach things that should be obvious," says Harry Wilson, an education lawyer who helped write North Carolina's teacher-ethics code.

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