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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Modeling Ethical Conduct in the Classroom

Margaret Regan

Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute

Encouraging ethical conduct in the classroom is critical to successful teaching. There are many theories about behavioral management; however, fundamentally each of them operates on the school's foundation of a common belief set. Therefore, a teacher must dedicate adequate time to establish and reinforce those beliefs with his or her classes. If they are clear and accepted, they will carry you through some difficult days in the school year.

Successful teachers begin with the intention of benefiting their students. They may come to the classroom enthused about each school year, but too soon these good intentions often wear thin. Some students seem unprepared to learn; others are chronically absent. The frustrations of trying to teach students who lack motivation can become a burden. No matter how much you pool your capacity for motivating others, you are bound to experience frustration with one child or another. Even society as a whole is responsible for this lack of acceptable norms. Television reinforces poor conduct and rude behavior. This is why it is vital to teach ethical behavior in our classrooms. Ethical conduct fundamentally is respect: respect for others, respect for oneself.

Attention and Orchestration

One of the first steps is to teach students active listening. It is no longer a natural talent for people to actively listen to one another. Most of us are drowned all day in a sea of sound and distractions from technology and media. Consequently, the classroom must become an antidote to the rest of the world. If a student can learn from others by actively listening to what they say, he or she has the space to think. This is what a teacher creates when there is respectful listening in school.

Focused attention is a significant starting point for education; to actually open one's mind in the present tense to new and different ideas, and to hear the discourse from others are the essential beginnings of one's education. Ethical conduct requires that everyone in the classroom practice respect and well being as a central motivation for learning. As their teacher, you are the orchestrator. Respect and compassion mean that you cannot disregard bad actions. They must be addressed without impeding the course of learning.

Your classroom motto, mission, relevant quotations, bulletin boards, situation of desks and cleanliness of the room all become the foundation of what students experience as they enter your room. Here are a few simple tasks that can yield long-term benefits.

  • Ensure that you face students who are speaking in class.
  • Stand so that you have sightlines that allow everyone to be noticed.
  • Mention students' good behavior and successful completion of assignments more frequently than you mention those that go wrong.
  • Sit or noticeably pause to listen when a student is making an important point.
  • Write good ideas on the board for later consideration.
  • Teach the art of piggybacking ideas in class discussion so that students learn to connect what they are saying to the ideas of the person who spoke before them.
  • Remember that your own physical presence in the room models your mission.

Everything is a Contribution

Think of oppositional behavior as an ingenuous attempt to actually contribute. It is disrespectful, to be sure, but it can also be viewed as a student's attempt to divert knowledge and power from you. Therefore, examine carefully when and how a student is taking attention from your lesson and placing it on him- or herself. Listen for the underlying meaning of what they say and/or do. What sort of power system has been set up in the classroom so that a student feels it is necessary to undermine it? Demonstrate you are listening for the smallest positive contribution from them no matter how off-topic. Acknowledgement of good action is a strong motivator for students to continue to succeed in class.

It is critical to promote ethical conduct throughout the school year. Do not give up. Instilling respect for each another is as important as your subject! Teachers do not only teach content, but they must also teach the ethical behavior that has too long been neglected in our larger society.




Margaret Regan

Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute
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Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Octavio Rodriguez's picture
Octavio Rodriguez
High School Teacher, Hoffman Estates

I always explain to my students from day one the rules that must be followed in my class I cover everything from respect to expectations that I have for the class. This explanation is important because I cover ethical issues and why some of the rules are put into place by me and by the school. I have found that when this is done students conduct themselves in an ethical manner when we work in projects work with other students and work in groups. Students also gain a greater respect for me because they know that I am firm and fair. There are so many teachers don't ever cover rules and expectations and then the ethical nature of the students change. They will try and get away with as much as possible and will always have issues in their class. In the 13 years of teaching I have not had an issue when it comes to student treatment of other students or ethical conduct in class.

Dr. Thomas Troisi's picture
Dr. Thomas Troisi
Assistant Superintendent/ Valley Stream Central High School District

Truer words were never spoken! Thank you Margaret. Why is it that we tend to forget that children are people too? Thus, as teachers, if we do not model respectful behavior for our students, then who will?

Mary-Helen Rossi's picture
Mary-Helen Rossi
Business Director at Merge Education

Margaret, an excellent post to which I'd like to offer one change: ethical behavior is not "as important as your subject" ... it is more important, as seen today where there is an abundance of technical and academic knowledge but a deficit of ethical behavior!

Teachers truly do model to students at every moment - and I believe that the most important things we model are our desire to 'be there' and our sincerity in trying to be good human beings.

Thanks for the post!

Octavio Rodriguez's picture
Octavio Rodriguez
High School Teacher, Hoffman Estates

I was asked before who should be the person that teachers ethical behavior to students. I think that its a difficult subject to address because this has changed from the time that I great up. I knew the difference between right and wrong and this was all explained and told to me by my parents when ever there was a good teaching moment but now days I don't know if that happens that often in today's world. I wonder what would happen if would teach something that we believed to be ethical but the parents of the students did not. Who would decide who creates the ethical lessons for the students?

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