As an educational ethicist, I research teachers’ ethical obligations. These can include their personal ethics such as protecting students from harm, respect for justice and truth, and professional norms like social conformity, collegial loyalty and student wellbeing. Moral tensions in schools can come about when certain categories of norms conflict with each other. For example, sometimes students’ best interests are pitted against available resources. These present difficult decisions for the teacher, the school community and its leaders.
As part of a global study on educational ethics during the pandemic, I conducted focus groups with Australian childcare, preschool, primary and secondary school teachers to find out what ethical issues were most pressing for them. Below are three ways in which the pandemic highlighted existing tensions between ethical priorities.
1. Student wellbeing versus learning
The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers emphasise student wellbeing is important to learning. But they note teachers’ main priority is making sure the student learns at their stage of the Australian National Curriculum.
During COVID, this flipped and wellbeing took precedence. A primary school teacher told me:
It’s the first time in my teaching career where the learning became a low priority, and wellbeing took over … if we could keep them chugging along, that was good enough.
An Aboriginal-identifying teacher who shared their strong cultural background with students said:
… a lot of the Aboriginal students … didn’t have access to … resources. And so there was already this disconnect that became even wider by the time they had to learn from home … Some students were not able to complete the work that I was putting on the online forum because they were caring for little brothers and sisters when they were at home … or home life was extremely volatile …
A secondary school teacher said:
There were certain students that we were made aware of by the wellbeing coordinators that we weren’t to make contact with. If there were more extenuating circumstances in the life of the child then we weren’t to … exacerbate that by sending emails home about them not completing work …
Some teachers found it particularly difficult to identify students at heightened risk and to put in place their duty of care requirements.
A public primary school principal in a low socioeconomic area said:
We had a couple of instances where we would have had more contact with family, community services and since (then) we have heard stories of what happened when the children weren’t coming to school … we would have made an instant call to DOCS [Department of Community Services], but because we weren’t having that day to day contact we didn’t know. A lot of those things were hidden, very serious issues.
— Study International (@Study_INTNL) November 6, 2020
2. Government policy versus staff wellbeing
Leading teachers and principals found the tension between their personal safety and that of their colleagues were often in conflict with a lag in institutional directives. For instance, on March 25 The NSW Teachers’ Federation urged the education department to immediately prioritise the safety of staff and students.
But the department took time to mandate social distancing measures, school closures and learning from home. In the meantime principals were on alert for risk management, anticipating directives for extensive social distancing, such as cancelling school assemblies, before being instructed to do so.
One public school principal said:
The federation is telling us this. The department is telling us that … I would make a decision and then a couple of weeks later … the department would come up with the same strict instructions … it was the wellbeing of the staff first for me … even to the point where we sent the kids home for the first week with no learning … the second that one child comes to school and catches COVID-19, then I’m not going to be able to live with myself.
But it wasn’t the same in all schools. A primary school teacher in a bushfire affected area reflected on the decisions made by the principal.
I’m trying to be diplomatic … We were very slow to engage with kids who were starting to be kept home from school. And we were very slow for teachers to be able to work from home and we were very quick to come back to … school … We have a parent who worked at the local high school saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve been working at home all week’. We haven’t even been told that’s a possibility …
— Study International (@Study_INTNL) November 5, 2020
3. Personal wellbeing versus professional integrity
A teacher’s professional integrity is how they evaluate the alignment between the expectations of their role and their values. When a schism arises, it throws into question some core professional values.
One public school principal’s integrity had an extremely high bar.
I’ll be really honest, despite all of the warnings and all of the advice, my own wellbeing was my last priority. And the ethical dilemma for me was, I can’t look after myself because I’ve got so many other people to look after first, despite all the warnings, despite all the advice.
Teachers reported the personal cost of changing work arrangements into remote settings, concerned about how they were to fulfil their professional integrity to provide the kind of meaningful interactions students needed.
A secondary Catholic school teacher said:
Remote learning really threw me off balance and I struggled to find myself and how I fit into that situation … I had to learn to let go and … work out what is really important.
For the next generation of teachers, the dilemma was more about how to set boundaries in an emerging professional identity.
One early career public secondary teacher said:
I did go out of my way to with my Year 11s, them being my most senior year … Which did bring up the ethical thing … there were times I would get a message at one o’clock and I’d be up but I’d say, I’m not answering that, I’m not looking at it. I’m looking at it in the morning. That’s too much in each other’s heads. And, yeah, the barriers were tough.
An experienced secondary teacher in an International Baccalaureate school said:
I was working sending emails at midnight, and getting up three hours before my lessons to try and make sure that the platform is working … and obviously all my lessons that I plan had to be then turned into online lessons. So that takes a whole other weekend for everything … I got WhatsApp messages at all hours …
She said students sent her emails to thank her for the commitment. She realised it was a toxic message to send, and that implied this should be the norm for teachers. While teaching is a generous profession, COVID highlighted the expectations on their generosity.