Is your morality a professional matter?

A teacher was disciplined recently for ‘moonlighting’ as a stripper, a ‘naked waiter’ and appearing in porn films. He made a robust defence of his actions as ‘legal, moral, acceptable’ and entirely separate from his professional role. But others judged that “in the prevailing view of society” his actions fell below what the public would expect of the conduct of a practising teacher.

A couple of years ago, a student teacher confided in me that she had once worked as a lingerie model and was worried that now that she was training to be a primary school teacher, it might affect her career, especially if pictures were to emerge that would be viewed by parents and pupils.

How interesting that, in this case, a perfectly innocent, legal and amoral activity undertaken in a ‘past life’ can take on quite a new significance when someone becomes a teacher.

I couldn’t offer much advice to that anxious student because she was worrying about the moral judgements of other people – and that is a variable we cannot control. The “prevailing view of society” can at times be seen through a very wide lens or very long and narrow blinkers.

All I could say to her was that we all have to be true to ourselves and live our lives by the moral standards, codes and values that we believe to be right. If other people don’t like that… (criminal behaviour aside of course) well… that’s just tough!

But I emphasised to her that such attitudes, opinions and judgements were not professional, they were moral. She had every right to private behaviour that was legal and consenting.

While she might occasionally come across some people, perhaps even parents or pupils who think that modelling lingerie sits somewhere on a scale of immorality, that is a moral universe they are entitled to in a free society, but not one that they are entitled to impose on others.

We can’t please everybody all the time, and nor should we be trying to – especially as teachers.

Is your morality a professional matter?

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20 thoughts on “Is your morality a professional matter?

  1. Interesting. I was a heroin addict in my past and I’m afraid to say got up to some pretty unsavoury stuff. I have been a teacher for 12 years and have NEVER confided this with anyone. I think probably enough time has elapsed now for this not to be a problem but when I first joined the profession I was very worried about anyone finding out. Not sure if this is a question of morality.

    I think the situation would be very different if I were still taking drugs and this is the problem with the “stripping teacher”: teaching & porn probably are incompatible. Teaching and a past as a lingerie model may be potentially embarrassing but that is all.

  2. I think it comes down to behaviour that would bring the profession into disrepute. To that end I feel there’s more leeway in your “past life” than if you’re currently “moonlighting”, so I agree with Anon’s 2nd paragraph pretty much. Drug abuse is an issue, but as a past user who’s now “clean”, there’s even possibly the argument that Anon is well placed to deliver a first-hand account of the dangers of drugs (although I can well understand not confiding in anyone as the potential fall-out could be career-ending).

    1. Thanks very much for that Paul D. There are a lot of comments on the blog from students and teachers who say that their ‘mistakes’ and ‘life experiences’ can be used to positive effect as teachers and that it is a legitimate tool in the teacher’s tool-box to share them with their pupils and students. Some people argue that it also helps to ‘humanise’ the relationship between teacher and pupil/student. I have a lot of sympathy with this view.

      But here’s a question for you: let’s say the young woman who had modeled lingerie was your colleague and parents complained to the school. The school have suspended your colleague pending a decision on whether she had “compromised the ethos of the school and brought the profession in to disrepute” – what would be your re-action?

      Would be interested in your response. Thanks Paul D.

      1. I’d be very disappointed in the school if they suspended her for something like that, which was done before she started teacher training. For something that’s pretty innocuous, harmless and legal, I think suspension would be ludicrous as it’s not really anyone’s business that she did this BEFORE getting into teaching (if she was doing it as well as working as a teacher it’s a different matter, again it’s the reputation of the profession as portrayed by a current teacher)

      2. Thanks for responding Paul D, but can I push you a little further…

        what if she was modeling lingerie at weekends or in her own time while currently employed as a teacher…? if modeling lingerie is “innocuous, harmless and legal” – then why is it a different matter now and in your view, say more about how and why it has implications for the reputation of the profession.

        Thanks Paul D

  3. A large part of it comes down to perception, teaching is a position of authority and, rightly or wrongly, teachers are held to a different moral standard than others – it shouldn’t bar someone from becomming a teacher (nor indeed should a criminal record, if it’s spent and in the past) but, for instance, a teacher committing a buirglary is a different matter to a teacher who committed a burglary as a youngster. I think you’re entitled to a life before teaching (with obvious exceptions – certain things which clearly bar you from a position of authority or from working with children) but have to be prepared to be held up to a standard once in the job (what would we think of a teacher getting blind drunk every weekend and being seen staggering around town regularly?).

    I suppose I’m saying it’s ok in the past – because you weren’t a teacher when you did it – now you have to behave differently, and it’s something you have to accept when you join the profession.

    1. Thanks for engaging with me on this Paul – I think you’ve given us a really well measured and considered answer which manages to straddle a difficult dilemma while maintaining integrity. Thanks – it was very interesting to hear your views.

  4. I don’t feel like I can add a new perspective to the current collection of responses for the simple reason that I agree with most of them. I didn’t want to start my teaching career when I was younger as I never felt that I was a suitable role model, I wanted t spend my early twenties having fun and doing exactly what I wanted to do, even if that meant staying out all weekend.

    When I took on board the responsibility of being a teacher, I also took on board the moral responsibilities that came with it. Not bringing the profession into disrepute is one of those moral responsibilities in my view. For those that have done things in the past that may affect the judgement of teachers, whilst not teaching, then so what! We were all young once.

    As for the lingerie model working weekends whilst teaching, I think that the individual should be prepared to face any consequences, even if simply that her students get a hold of the pictures. Legal or not, would they still have the same respect for her? Would she still be able to do her job to the best of her ability? Would she have the parents on her side? I don’t think so, and at the end of the day (in most cases), the parents pay our wages, we are servants of the state.

    1. Thanks Isaacgreaves – a lot of interesting stuff there and very interesting to hear how your views have changed as you have grown older.

      I think you are right – there is a huge diversity of opinion out there that is both highly judgmental and at the other extreme, not at all – even from parents and students. Perhaps there are always people who are trying to take a position in the ‘moral high ground’ whenever they see an opportunity to do so, and sometimes with an ulteria motive (like power in a working or personal relationship).

      There’s one thing I’d like to challenge you to explain a bit more if you would… what do you mean by “we are servants of the state” and how do you think that has implications for our morality?

      I’d be interested in your views…

      Thanks.

      1. My view hasn’t changed as I got older, my view has always been the same. The things I wanted in life changed i.e. I wanted to party less and begin a career. In my view (then and now), there was no way both were compatible.

        The implications for our morality as servants of the state lies simply within the fact, we are employed by the state and therefore the people, if the people, the parents for example are not comfortable with activities deemed to clash with a general consensus of what morality for teachers should be, then that’s just tough luck.

        Holding the views I do, I would not be happy if I knew a teacher, my brother’s teacher for example, was out getting wasted all weekend, because if my brother failed to reach his potential, there would always be the nagging in the back of my mind that it was the teacher’s extra-curric activities leading to that demise in his productivity, and I would not be happy.

        To be honest, I think we all know how we should behave, the heroin user and the girl who did model lingerie knew that there could be implications? And why? Because the majority of people share that morality, some just like playing with fire.

      2. Good post again Isaacgreaves – thanks.

        But I’m intrigued by the phrase ‘general consensus’ and the ‘prevailing view in society’ (expressed by the disciplinary panel at the hearing of the ‘moonlighting’ teacher). I just wonder how that general consensus can be effectively expressed in a liberal society with huge diversity…

        but you’ve given us a start… thanks again.

  5. I love this post and the discussion that follows. I often think about how being an educator impacts my choices.

    The mistakes and choices I made as a young person were the seeds of empathy in me as adult. If anyone called my past into question, I would argue that the choices I made as a teen and in my early twenties made me a better candidate for teaching, not worse.

    As for the choices I make now, I agree with isaacgreaves when he says “I think that the individual should be prepared to face any consequences”. I always consider the potential consequences of my actions. If I don’t think I could defend an action as moral, based on my own beliefs regarding morality, then I won’t act. I try not to consider the morals of others when I make decisions, I root my decisions in my own understanding of morality and ethics.

    Thanks for this great post!

    1. Hi missgreer – thanks very much and I’m glad you have not only enjoyed reading it but found some reason to reflect – that’s great – I’m very glad.

      But might I ask… was there anything you were thinking of in particular about the choices you had made in your past that had given you a small sense of ‘moral dilemma’? I’m not trying to pressure you to share… but examples and illustrations are always helpful…

      Good to know you enjoyed the exchanges even if you don’t want to expand further. Thanks again.

      1. Here’s an example that can’t get me into any trouble. I faced far more controversial “moral dilemas” than this in my youth, but none that I’ll chat about online. 😉

        I got a number of tattoos when I was a teen. Tattoos have become so mainstream that they hardly get a nod now, but back when I got mine, there was still a lot of stigma attached to them. For some, tattoos were, and still are, considered “immoral” and tattoos were representative of a “certain type of girl”. My mother was horrified initially. I think she believed I would never find a job or a husband. Now, twenty plus years later, I barely remember that I have them and neither does she. When I do notice them, they make me chuckle to remember being so young and so headstrong.

        The point is that because of my choices as a teen, tattoos, piercings, wacky clothes, dyed hair, etc… it makes it easy for me see past all the “stuff” that can distract some teachers when communicating with young adults. I don’t let “too short shorts” or “purple hair and eyebrow rings” or “baggy drawers” or “profanity” distract me from the mind, the experiences, the ideas, or the dreams that the kid underneath it all is sharing. (Does that make sense? I feel inarticulate.)

      2. Hi missgreer – great post – thanks. It’s a vivid account, not at all inarticulate and makes great sense. You capture very well the experiences that reflective and dedicated teachers try to bring to empathise with the (sometimes confused) motives and behavious of students.

        But I’m interested in your comment about “seeing past all the stuff”… some might say that you may be tolerating behaviour and standards that are ultimately undermining the progress and attainment of those students. Isn’t ‘high standards’ as much about the behaviour and dress codes of the students as it is about the competence and conduct of the teachers?

        What do you think..?

  6. Funny. When I wrote sentence I had a feeling you might ask me to say more about it.

    I have high expectations for every child and adult with whom I work. When it comes to students, I don’t “tolerate” or “see past” any behavior that I think will undermine their future success.

    Take the use of profanity as an example. I don’t ignore it. I explain that if you swear too much you can lose the power of your voice and your potential to influence others, and I try to impart the value of having a voice or the value of having the power to influence. I might point out that profanity can have a far greater impact in speech if it is used sparingly or hardly ever at all. I might offer a humorous alternative to the expletive, but then…

    I move on.

    I don’t send the student to the office or write a referral or get upset about it. I don’t let it stop the learning in the room or on the field. I don’t let it influence whether I perceive of him or her as a “good kid” or a “bad kid” or a “smart kid” or a “dumb kid”. I just explain why it’s not a great choice and I move on.

    I have seen children who are upset and angry and sad, pouring their hearts out to an adult trying to be heard, and instead of being heard, they are lectured for using “inappropriate” language. Instead of listening, the adult gets upset over the child’s use of profanity? That makes me nuts. Who cares about about a few bad words.? Sorry, not me. I do, however, care when there is a child upset enough to stand angry and crying and swearing in front of me. In a situation like the one I just described, I wish the adult could “see past the stuff”.

    Is it possible that I am “tolerating behaviour and standards that are ultimately undermining the progress and attainment of students”? Absolutely. We could all be doing that, couldn’t we? The teacher who has high expectations regarding dress codes and timeliness and appropriate language could be undermining the progress and squashing the love of learning of a future comic genius, clothing designer, or grass roots organizer. Who knows?

    When I have a young person in front of me, I try to pay attention. I try to pay attention to whom I am speaking and then I think about how I can best facilitate his or her academic and personal growth during the few minutes I may see him or her each year. That’s what I meant by “seeing past the stuff” and not getting distracted. I don’t mean “let students be sloppy and behave in ways that prepare them for failure.”

    Ultimately, we can only do what we believe is in the best interest of our students and hopefully we are basing our beliefs in data, in experience, and in reflective teaching practices.
    I have a long way to go until I am the expert educator I hope to be some day. There is plenty of room for growth and time to have my ideas challenged.

    What do you think? How much do you focus on the “stuff”? I’d like to hear what your thoughts are. (I think we’ve strayed a bit from the original topic of your blog. Sorry.)

    1. I think that’s a brilliant explanation of what you are trying to do as a teacher and how both your professional values and your moral values inform the decisions and judgments you are making on a daily basis. As you said very eloquently, you are not letting ‘moral judgments’ (the “stuff”) get in the way of your ‘professional judgments’ that you believe are in “the best interests of our students” and you are clear about not letting students behave in ways that ultimately prepare them for failure.

      So, no, I don’t think we have got away from from the original topic – in fact, I think you given us an excellent account of how my original rather esoteric question has some practical meaning. This blog is intended to give teachers (and new teachers especially) the opportunity to reflect on how they bring their personal values to merge with professional values and the relative tensions and dillemmas that are involved with that…, you have done that brilliantly… so it sounds to me that you are already an expert educator…!

      Thanks again missgreer.

  7. Im a teacher of 10 years in Ontario. While I was in Uni, I stripped to pay for my schooling. I couldn’t get loans and my parents were dead. I don’t regret what I did. I had to in order to go o school. My principal found out what I did because he remembers me from the club. He promises to respect me and protect me from future discrimination. Oh Canada! Glorious and free!

    1. Thanks for sharing that MrsT – I appreciate your frankness and candour. It sounds like you have a good friend in the Principal, particularly if he is prepared to expose his own attendance at the club to defend your right to your ‘previous life’. It sounds like you may have an interesting situation on your hands if your ‘college moonlighting’ days ever became local public knowledge.

      I often advise students and new teachers that they have a right to a private life and they must be prepared to defend it from those who might want to intrude in to it using their own moral ‘compass’. That might be difficult in a small, remote or ‘conservative’ community – but you have to be clear about what are ‘professional values’ on the one hand and your ‘personal values’ on the other – and then be prepared to stand up to defend both if and when they come under attack.

      Thanks again for your post – very kind of you to share that.

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