Teachers as Role Models: Ethics and Evaluation

Published Online: March 8, 1989
Under present systems for evaluating teachers in New York State and elsewhere, unsupported assumptions about teaching and learning often result in unfair judgments, concludes James A. Gross in Teachers on Trial: Values, Standards, and Equity in Judging Conduct and Competence.
The author, a professor at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, analyzed 260 cases in which teachers were charged with incompetence or conduct unbecoming a professional.
Mr. Gross here examines the conception of teachers as role models for students as a basis for assessing teachers’ conduct:
Generalizations about teachers as role models presume a certain “Mr. Chips” teaching style, personality, and environment for teaching that simply does not apply to all or even most teachers and teaching situations. …
[I]t is mainly the students’ perceptions that determine not only whether role modeling takes place but also what being pulled down from a pedestal will actually mean–simply rejecting the teacher as a role model, or possibly rejecting the teacher as a teacher, or possibly, as inferred in most role-model-based decisions, being dragged down themselves by compulsively emulating their role model’s lying, stealing, drug dealing, alcoholism, sexual abuse, or other offenses.
The assumptions are only subjective and speculative because there is no conclusive empirical evidence to establish just how wide a sphere of influence the teacher as role model has over students. …
The role-model notion … is an insufficient and unjust basis for determining and punishing conduct unbecoming a teacher.
Even the most elaborate procedural safeguards in a statutory or contractual disciplinary system are useless if teachers’ conduct is measured against subjective standards.
It is unjust to prevent teachers from practicing their chosen professions or to deny them the right to live their personal lives free of employer interference merely on some deciding body’s recitation of the immorality of certain actions or the mere invocation of the role-model concept.
It is also unrealistic and imprac8tical to expect teachers to exemplify those qualities they are expected to teach students.
Ilr Press, New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. 14851-0952; 121 pp., $9.95 paper.
In The Ethics of School Administration, Kenneth A. Strike, Emil J. Haller, and Jonas F. Soltis discuss hypothetical cases illustrating moral dilemmas school administrators might be called upon to resolve in such areas as intellectual liberty, equal educational opportunity, and educational evaluation.
Mr. Strike and Mr. Haller are professors of education at Cornell University; Mr. Soltis is professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
In the following case, a principal, “Mr. Endicott,” has discovered that one of his best teachers, “Miss Loring,” works in the evenings as a dancer at a topless bar:
If the scope of a teacher’s job goes beyond the role of instructor and includes being a good influence on students, that is a reason to hold that any behavior on the part of a teacher that has an adverse effect on the values of students is not a private matter.
This quickly leads to the conclusion that Miss Loring’s second job is a matter of legitimate concern for Mr. Endicott.
If it is reasonable to believe that her dancing will affect student attitudes toward public nudity or sexual conduct, then her behavior is part of the business of the school system.
At the same time, this argument should be seen as problematic. If teachers are required to be good influences on their students, almost any conduct might be considered to be job-related if students knew about it.
This would include not only the teacher’s sexual life, but matters such as religion or politics. Are teachers to be required to support the dominant religion or political party of their districts? An argument that has this potential consequence surely must be defective. …
First, it seems reasonable to us to hold that the role of a teacher should be construed broadly enough to include moral education.
We would argue that a teacher’s influence on the character and moral convictions of his or her students cannot be discounted as unrelated to the teacher’s job.
Second, however, the area of the teacher’s life that should be treated as private and not under the school’s control must be determined by balancing the importance of the particular right or interest under consideration against the possible effect of the teacher on students.
There are some areas of people’s lives, such as religion and politics, where there are strong reasons for respecting privacy unless extremely undesirable consequences are involved.
Other areas are of less importance. … Deciding what is public and what is private is not, therefore, simply a matter of deciding whether an action has an effect on an important interest of the school or of deciding if it might do some harm. It is, instead, a matter of weighing the importance of the kind of privacy involved against the public interest threatened.
Teachers College Press, 1234 Amsterdam Ave., New York, N.Y. 10027; 137 pp., $12.95 paper.

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