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date: 21 August 2018

Teachers as Conscientious Objectors

Summary and Keywords

Teachers often characterize their interest in and commitment to the profession as moral: a desire to support students, serve their communities, or uphold civic ideals embedded in the promise of public education. These initial and sustaining moral impulses are well documented in research on teaching and teacher education. However, moral commitments can also be a source of teachers’ dissatisfaction and resistance, especially in the age of the market-based Global Education Reform Movement. This article explores the phenomenon of conscientious objection in teaching as an enactment of professional ethics. Conscientious objection describes teachers’ actions when they take a stand against job expectations that contradict or compromise their professional ethics. Teachers who refuse to enact policies and practices may be represented by popular media, school leaders, policymakers, and educational researchers as merely recalcitrant or insubordinate. This perspective misses the moral dimensions of resistance. Teachers may refuse to engage in practices or follow mandates from the standpoint of professional conscience. This article also highlights varieties of conscientious objection that are drawn from global examples of teacher resistance. Finally, the article explores the role of teachers unions as potential catalysts for collective forms of conscientious objection.

Keywords: conscientious objection, professional ethics, policy, reform, teachers, teaching, unions, values

Teachers often characterize their interest in and commitment to the profession as moral: a desire to support students, serve their communities, or uphold civic ideals embedded in the promise of public education. These initial and sustaining moral impulses are well documented in research on teaching and teacher education. However, moral commitments can also be a source of teachers’ dissatisfaction and resistance. This article explores the phenomenon of conscientious objection in teaching as an enactment of professional ethics.

Conscientious objection describes teachers’ actions when they take a stand against job expectations that contradict or compromise their professional ethics. Professional ethics, when grounded in practice, can reveal practitioners’ concerns about what is good, right, and just in teaching and education (Levinson & Fay, 2016). For instance, teachers who have participated in the U.S. Opt Out movement may be portrayed as individuals who do not want to be evaluated by their students’ test scores or who do not want to interfere with curriculum that they find personally interesting or convenient. From this perspective, teachers who advocate for opting out do so to serve their own needs and desires. On the other hand, if understood as an outgrowth of a teacher’s moral commitment to their work, opting out could be interpreted as an appeal for justice on behalf of students.

Teachers in many countries have articulated value conflicts with policies associated with the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) (Sahlberg, 2011, p. 99). Linked tightly with terms such as neoliberal reform and market-based reform (in Finland this is called U.S.-style reform), GERM has produced a number of “globally observable trend[s]”:

  • Standardization

  • Increased focus on core subjects and narrowing of the curriculum

  • Prescribed curriculum

  • Adoption of corporate practices

  • High-stakes accountability for students and teachers (Sahlberg, 2011, pp. 99–103).

The values associated with GERM and those that draw teachers into the profession are often in conflict. GERM reduces the broad aims of education to a single purpose. As the foundational principle of GERM, “[n]eoliberalism now effectively rejects any function for schooling beyond preparing students for the workforce” (Weiner, 2015, p. 232). Teachers, in contrast, tend to approach their work with a more holistic view of the well-being of their students and their communities. Milner (2013) reports that GERM contributes to the deprofessionalization of teaching. The values and concomitant dispositions held by teachers who view their work as including moral significance are not necessarily aligned with the behaviors expected by school reformers promoting GERM.

Groups to educate, support, and mobilize teachers have emerged in response to GERM. With increased adoption of social media, teachers across the globe connect around their common concerns. Facebook and Twitter link teachers across time zones, especially through group pages and hashtags, and enable a global professional learning community. The pro-public, anti-privatization platform of the Save Our Schools movement has spread globally with strong groups in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Badass Teachers Association has chapters in every state in the United States and in countries across the globe. Each of these platforms provides opportunities to learn more about teachers’ conscientious objection to GERM-inspired policies that threaten their professional ethics and their visions for good teaching.

As a global phenomenon, GERM-based polices are ubiquitous but not universal and have been adopted to different degrees in various locales. The degree of conscientious objection in teaching will be related to the ways in which policies and mandates practices align or fail to align with the values teachers bring to their work. Likewise, the culturally specific practices of speaking out and taking a stand in opposition to a law or mandate affects how conscientious objection can be observed and documented. In some political climates, conscientious objection in teaching could pose threats to teachers’ lives, not only their jobs. The sources used in this article are limited to English, therefore the scope of conscientious objection in teaching likely extends far beyond the examples captured here.

The first section of the article delimits the meaning of teaching as a moral practice and suggests synonyms that might be more appealing to some readers. The next section offers an examination of conscientious objection and how it can be an expression of personal and professional ethics. The field of medicine, and in particular nursing, has a well-developed articulation of moral concerns as a source of job dissatisfaction and burnout that can be instructive to the teaching profession. Next, the article highlights varieties of conscientious objection that are drawn from global examples of teacher resistance. The final section explores the role of teachers unions as potential catalysts for collective forms of conscientious objection.

Examining a broad range of possible sources contributing to teacher dissatisfaction and burnout are necessary given the teacher shortages that have been predicted in the United States and are already being experienced in the United Kingdom. Teachers’ values may sustain a career, but if those values are obstructed by their teaching context, moral commitments may actually lead to teacher attrition (Baird, 2013; Trafford, 2016). Scheopner (2010) argues “if teachers find that teaching is an ineffectual means to achieving their goals of positively impacting others, then they may leave” (p. 275). When teachers experience values that conflict with school policy, they find less satisfaction in their work (Rooney, 2015, p. 486). One former teacher describes not being able to uphold her professional ethics due to school policies as “moral oppression” (Smith, 2016).

Teachers’ commitments to the best practices, values, and dispositions that teacher educators attempt to inculcate may become liabilities to teacher retention efforts. A decidedly dystopic solution would involve recruiting the least morally engaged and most thoughtlessly compliant teaching candidates to ensure a conflict-free labor force. A more pragmatic and scientifically sound orientation would involve examining not only the actions and beliefs of individual teachers who have moral concerns about their work but the teaching contexts, policies, and mandated practices that come into conflict with practitioners’ moral commitments (Kennedy, 2010). Such an examination is the goal of this article.

Teaching as a Moral Practice

Many teachers, teacher educators, and researchers characterize teaching as a moral practice (Hansen, 2001; Sanger, Osguthorpe, & Fenstermacher, 2013). Teaching is “more than a set of specific actions in which a particular person is helped to learn this or that. It is an activity in which the teacher is sharing in a moral enterprise, namely, the initiation of (usually) young people into a worthwhile way of seeing the world, of experiencing it, of relating to others in a more human and understanding way” (Pring, 2001, p. 106). Described in this way, teaching is a moral practice because the selection of what to teach and how to teach it introduces young people to a particular view of what a good life entails. The work often involves selecting what topics are worthy of study versus those that are less significant and those behaviors that are desirable versus those that should be stamped out. Additionally, Pring suggests that teaching itself has the potential to make the world a better place through the values communicated through teaching and the relationships that a teacher cultivates.

Practitioners often speak of the ideals and values they attribute to their work. These terms could be easily substituted for moral. Characterizing teaching as moral work is not a surreptitious way to issue injunctions about teacher behaviors. In this article, the phrase “teaching as a moral practice” refers to the meaning and significance practitioners confer on their profession. While certainly not the case for all teachers, evidence suggests that teachers may resist amoral characterizations of their work. Even when educational policy relegates teachers to the status of instruments for curriculum delivery, teachers tend to approach their work from a desire to do good in the world and to care for others (Nieto, 2015).

Put simply, the ideal of using one’s work to build toward a better world, or as an expression of living well and purposefully, is what enables teaching to be characterized as a moral profession. Some researchers and teacher educators have focused on particular dispositions that make teachers moral or certain acts that should be expected of teachers if they can be labeled as moral. This understanding may reinforce problematic norms that characterize so-called good or moral teachers as heroic individuals who sacrifice their well-being for the institution and for others (Margolis, Hodge, & Alexandrou, 2014).

Teaching is also moral in the sense that there are some agreed-upon norms of the profession. Quality teaching, argue Fenstermacher and Richardson (2005, p. 191), can occur only if it is both successful and good. Successful teaching produces the desired results; good teaching engages learners appropriately in a worthwhile activity. Quality teaching is achieved when worthwhile aims and morally defensible methods lead to the intended goals. While there are times when the norms of teaching come up for debate, the fact that the debates hinge on notions of “better” or “worse,” and not solely an evaluation of “effective” or “ineffective,” signals the ways teaching can be understood as a moral profession without determining specific moral qualities of individuals who teach (Biesta, 2007).

Moral dilemmas affect teachers deeply. For many teachers, their work is tightly coupled with their identity (Day, Elliot, & Kington, 2005; Moore et al., 2002). Although teachers’ concerns about their work may come across as mere disagreements or differences of opinion, they are often rooted in deeply held professional moral convictions that are at odds with educational policies and practices (Joseph & Efron, 1993; Santoro, 2013). Achinstein and Ogawa’s (2006) study of new teachers’ resistance to top-down mandates reveals that their concerns emanate from professional principles, what they term “principled resistance,” rather than stubbornness or capriciousness. For example, Santoro (2013) shows how a teacher’s being asked to produce student grades in fewer than 24 hours became a tipping point in deciding to leave her job. The teacher’s unwillingness to comply with a mandate came from a moral source—a concern about a lack of integrity in assigning grades in the manner expected by her building administrator—rather than insubordination or laziness that could be dismissed as a more traditionally oriented labor dispute.

In a profession that is imbued with moral significance and that serves diverse constituents, teaching provides fertile ground for moral disagreement. Moral disagreement may lead to productive conversations, but it can also lead to concerns about complicity in oppressive practices and the diminishment of professional ideals (Moses, 2016). Although moral investment in the work may sustain a teacher throughout a career, profound moral concerns may compel a teacher to leave the profession. Nieto cautions, “Too many teachers are leaving the profession because the ideals that brought them to teaching are fast disappearing” (Nieto, 2009, p. 13). In Day et al.’s (2005) study of Australian and English teachers with 25 to 35 years of experience, “almost all talked of a tension between their commitment to long-held core values and identities and changes in the environment in which they worked” (p. 571).

Conscientious objection in teaching may take many forms. Santoro and Morehouse (2011a) has interpreted the resignations of teachers who leave their jobs due to unresolved and profound moral concerns as acts of conscientious objection. She explains, “teaching’s conscientious objectors refuse to participate in practices that harm students and diminish the profession” (Santoro and Morehouse, 2011a, p. 2696). These decisions arise out of principled judgments that entail teachers weighing their responsibilities to society, the profession, the institution, their students, and their selves. However, conscientious objection in teaching, while it may often entail risking one’s employment, need not involve such drastic acts as quitting in protest. Some acts of conscientious objection may involve refusing to administer a test, writing letters to the editor, speaking out at a faculty meeting, changing (or not changing) one’s teaching practice or curriculum, or influencing policy through community involvement.

What Is Conscientious Objection?

Conscientious objection is one way teachers respond to situations that violate the moral commitments, ideals, or values they confer on their work. Although the research on conscientious objection in teaching is in its nascent stages, philosophers have created substantive theories about the significance of conscience and conscientious objection in moral life. Within the context of a profession, medical ethicists and in particular, researchers of nursing practice have developed resources to understand the ways moral concerns may lead to job dissatisfaction, burnout, and attrition.

Conscientious objection is a form of civil disobedience (Brownlee, 2016). Many forms of civil disobedience are coordinated, collective actions that cause significant disruption to specific events or daily life. Civil disobedience is intended to reveal participants’ criticisms of the certain laws or practices and the magnitude of concern among the population. In contrast, most acts of conscientious objection occur at the individual level and are motivated by personal beliefs that may not be widely shared. Conscientious objection is a form of protest “understood as a violation of the law motivated by the dissenter’s belief that she is morally prohibited to follow the law because the law is either bad or wrong, totally or in part” (Brownlee, 2016).

This individualistic aspect of conscientious objection marks it as a potentially weak form of civil disobedience. Yet conscientious objection’s most important function is as a means to preserve a person’s integrity. This form of civil disobedience enables a person to live a consistent moral life in which one’s beliefs align with one’s actions. It may also be a way a person attempts to make his or her voice heard (Hirschman, 1970).

Although conscientious objection is often associated with religious beliefs that collide with secular laws, contemporary forms of conscientious objection draw on a broad swath of values that need not be derived from religious sources. Conscience, explains Schinkel (2007), “is [referenced and expressed as] a moral phenomenon, in the broadest sense of the word ‘moral’; it is characterized by a concern for ‘the good life’ and ‘being good’ that expresses ultimate concern” (p. 484). An individual may express personal values in conscientious objection. However, sometimes values are professional and associated with a particular role. Sociologist of education Lortie (1967) explained that teachers’ moral commitments are two-fold: to the “craft” of teaching and to one’s “clients” (students, parents, and communities). Educational philosopher Green (1985) called responsibility for the integrity of the profession “craft conscience.”

Some ethicists and political theorists make a distinction between conscientious objection, including various form of public and private dissent, and conscientious refusal, or “disobedience as non-compliance with a more or less direct legal injunction or administrative order” (Brownlee, 2016). For the purposes of this article, conscientious objection refers to both dissent and non-compliance.

Medical ethics offers a robust literature on the scope and limits of conscientious objection in healthcare. Usually, the questions hinge on the ways a medical professional’s personal beliefs may absolve that professional from participating in certain procedures (e.g., facilitating a patient’s wish to die or dispensing medications that may end an unwanted pregnancy). Ethicists raise questions about the right of medical professionals to withhold treatment based on personal beliefs in light of their ethical obligations to patients (de Melo-Martin, 2007).

Moral distress is a distinct but related phenomenon, with an expanding literature in nursing. Although moral distress may emanate from personal convictions, it may also arise from the nurse’s inability to do what he or she believes is in the patient’s best interests. That is, moral distress may arise when professional norms are challenged and well-established aims seem to be diverted:

When one’s moral integrity is violated, it can lead to moral distress, experienced as negative feelings (e.g., anger, anxiety, guilt sorrow, frustration, and/or helplessness) resulting from an ethical issue over which the nurse perceives having no control due to organizational or agency constraints. One option that nurses sometimes turn to in response to moral distress is conscientious objection or the refusal to provide or participate in certain types of patient care based on the nurses’ ethical beliefs.

(Davis, Schrader, & Belcheir, 2012, p. 739)

The conditions for moral distress in nursing arise in environments very similar to teaching. Nurses are subordinate to doctors in determining the course of patient care, just as teachers often must follow mandates from school leaders and policymakers. Like teachers and their students, nurses spend the most time with patients and have a more intimate sense of responsibility to them than those who make decisions. Furthermore, nurses and teachers (at least in the context of the United States) are expected to meet higher standards for individual accountability. Their increased professional accountability coincides with working in environments with increased standardization and fewer resources. Nurses and teachers experience professional accountability in inverse relation to professional agency. Moral distress does lead to burnout and attrition in nursing (Davis et al., 2012, p. 739).

Although the literature in teaching and teacher education rarely contains the phrase “conscientious objection in teaching,” examples are numerous. Due to the dearth of an established research base, it is necessary to draw on a number of popular and Internet-based examples to illustrate conscientious objection in teaching. The point of using non-traditional research sources is to build a case for the ubiquity of the phenomenon of conscientious objection in teaching, even though the formal research base is in its nascent stages. Each particular example offers inducement to researchers to take up the inquiries about conscientious objection in teaching. The individual examples, such as a teacher’s blog post, are not intended to be representative of all teachers. It is the composite evidence that supports the need for further research.

Many studies indicate conflicts in values between teachers’ vision of good practice and the contexts (policies, mandates, political ideologies) in which they work. For instance, Mintrop (2012) explores the dissonance between accountability measures teachers must answer to beyond their classrooms and schools, educators’ professional values, and their perceptions of student needs. His study of teachers in California schools found that pressure on teachers to standardize public education and instruction while serving students from a range of backgrounds and diverse educational needs “may galvanize traditional value conflicts within the American teaching profession” (Mintrop, 2012, p. 698).

School leaders and policymakers often interpret teacher resistance to reform as recalcitrance or conservativism. As a result of these assumptions, they may not be asking the questions that might enable them to better support teachers and to stem the tide of teacher attrition (Bohn, 2014; Cuban, 2011; Zimmerman, 2006). Stern (2016) contends that researchers, school leaders, and policymakers need to become curious about the causes that lead to teachers’ criticism of reforms. She explains: “When teacher knowledge and critique are not valued, negative responses to policy are typically understood as the result of teacher failure or shortcomings. When inquiry as stance is used to understand responses to policy, we can uncover and analyze responses to policy in ways that help shed light on the policy itself, its underlying messages about school and schooling, teaching and learning, and how policy is understood by educators” (Stern, 2016, p. 28).

Values about education, students, and the roles of teachers are involved in teachers’ resistance to reforms. When teachers believe they are failing to uphold their professional responsibilities, their craft conscience is activated (Santoro, 2016). Usually, concerns of conscience are accompanied by shame, guilt, and disappointment. These affective responses are sometimes confused as symptoms of burnout (Santoro, 2011b). Absent the conceptual category of conscientious objection, educational researchers, school leaders, and policymakers will continue to implement retention strategies and issue mandates that are tone-deaf to the dissatisfaction borne out of teachers’ professional moral conflicts.

Varieties of Conscientious Objection in Teaching

The concept of conscientious objection is not alien in the realm of education, yet there has been little research on the ways that teachers may act as conscientious objectors. Conscientious objection policies are already in place for the use of animals (especially for the purpose of dissection) in schools and universities in Australia, Hong Kong, and many states in the United States The American practice of home-schooling has been interpreted as a form of conscientious objection (Morrison, 2014). Likewise, parents who do not vaccinate their children are able to receive exemptions from the law through conscientious objections in schools where vaccinations are required, such as Ontario and New Brunswick provinces in Canada. This list is not intended to endorse of any these positions but to show that conscientious objection has a history in schools.

Some teachers have explicitly claimed conscientious objector status, even though there are currently no protections for those who do. In response to assumptions that teachers are insubordinate only when it serves their personal goals or selfish needs, veteran educator Rick Bobrick appealed to the New York State legislature for the creation of a conscientious objector status for teachers. He wrote, “No teacher or administrator should be required to ignore their moral and professional compass out of fear of violating NY state law. No teacher or administrator should have to comply with educational policies more harmful than helpful to children. No teacher or administrator should be forced to remain complicit to policies that are tantamount to educational malpractice at best—and child abuse at their worst . . . There is something deeply wrong with a system in which teachers and principals are afraid to act in the best interest of children” (Strauss, 2014).

Jia Lee testified at the U.S. Senate Committee’s hearing on the impact of No Child Left Behind’s testing and accountability in 2015 and also declared herself a conscientious objector. She said, “Last year, I decided that I am obligated and accountable to my students and families, and that is why, as a conscientious objector, I will not administer tests that reduce my students to a single metric and will continue to take this position until the role of standardized assessments are put in their proper place” (Lee, 2015). Lee and her colleagues Emmy Matias and Colin Schumacher had earlier designated themselves “teachers of conscience.” Their letter to the New York City chancellor of education explained, “As an act of conscience, we are declining the role of test administrators for the 2014 New York State Common Core Tests” (Schumacher, Matias, & Lee, 2014). They articulated the content of their conscience in an “Ethic for Teachers of Conscience in Public Education” that explicates professional commitments to care for the well-being of students, to get to know students and their learning needs, to serve their communities, to “promote learning in service of the public good,” and to “preserve public education” (Schumacher, 2015).

However, it is not always the case that conscientious objection will take the form of an outright act of resistance or refusal. Yin (2013) offers an example of teachers in the Chinese province of Guangdong who resist a national curriculum reform. Consistent with the cultural values of saving face (mianzi) and respect for authority, the teachers express no concern about their professional concerns in faculty meetings or directly to their superiors (Yin, 2013, pp. 393, 396–397). Still, privately, they explain why they believe that the reform is misguided. They perform as expected while observed, but when not under a superior’s watch engage in teaching practices that they believe exemplify good work and serve their students best.

The research on teachers’ expressions of conscience reveals the various forms that resistance may take. Additionally, within resistance, different commitments will compel teachers to act. These professional ideals include:

  • Commitments to teaching and learning over testing

  • Commitments to broad aims of education

  • Commitments to comprehensive, honest, and developmentally appropriate curriculum

  • Commitments to teacher professionalism and dignity

  • Commitments to local contexts and communities

  • Commitments to public education

Commitments to Teaching and Learning Over Testing

In the United States, teachers, principals, and parents have participated in strands of an “opt out” movement to refuse participation in standardized, high-stakes testing. Nearly all these objections hinge on the well-being of students. Former principal Carol Burris writes: “There is a role for standardized tests, if they are limited, developmentally appropriate and provide useful instructional feedback. High-stakes tests, however, that are given for school accountability purposes, are being rejected by parents because they have failed to meet those standards. A growing grassroots pushback against these tests will manifest itself in acts of protest and civil disobedience” (Strauss, 2015).

Au (2015, p. 36) documents individual teachers and groups of colleagues who have refused to administer high-stakes testing that they believe “corrupts best practices for teaching and learning”:

  • David Wasserman boycotted in Wisconsin, but eventually administered the exam after his job was threatened.

  • Carl Chew was suspended from his job for refusing to administer Washington State’s test.

  • Doug Ward was fired for refusing to give North Carolina’s test on the grounds that it was developmentally inappropriate for students with disabilities.

In 2013, the teachers of Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington, unanimously voted to refuse to administer their state’s high-stakes test (Hagopian, 2014, pp. 31–33). Their conscientious objection led to the district allowing high schools to opt out of the exam. In 2014, 27 faculty members at International High School in Brooklyn refused to administer the New York State English Language Arts Exam (Frascella & Giles, 2014, p. 123). The same year, three teachers at Manhattan’s Earth School refused to serve as test administrators (Lee, 2014, pp. 107–112). None of the New York City teachers received an official response from their Department of Education. However, in her first speech as New York State’s Commission of Education, MaryEllen Elia said, “if any supported and encourage opt-outs [of testing], I think it’s unethical” (Hildebrand, 2015). Two teachers in Milwaukee have claimed conscientious objector status: “Weiss and Jester say that they cannot in good conscience administer the computer-based Badger Exam, the state’s new Common Core-aligned test for third through eighth graders, when 70% of the students are expected to fail”(Kaiser, 2015).

Some teachers do not claim conscientious objector status directly, but justify their noncompliance with mandates by discussing their need to have a clear conscience as a teacher. Susan Bowles, a kindergarten teacher in Florida, wrote to parents to explain why she refused to administer the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading to five-year-olds due to its infringement on instruction time and the difficulty for young children to use the computer-based platform effectively. She wrote in all capital letters (removed here): “This is the testing I am refusing to do. I know I may be in breach of my contract by not administering this test. I cannot in good conscience submit to administering this test three times a year, losing six weeks of instruction. There is a good possibility it will be fired” (Strauss, 2014a, emphasis added).

Teachers in Hong Kong “expressed their profound disappointment and a guilty conscience due to their need to spend the majority of their time and energy on the never-ending government evaluations and the vicious contest in the schooling market” (Lai & Lo, 2007, p. 65). Their concerns are moral and address what constitutes responsibility to craft and to their clients. Within the disappointment and guilty conscience are commitments to professional ethics of good teaching and how to best serve their students. However, without the lens of moral concerns, the teachers may simply seem overworked and overwhelmed.

In their study of Korean teachers’ resistance to school reforms, Park and Jeong (2013) argue that educational researchers must investigate the emotional responses involved in such processes: “Teacher’s [sic] cognitive and affective feeling is critical in the implementation of school change, since it is the teachers who develop and diffuse innovation and innovative ideas in school organizations” (p. 36). Furthermore, teachers’ emotional responses to mandated policies and practices can be analyzed for moral information. Negative affect is frequently the bellwether for a conscience in distress. However, in the feminized profession of teaching, it is sometimes difficult for researchers, school leaders, and policymakers to recognize teachers’ affective responses as moral and not simply “hysterical” (Santoro, 2017).

Concerns about the ill-effects of testing on students and communities are not new. Black educators in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s objected to the use of so-called “intelligence quotient” exams to justify claims that African Americans were cognitively inferior to whites (Stoskopf, 2012). Not only did they challenge the eugenics argument, they upended the expectations for testing conditions and through their own experiments found that the children being assessed scored dramatically higher when they were made comfortable and given emotional support during the exam (Stoskopf, 2012, p. 179).

Commitments to Broad Aims of Education

Teachers have become depoliticized in their eclecticism and pragmatism, argue Moore, Edwards, Halpin, and George (2002). On the positive side, teachers’ flexibility enables them to ride the waves of pedagogical reforms. However, the uncritical ease with which British teachers alter their practice may indicate a lack of professional principles. Moore et al. (2002) were particularly concerned that teachers accommodated pedagogical reforms even when those reforms conflicted with what the teachers viewed as “good educational practice” (p. 552). In spite of Moore and his colleagues’ concerns, educators in England are resisting reforms such as Teach First and the performativity agenda in blogs affiliated with the Times Education Supplement and the Guardian.

Teachers express concerns about dehumanizing students and corporatizing education. The “Secret Teacher,” an anonymous, regularly published blog on the Guardian website, provides unprecedented access to one teacher’s concerns about his work. The experienced teacher offers insight into the changes he has witnessed in the profession and in the English education system over his decades-long career. The Secret Teacher, like others, resists what he views as a demand to treat students as data points that will enable him to meet or cause him to fall short of learning targets (Secret Teacher, 2014). U.S. teacher Dawn Neely-Randall wrote in a widely read blog that the anxiety and stress that high-stakes testing caused her 10-year-olds constituted an “unconscionable theft” of their childhood (Strauss, 2014b).

Commitments to Broad, Honest, and Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum

Teachers in the United States expressed concern when the curriculum narrowed or when it was limited to the overly simplified answers required by state tests (Au, 2015, p. 31). U.S. teacher Stacie Starr resigned from her teaching position while participating in a forum to help parents navigate the new Common Core State Standards. She said that “special education students are suffering under the new system based on Common Core standards and more rigorous assessments . . . she could no longer watch silently from within the confines of a structured school day” (Bolyard, 2015).

Crocco and Costigan (2007) report that early-career teachers in New York City schools “commented that their views on what constitutes good teaching often deviated from administrators’ expectations, which were more in line with rigid adherence to the curriculum and adoption of whatever pedagogical methods would ‘cover’ the curriculum” (p. 523). Therefore, in cases such as these, a teacher may call upon his or her conscience as an educator when negotiating pedagogical and curricular dilemmas.

England’s Secret Teacher objects to what he sees as propaganda. He refuses to jeopardize his integrity by teaching what he calls “bad history.” He writes, “I would be embarrassed to call myself a history teacher in a country where teaching history meant relating our island’s story in all its glory” (Secret Teacher, 2013).

Commitments to Teacher Professionalism and Dignity

A number of articles highlight forms of conscientious objection that demand greater dignity for teachers. When they went on strike in 2007, Israeli teachers positioned themselves as the “champions of education” who were “harm[ed] and humiliate[d]” by “public underappreciation” (Berkovich, 2011, p. 570).

The importation of business models into teaching and learning has generated significant resistance. For instance, Mather and Worrall (2012) found that education lecturers in the United Kingdom rejected New Public Management initiatives on moral grounds that included issues about addressing students’ needs, embodying good work, and the dignity of teaching. The lecturers “overwhelmingly felt that they were being subtly—and not so subtly—forced into adopting norms, attitudes and behaviours which were at odds with their professionally inspired value system” (p. 550).

Eric Zentner’s (2014) resignation letter to school officials, which circulated widely on blogs, cited that he was leaving “for ethical reasons.” He wrote that he could not maintain his employment “in good conscience” with a district that he believed employed dishonest tactics to achieve its ends. Zentner enumerates concerns about the district’s micromanagement of faculty and requirements that teachers include an onslaught of never-ending reform initiatives in their curriculum, which prevented him from meeting students’ needs.

Concerns about the role of student test scores in assessing the effectiveness of teachers have reached global proportions. U.S. teachers in Taos, New Mexico, burned their evaluations after receiving them because they believed the evaluations were a false measure of their quality as educators. Fifty percent of the scores were based on student test performance. The teachers claimed that the tests did not reflect their curriculum or student growth (Mozzone, 2014).

The Secret Teacher details how teachers in England are being sorted by their levels of achievement in bringing students to learning targets. This practice damages collegiality. The teacher recounts with dismay how he was encouraged by school leaders to counsel a low-performing student out of the school. “I was told to put pressure on his parent to take him elsewhere. At the sight of my horrified expression this softened to nudging them gently” (Secret Teacher, 2014). These sorts of dilemmas tug at the conscience of teachers. “I cared deeply about my class and the children in it. Trying to see them as numbers was impossible” (Secret Teacher, 2014).

Commitment to Public Education

Barbara Madeloni lost her job after she took a stand against the privatization of teacher certification and the racially biased results produced by so-called objective assessments. She fought for her students’ right not to participate in the field test of edTPA, a commercially produced and privately assessed certification process requirement. As a result, “67 student teachers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst refused to send their work to Pearson,” the private company that would then hold the legal rights to their images and work (Madeloni, 2015, p. 177). Later, students at a public university in Illinois boycotted the edTPA field test.

Commitments to Local Contexts and Communities

Teachers are not solely employees of a school; they are members of a community. Jones (2015) shows how the well-being of teachers, students, and their communities are linked, especially for black teachers. He chronicles how teachers in the Chicago Teachers Union joined the community’s protest by occupying a school that had been designated “failing” and was slated for closure. Separately, Bjork (2016) found Japanese teachers ignored national reforms and did what they believed was right for their students and their communities. Even though the government called for “relaxed education” (yutori kyoiku), teachers continued to prepare middle grades students for the high school entrance exams.

Sometimes conscientious objection in teaching means fostering values and educational spaces that are forbidden under current rule. Brazilian women teachers who experienced oppressive conditions in a dictatorship found value and purpose in studying and drawing inspiration from Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy. They were conscientious objectors of the official teacher education at the time of their induction that emphasized memorization and censored history. In secret study groups they nurtured pedagogical ideals that called for dialogue, engagement, and questioning (Jennings & Da Matta, 2009). When ethnic Albanians were excluded from the majority of Serbian-controlled schools and universities, Albanians created underground schools in private residences and garages (Walker & Epp, 2010, p. 104).

Conscientious objection may occur when educators perceive that educational reforms do not take local knowledge, expertise, and values into account. Teachers may also express moral concern regarding self-direction and autonomy in the face of international donors and non-governmental agencies, especially in developing and post-war countries (Nyambe & Wilmot, 2015; Walker & Epp, 2010). Citing the significance of local knowledge and values, Finnish teachers resisted an “entrepreneurial” model of the good student. They found this imported ideal contradicted the values associated with Nordic education: equity, participation, and welfare (Komulainen, et al., 2011, p. 358).

Conditions of oppression within one’s country also may raise issues of conscientious objection. Some teachers are concerned about their complicity in an institution that may contradict their values and purpose or denigrate their identity. For instance, if U.S. schools are a “site for black suffering,” what are black educators to do? (Dumas, 2016). William Hayes, a black principal in the United States, while affirming his own commitment to working in schools, queried the room of other black male educators, “We need to ask ourselves this question: Are we brought into education to be overseers or liberators? . . . There’s an inherent frustration: I’m teaching something I don’t agree with. I’m in a system I don’t agree with” (Cobb, 2016). Christopher Rodgers (2016), a black male educator, determined that he could no longer work in a system that continued to protect white privilege and subject its students, teachers, and communities to institutional racism. He writes on his blog, “I’ve grown weary of reconciliation. I’m beyond compromise. The urgency of now requires of us all a commitment to being unaccustomed to injustice, breaking complicity with indifference. Yet the structural forces inherent to everyday practice in my independent school begs of me to participate and advocate gradualist integration, assimilation, and inclusion. I got to get out of here” (Rodgers, 2016, emphasis in original).

During the Red Scare and communist witch hunts of the 1950s, New York City teachers were pressured to denounce their affiliations with the Communist Party and inform on their colleagues. Many teachers resigned in a conscientious refusal to capitulate to what they viewed as federal intrusion on their privacy and their commitments to political pluralism (Cain, 2015).

Each of these commitments is uniquely important in motivating teachers both to commit to their own ideals and to resist morally questionable regulations. Still, teachers individually are not as strong as teachers united; similarly to professional communities, unions play a vital role in enabling stronger, more supported opposition.

The Role of Unions in Conscientious Objection

Teachers unions can be used to leverage a collective form of conscientious objection when they act as guardians of professional norms and not only as enforcers of labor agreements. Lois Weiner (2015) explains: “Teachers unions, with all of their flaws—and there are many—are quite correctly seen by capitalist elites as being the most stable and potentially powerful opponent of the neoliberal project that is transforming education globally” (p. 228). She argues that organizations such as the World Bank portray teachers unions as “blocking government efforts to raise educational quality and thereby eradicate poverty” (p. 229). This kind of conflict is seen, for instance, in the standoffs between the government and teachers unions in Chile and Mexico (Avalos & Assael, 2006; Tatto, Schmelkes, Guevara, & Tapia, 2006). The website Teacher Solidarity also offers global perspectives on teachers unions fighting for the dignity of the profession and democratic education, and against the pressures of privatization.

Some unions have shifted their focus away from “bread-and-butter” issues of salary, benefits, and work rules to statements of conscience that affect teachers, students, and their communities. “A new generation of teachers is embracing a ‘social movement’ orientation that breaks with the model of ‘business unionism’ . . . teacher union activists realize that they need the support of parents, students and community to protect teachers’ jobs and professional obligations and rights” (Weiner, 2015, p. 236, emphasis added).

Teachers unions have formed alliances with parents to engage in conscientious objection on behalf of students. The Detroit, Michigan, teachers union and parents filed a lawsuit against the Detroit Public Schools alleging that the city failed to provide a “minimally adequate education,” citing rodent infestations, heating and structural problems, and a lack of necessary supplies (AlHajal, 2016).

The Chicago Teachers Union, under the leadership of Karen Lewis, voted to “officially oppose uses of high-stakes standardized testing” (Weiner, 2015, p. 239). Lewis addressed a column to her community’s caregivers connecting high-stakes testing to the disgraceful history of the eugenics movement in the United States. She then invited readers to “do your own research and let’s start to have the discussions on what is fair, equitable and good for our children.” Lewis presents the issue of testing—a teacher-generated concern—to families as a moral meditation.

In South Africa, educators’ conscientious objection to apartheid led to the merging of the segregated teachers unions and “the establishment of a single non-racial democratic teachers union movement, the South African Democratic Teacher Union (SADTU) in 1990” (Samuel, 2014, p. 612). Teachers’ actions led to the eventual toppling of the apartheid regime and the demand for state responses to the country’s HIV crisis. “Despite official attempts to silence the voice of teachers [including incarceration], their agendas came to be enacted in the private domains of their classrooms, which eventually spilled into broader social action . . . The teachers’ voice came to be associated with campaigns for greater justice” (Samuel, 2014, p. 612, 614).


Research on conscientious objection in teaching is in its earliest stages, but examples of teachers objecting to and refusing to engage in practices that contradict their professional values are plentiful. Conscientious objection in teaching emanates from teachers’ professional ethics—their beliefs about good teaching, the well-being of students, and the purposes of education. Conscientious objection may be confused with resistance borne out of rigidity and conservativism. Reframing some instances of teacher resistance as conscientious objection may enable practitioners, popular media, school leaders, policymakers, and educational researchers to understand teachers’ moral engagement with their work. Since professional value conflicts can be a significant source of job dissatisfaction and burnout, those crafting teacher retention efforts may want to incorporate opportunities for practitioners to discuss moral concerns before they reach the level of resistance and refusal.

Examining instances of conscientious objection in teaching offers two potentially valuable domains of knowledge. First, conscientious objection can provide insight into the moral significance and commitments teachers assign to their work. This category may also reveal the conditions that produce conflicts between teachers’ professional ideals and mandated practices and policies. Viewed from a global perspective, what might conscientious objection in teaching reveal about the effects of GERM-based policies on students and their teachers? As a global phenomenon, how might teachers’ conscientious objections highlight points of solidarity across geography, culture, and school type? What new insights do the commonalities and differences in forms of conscientious objection say about the conditions of teaching and the commitments of teachers?

Second, conscientious objection enacted by an individual may resolve untenable conflicts between teaching practices and professional ideals. The effectiveness of this tactic in altering the profession or the conditions of schools is limited. Teachers unions, however, sometimes do act as a collective professional conscience. When these broad-based efforts gain traction, they are usually linked to issues that include more than just schooling. Coalitions such as these may enable teachers and their communities to find shared moral concerns and to engage in effective actions.


Serena Taj provided research assistance and Anna Martens provided editing assistance for this article.

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