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date: 20 September 2018

Professionalism, Education, and Ethics Code

Summary and Keywords

The professionalization of education involves a modern, capitalist move toward securing a public market for schools and developing social status for educators. As a process that has produced knowledge, rationalized relationships, and controlled markets, professionalization of education has also defined an ethical discourse. Articulated in language, inscribed in state law, and embodied in conduct, professional ethics have been codified formally in “codes of ethics” and informally in professional identity and ways of thinking. The popular discourse of professional ethics in education narrows and constrains ethical possibility in practice.

Because of similar forms of codes of ethics across professions, interdisciplinary scholarship from education, social work, psychiatry, and medicine informs a critical examination of professional ethics. The codes, discourse, and standards of professional ethics are historically grounded in the framework of modern rationalism. As the field of education has developed to include a more diverse knowledge-base and new forms of empirical research, the rational order of prescriptive ethics has begun to slip. While regulatory codes of ethics continue to undergird public trust and provide legal insurance against malfeasance, educational scholars and practitioners engage a wider constellation of ethical perspectives and possibilities. Feminist care ethics, post-modern ethics, and phenomenological descriptive ethics present a few possibilities within emergent fields. As the ongoing effects of professionalization are critiqued and the possibilities of professional ethics are re-imagined, schools of education should look beyond the disciplinary enclosures of education to respond to an increasingly diffuse understanding of professional ethics.

Keywords: professionalization, professional ethics, code of ethics, teaching practice

Questions of ethics within education generally have been framed as questions of professional conduct and characteristics. While overlapping in many ways, conflation between ethics, professionalism, and legal obligation has reduced the scope of ethical discourse in the modern organizations that oversee and regulate schools and teachers. Specifically, the professionalization of education produced organizing bodies for training and regulating teachers. Legislative bodies like state departments and professional bodies like the National Education Association generate and enforce “codes of ethics.” Like other professions with codes of ethics (e.g., National Association of Social Work’s Code of Ethics or the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Codes of Conduct), the codification of ethics within education has most suited the aims of professionalization; thus, codes of ethics have been privileged within the discourse of “professional ethics.”

As rules of conduct and procedure, and principles of professional behavior, professional codes of ethics institutionalize moral authority and uniform practice expectations (Banks, 2003; Rich, 1984; Wilensky, 1964). Thus, they counter-balance professional power by building accountability and addressing issues of public trust (Freidson, 1970). At the same time, professionalization has reduced the scope of ethics and education to concerns of compliance and protection. For example, the principle of non-malfeasance has been codified to protect students and their parents against risk of harm. Assurance of non-malfeasance (developed from medical traditions and in documents such as the Nuremberg Code) followed a long history of exploitation of weak and vulnerable populations (Clements, 1992; Hick, 1998). While important for correcting historical abuses of power, a professional ethic of “do no harm” operates as cautionary—often reducing risk by cautioning the professional agent against getting too close. Considering the immense field of philosophical ethics, including variations of universalism, utilitarianism, and relational or care ethics, the narrow scope of professional ethics tends to impoverish, or even undercut, education as an ethical endeavor and teachers as ethical agents.

Professional ethics in education have been defined along incremental moves to achieve status, otherwise known as “professionalization.” Professionalization is a “collective process of upward social mobility” (Larson, 2013, p. xvi) and pertains to the status of a group of persons—organizational, institutional, legal and political standing (Sockett, 1990). To clarify, professionalization involves macro processes, and professionalism involves micro practices. In education, professionalism pertains to a teacher’s attitude, competency, dispositional virtues, and conduct (Sockett, 1990). These distinctions are important, because professionalism involves the choices of individual teachers. Professionalization sets the disciplinary logics, knowledge, and discourse within which a teacher operates. This analysis of professional ethics in education focuses on professionalization and its particular discourse of ethics.

Through professional organization, ethical ideals have been codified within uniform competencies, standards of practice, expectations of conduct, and principles such as non-malfeasance and fairness. As such, a general account of ethics and education should study the etymology of professionalization and ethical discourse. By focusing on the etymology of professions and the ethical discourse of professionalism, one can become aware of its restrictions and limitations. How has professionalism limited ethical possibility within public schooling and education? How has ethical discourse and practice been produced, or possibly hijacked, in an upward climb toward professional status?

The professionalization of education is situated within free-market capitalism, and the focus is on its fundamental aim to attain status and market power. Scholarship that questions the professionalization of education is considered, and challenges within professional education and democratic education (Labaree, 1992; Strike, 1993) are suggested. The disciplinary effects in relations between knowledge, identity, and teacher are explored. A Foucauldian account of professionalism and disciplinary logic troubles the popular notion of the independent professional who makes ethical decisions from well-established knowledge and wisdom. To the contrary, professional identity—informed through disciplinary knowledge and training—may obscure ethical response to the situation at hand. A wide range of schools of thought are considered to extend and deepen everyday ethics in practice and push back against the rationale demands of professional organization. A range of ethical approaches (phenomenology, feminist care ethics and post-modern ethics, for example) are represented, to give a sense of ethical possibility rather than to argue about compatibility between these approaches.


Because the modern discourse of ethics and education was generated within the context of professionalization, a brief but critical exploration of the forces that produce and validate professional knowledge is in order. Grounded in post-formal thinking, this critical analysis of professional ethics establishes a vantage point that helps one to recognize the formal traditions that construct one’s reality (Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1993). By disembedding the historical structures of professionalism from the practices and discourses it produces, we can better understand the limits of professional ethics. Professional ideals have shaped conceptualizations of ethics more strongly than philosophical ethics or ethics-in-practice have shaped professional ideals.

Professional ethics in education emerged from the development and institutionalization of public schools in the United States throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Male administrators and university teacher educators were the early focus of professionalization. In seeking professional status, they needed to establish a distinct scientific knowledge base for school organization and teaching. Schools of education have, in turn, developed a knowledge base that articulates specialized theory, research, and scholarship (Hoyle, 1982).

During the latter part of the 20th century, new efforts toward professionalization were propelled by a national focus on gender equality and school excellence. Because teaching is a female-dominated profession, teacher professionalization may be related to feminist interests in achieving equal status and equal pay for “women’s work” (Labaree, 1992). As well, market-based, competitive strategies to calibrate school “excellence” fueled professionalization, as demonstrated in efforts to raise teacher standards or reduce centralized administrative control (Labaree, 1992). The ostensible goals of professionalization appear instrumental and progressive but also ethically limited.

This inquiry into professional ethics is broadly informed by understanding the mechanisms of professionalization and the myopic pursuit of professional status. Magali Sarfatti Larson conducted an influential study (1977) on the “rise of professionalism” and the “professional project.” The rise of professionalism accounts for establishing markets and achieving market control. It tells a story of organizing knowledge and expertise through schooling, while addressing and developing public need, in order to establish and control new markets. A monopolistic perspective frames the rise of professionalism as part of the historic expansion of capitalism. It describes the “professional project” (Larson, 1977) in which the possessors of specialized knowledge build monopolies of their knowledge and establish a monopoly of services that derive from it (MacDonald, 1995, p. xii). In her groundbreaking text, Larson summarizes:

Professionalization is thus an attempt to translate one order of scarce resources—special knowledge and skills—into another—social and economic rewards. To maintain scarcity implies a tendency to monopoly: monopoly of expertise in the market, monopoly of status in a system of stratification. (1977, p. xvii)

To convert non-monetized services into commodities, broader social structures had to shape scarcity and social need (Larson, 1977, pp. 17–18). Broadly speaking, professions are organized around specialized knowledge and abilities that are not available to the general public (Freidson, 1970; Frowe, 2005; Larson, 1977; MacDonald, 1995; Schmidt, 2000). Across diverse professions, market development and control has been achieved by establishing a potential market for professional service and a cognitive base to which a service could be tied (Larson, 1977, p. 18).

A modern functionalist perspective of the development of professional expertise and service depicts the professional project as a natural convergence of purpose and practice within fields of expertise (Abbott, 1983). A dominant progress narrative tells a story of scientific knowledge, research, theory, skills, and organization that brings the profession and the professional agent incrementally closer to efficiency of purpose in partnership with the public. Such an account of professional progress downplays the monopolistic market functions of professional organization and structure and fails to question normative forces that operate through both public and professional spheres.

Specifically, the disciplinary logic of professionalization should be questioned in light of the ethical dimension and potential of education. Larson (2014) describes modern professions and the bureaucratic organizations that support them in the context of a “process of rationalization of capitalist societies.” United by “special knowledge” and common “ethics,” professionals become “agents of order” (p. 8). Within the processes of ordering society through professional obligations and duties, human relationships are made through rational calibration. The boundaries of student and teacher relations, for example, are marked and regulated. As previously acknowledged, rational boundaries do offer a degree of public protection from abuse of power. They generally reflect the purpose of universal rights in the sense that they provide unequivocal freedom from various possible harms. Nonetheless, as “agents of order” and in the interest of functional efficiency, teachers are also dissuaded from the messy and uncertain matters of justice, equity, responsibility, and commitment. In the course of everyday encounter, responsibility for or commitment to a student may not convey through disciplinary logic, but rather, by searching outside the metrics of professional understanding.

Professional Knowledge, Expertise, and Ethics

Levinas takes direct aim at the Platonic, Cartesian infatuation with disengaged knowledge that has dominated social professions. Levinas finds an “unbridgeable gap between knowledge and ethics” (Gottlieb, 1994, p. 366). He philosophically negates the idea that ethics can be generated through knowledge. According to Roger Gottlieb (1994):

He [Levinas] believes that knowledge is necessarily aimed at or inevitably leads to domination, objectification, and alienation. Therefore knowledge cannot be the basis of ethical life—that is, of a kind of transcending concern for other people, a concern untouched by our own needs, desires or attempts to control. . . . Knowledge of others necessarily reduces the Other to something we possess, something we have acquired, and something—ultimately—we will use. (p. 366)

Knowledge of others, whether professionally construed or otherwise, may be experienced as totality. “Totalities are the concepts we deploy that allow us to feel that we know or understand another person” (Rossiter, 2011, p. 983). These concepts may emerge from knowledge, assumptions, and beliefs, which create understandings of individuals “as extensions of the conceptions we use to understand” (2011, p. 983).

Knowing, and potentially totalizing, an Other interferes with the possibility of caring. Robinson (1999) describes an “ethic of care” as emerging “out of an ability to see the other as a concrete, particular person who exists not as ‘other’ in an absolute, objective sense, but as another whose uniqueness and particularity emerges through her relations with others” (p. 102).

While Levinasian ethics fundamentally differ from care ethics, both describe how the uniqueness or alterity of the Other must be affirmed before the possibility of ethical relation. Disciplinary logics and rational relations risk totalizing individuals and squeezing aside potential ethical relationship between the person and the professional.

One may also question if the professionalization of education is compatible with the aims of democratic education. Critical analysis of the history and sociology of public schooling discloses the political and moral terrain of education. The institutional context of public schools includes political aims like promoting a more equitable society, developing the skills of shared governance, reproducing cultural norms and social structures, and training a globally competitive national workforce. To leave such educational interests to experts alone, the public relinquishes considerable input and fewer avenues of representation. Labaree (1992) suggests that professionalization constructs “professional barriers to the public influence over classroom instruction,” which amounts to “nothing less than a threat to an essential component of democracy” (p. 149). Strike (1993) argues that in a liberal democracy educational “ends” are to either be self-chosen or democratically chosen (p. 260). While local governance of public schools generally remains in the hands of elected school board members in the United States, the representation of public interests is threatened as movements toward privatization through voucher programs and private charter schools gain ground. Perhaps the future will reveal if the professionalization of education was only an intermittent step toward privatization. (See Kathy Hytten, “Democracy and Education in the United States.”)

Professional Code of Ethics

To locate the popular discourse of ethics among educators, one should examine professional organizations and regulatory bodies as well as schools of education. Professional ethics in education is located among documented codes of ethics and standards of conduct as developed and adopted by state departments, teacher unions, and professional organizations. Substantial scholarship and traditions in philosophical ethics and education (from Plato to Noddings) cannot be discounted; however, codes of ethics substantiate a discourse that is prominent in the everyday world of professional teachers. Typically, teachers are evaluated on demonstration of ethics in practice. For example, in North Carolina demonstration of “high ethical standards” is listed under “Standard One: Teachers Demonstrate Leadership” on the Teacher Summary Rating Form for public school teachers (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 2015). “High ethical standards” are clarified in the Code of Professional Conduct and Practice for North Carolina Educators. North Carolina’s example—an evaluation of teacher performance that is tied to a code of ethics—is typical of state-administered teacher oversight.

Among those who study professions, much has been written about professional codes of ethics. Banks (2003) defines a code of ethics as a “document produced by a professional association, occupational regulatory body or other professional body with the stated aim of guiding the practitioners who are members, protecting service users and safeguarding the reputation of the profession” (p. 133). Abbott (1983) acknowledges that ethics codes are “the most concrete cultural form in which professions acknowledge their societal obligations” (p. 856). According to Macdonald (1995), a code of ethics is “the one thing thought to characterize a profession” besides a knowledge base (p. 167). Halliday (1987) argues that facts and knowledge must work in tandem with cultural values. Accounting for political synchronization between nation-states and professions, Halliday says that, among other things, it depends upon the profession’s “ability to create expert authority and convert it into moral authority” (p. 54). Hence, professional expertise within education incorporates normative ethical positions, which are then codified.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries formal ethics codes have been foundational for achieving professional status (Abbott, 1983; Macdonald, 1995; Watkins, 1926). In most historical accounts of the development of professional status, the necessity of an ethics code is tied to establishing and maintaining public trust (Wilensky, 1964). Professional organizations work to develop public trust in relationships where professionals have substantial power. Balancing unequal power differentials between teachers, school administrators, and the public has been addressed by institutionalizing the social and ethical norms that constitute professional behavior. As such, a code of ethics or practice is useful for providing “substantive form” to a system of accountability that is rooted in trust between teachers and the public (Sockett, 1990).

In the United States, the National Education Association (NEA) adopted a “Code of Ethics of the Education Profession” in 1975. It identifies a desire for “respect and confidence” from colleagues and the general public as justification for establishing “standards by which to judge conduct” (National Education Association, 1975). A normative relation to society that is reflected in the discourse and substance of professional ethics and codes encourages more trusting relations. Professional ethics are normative because they both reflect norms of modern society and produce norms of professional conduct. While the NEA Code of Ethics may function as a national model, individual states adopt their own administrative codes of ethical standards for educators. As a result of decentralized public education in the United States, the disciplinary authority of educators resides with individual states—where sanctions, such as revocation of a license, are leveraged. Thus, professional and ethical conduct for teaching professionals is generally codified into state law.

Normative ethics, as applied in professional code, are forms of rule-bound utilitarianism in which the maximum good and minimum harm are sought (Reamer, 2012). While often evoked to achieve desirable ends or results, codified ethics are also rule-bound, because they are limited as to how much they can change or adapt to particular situations or contexts. The immutable rule or principle applies to the entire professional class, because any variant might undermine public trust. Rather than inviting deliberation and choice of action, rules of conduct shift personal responsibility away from the individual professional and onto the employing institution or credentialing agency.

For those charged with preparing future teachers in teacher education programs, the tools of professionalization are generally embraced without substantive critical evaluation. After all, professionalism is fundamentally entwined with the university’s production and dissemination of particular “regimes” of truth. In a research study of teachers’ self-reported perceptions of ethical violations, Barrett, Casey, Visser, and Headley (2012) recommend stronger codes of conduct for teachers. They fault the ethics codes for being overly general and vague. They suggest a more “principle-based, prescriptive and enforceable code of conduct for teachers” (2012, p. 891). The authors refer to sexual harassment and intimate relationships between teachers and students as well as “misconduct” and “boundary-crossing” with social networking to support their case for more “prescriptive” codes. They recommend a formal code of ethics and standards for teachers that are based on four “fundamental” principles: students’ personal welfare, respect for community standards, objectivity, and integrity. Barrett et al. (2012) believe that teacher behavior needs more regulation, “both in and outside of the classroom” (p. 891). They describe, “It should include both prohibitions against certain behaviors and a set of decision rules for action when certain underlying principles appear to be in conflict” (p. 891). Claiming that teaching is “invariably” about decision-making, they suggest that teachers should “take responsibility for the difficult tasks of identifying the norms and mores of the profession, articulating standards and expectations for practitioners, and communicating these expectations to the public” (p. 896). The normative principles and standards that they support are justified by centering professional status. In other words, “the norms and mores of the profession” primarily protect the interests of the profession, which has been structured through social closure. Wider ethical scope for the lives of teachers or students or teacher-student relationships are secondary to the concerns of the profession.

Barrett et al. (2012) reflect dominant professional discourse by highlighting dangers and risks of involvement:

The desire to develop close and caring relationships with those with whom we work has to be balanced by an awareness of the dangers inherent in “dual relationships,” situations in which a professional maintains a social or personal relationship with a client in addition to a professional one. Such relationships are particularly dangerous when the caring provider is an adult and the person being cared for is a child. (p. 895)

In addition to the presumption that all “danger” is bad and all risk should be avoided, a relatively weak ethical position, this statement is only thinkable within a discourse that already calibrates “ethics” against social fears of predatory adults and innocent children who need protection. The authors narrowly construe “appropriate” teacher conduct as that which does not violate, and they fail to consider the ethical potential of dual relationships. Examples of “positive boundary crossings” (Doel et al., 2010) might include teachers who become foster and adoptive parents to youth they have met in professional contexts. Placing foster youth with their teachers, with whom they may already have trusting relationships, has been encouraged in collaborative programs between child welfare services and local school districts (San Francisco Unified School District Foster Youth Services, 2010). Allowance for more fluid and situationally responsive relationship boundaries has clear benefits. In making a case for the ethics of dual relationships, Tomm (1993) carefully delineates differences between exploitation, duality, and complexity. He remarks, “While dual relationships always introduce greater complexity, they are not inherently exploitative. Indeed, the additional human connectedness through a dual relationship is far more likely to be affirming, reassuring and enriching, than exploitative” (p. 48). Approaches to ethics that center care, reciprocity, and relation preserve complexity rather than legislate simplicity through elimination of dual relationships (Alexander & Charles, 2009, p. 9). Nonetheless, the norms of professional distance and scientific objectivity are baked into professional culture.

Often, normative ethics are so firmly established within particular professional culture that acculturation occurs with little notice. Norms are taken for granted, adopted, and performed without self-awareness, thought, or critical reflection. Watkins (1926) describes the “authority of ethical prescriptions” as an “attitude of the mind” and “an habitual mode of thinking regarding obligations and privileges in human relationship” (p. 332). Habituated responses stifle deep questions and reflection about one’s own responsibility to the needs of others. Prescriptive ethics preclude individual actors grappling with the nuances of complexity (e.g., power and responsibility) and, rather, provide a standard rule of thumb—a uniform action and procedure.

Professional Ideology and Identity

The ideology of professionalism has an anesthetic effect on professional educators (Schudson, 1980). Specifically, it narrows ethical expression and action. While professionalization describes macro processes and professionalism describes micro behaviors, decoupling the institutional and individual manifestations of professional ideology is problematic. The ideological framework of professionalization is archived within the disciplined professional, who has learned to think and behave professionally. Because of “enduring and transformative” socialization processes (Light, 1980, p. 311) of school and work, the directive to “act professional” doesn’t need to be stated. Acting professionally is always unquestioned. McKnight (2004) suggests that internalizing the ideological assumptions of a profession is not difficult. He explains, “for one’s thoughts and feelings to be in harmony with professionalized ways of knowing is to truly engage in a ‘good life’ and join a small, elite community within the larger cultural context” (p. 213). The disciplinary power of one’s fully rendered professional identity is self-regarding and demonstrates Foucault’s description of “technologies of self.” Foucault (1997b) describes “self-formation of the subject” as “an exercise of the self upon the self by which one attempts to develop and transform oneself, and to attain a certain mode of being” (p. 282). He further describes how individuals engage techniques on “their own bodies, souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (Foucault, 1997a, p. 225). As with religious asceticism wherein devotees discipline themselves, professional asceticism applies to groups of professionals. Professional asceticism “turns human beings into objects” that, for their own good or society’s good, subjects them to “discipline” such that they “collaborate in their own subjection” (Macdonald, 1995, p. 175). Professional asceticism is generally motivated by the desirable status of being professional.

If professional asceticism is understood as a technique and strategy of self-governance, then the operations of ethics codes may be understood as part of Foucauldian governmentality. Governmentality concerns the rational operations of institutions and nation-states to “categorize, compartmentalize and control populations” (Wilkin, 1999, p. 181). O’Malley (2008) maintains that “the analytic of governmentality . . . is concerned with surfaces—the words used to describe problems, the discourses in terms of which subjects are characterized, the categories that are used to explain policies” (p. 56). Once instituted, ethics codes establish rational boundaries and zones of conduct through which human interaction is determined and controlled. Regardless of stated purpose, codes participate in a much larger grid of power relations. Power relations maintain the exchange values that mark clients with needs that can only be met by knowledgeable professionals. Professionals have value; clients have needs. Ethics codes are paramount in this assemblage but so are the discursive elements that support them, such as “do no harm.” As a professional tenet, “do no harm” centers the problem of harm and places professionals in a position of “not doing” or withdrawing action. “Do no harm” has regulatory potency by limiting the risk of involvement through ostensibly altruistic purposes.

As discourse, codes categorize policies and procedures as “ethics.” Banks (2003) found codes of ethics to be combinations of principles and rules of practice, and principles and rules of ethics. By linking rules of practice to rules of ethics, codes achieve the “intense practicality” that O’Malley (2008) attributes to governmentality. “Governmental mentalities are . . . always linked to technologies for doing things, answers to the question of ‘What is to be done?’” (p. 56). In this sense, the governmentality of professional ethics code discreetly defines “ethics” as following correct procedure. For example, in the United States the state of Georgia refers to state-mandated assessments and stipulates that unethical conduct includes “committing any act that breaches test security” (Code of Ethics for Educators, 2015). While protecting the integrity of testing data, Georgia codifies action as “unethical” and presupposes an ethical position that involves interference with state testing.1 While Georgia’s Code of Ethics for Educators specifies legal behavior, it should not be confused with ethical behavior. Procedural rule serves to circumvent the complexities of ethical reflection, deliberation, and action. It precludes noncompliant action as unethical by default.

Being professional requires self-discipline to uphold predetermined ethical norms. Being ethical as enacted by being professional is fundamentally different from doing ethics as praxis. When reduced to a fiat of rule and procedure, ethics code runs the risk of supplanting reflexive moral deliberation, value clarification, and decision-making. Harris (1994) explains that reductive ethical “maxims,” which are often the content of codes, are easily externalized. He cautions against code that may lead to externalizing or outsourcing responsibility from individuals to governing institutions. Codes that remove individual professionals from the task of determining their own duty may also absolve individual teachers from the responsibilities of ethical decision-making. Additionally, the value of codes of ethics as “equipment”—a practical tool for one’s work—falls short of the complexities of real-world practice. Codes of ethics and professional ethics can become irrelevant to practice by generating problems for practitioners and losing their usefulness in particular situations.

Once rules for professional conduct acquired legal foundations (e.g., laws pertaining to professional licensing, malpractice, malfeasance, etc.), distinctions between ethical judgment and legal compliance began to erode. Discussing medical ethics, Clements (1992) explains how rights and conduct codified into law prompted the “reinterpretation of standards of conduct (codes of ethics) into standards of practice (legal standards for determining malpractice claims) which convert medical codes of ethics into a legalism rather than an ethics” (p. 375). Following the path of medicine in building legally codified rules of conduct and adopting legal language, other professions, like education, dampen ongoing ethical deliberation and replace it with efficient governance by rule and law. Rejecting modernist attempts to legislate morality, Bagnall (1998) argues that codes have taken “the morality out of individual and collective action,” and replaced it with “rule-following behavior” (p. 316). When strictly compliant to rules of conduct, teachers become strong professionals and weak ethical agents. Mistaking professional, legal rules for morality contributes to an erosion of interpersonal responsibility for one another. Systems of legal governance expropriate decisions of ethical responsibility to institutional and legal systems and away from individuals. Perhaps a legal foundation is reasonably necessary for civil society, public trust, and beneficent relations. However, those involved in social professions, like education or social work, might also seriously consider how the potential of human-to-human encounter, left intact with all of its uncertain ethical dimensions and freedoms, is foundational to human possibility itself (Bauman, 1993; Bauman, 1995).

Teacher Education and Ethics

A broader understanding of ethics and education must contend with the social location of professional teacher education, which develops future teachers and standards of practice. Questions about the value of philosophical ethics in teacher education abound. Christopher Martin (2013) addresses some of these questions. Martin acknowledges that more extensive engagement with philosophical ethics may contribute to professional ethics by inspiring ideals or encouraging moral reflection. However, identifying and mapping the moral dimensions of teaching in philosophical terms yields little consensus. Various challenges from moral relativism to incompatible ethical orientations tend to thwart general agreement on the moral value of teaching (p. 191). Other questions emerge about the practical value of learning and engaging with philosophical ethics, which often seem far removed from the daily practice of teaching (p. 190).

Additionally, education is a highly politicized profession. External forces (managerial, political, economic) impact and, possibly, undermine professional agreement on teaching as a moral endeavor (Martin, 2013, p. 191). For example, the diminution of social foundations of education (Christou, 2009; deMarrais, 2013; Neumann, 2010)—where philosophy, history, and sociology of education are usually studied—jeopardizes opportunities for liberal education on teaching as moral endeavor. Under the directives of governing bodies, schools of education may fail to secure a place for social foundations of education despite broad agreement among educators that teaching is “fundamentally a moral enterprise” (Bullough, 2011, p. 27).

Applied ethics helps to bridge philosophical ethics with professional ethics. When studying applied ethics practitioners learn to apply ethical principles or values to specific situations (Todd, 2003, p. 14). For example, teacher education programs often use case studies to explore moral dilemmas (Bullough, 2011). Working through case studies and scenarios might approximate the application of ethical principles and values, such as fairness, in the “real world.” However, applied ethics assumes that teachers need philosophical principles or values to tell them what is moral in specific situations. Martin (2013) refutes this notion on the grounds that philosophical ethics present an overly reductive and selective account of teaching practice as a moral endeavor and of moral life more generally. Accordingly, ethics reduced to principles and values may undermine the efforts of teacher preparation, including reflecting on practice and making deliberative judgments among a plurality of normative considerations (p. 190).

Martin (2013) describes teaching as “an always present morality-in-practice” (p. 199). Thus, he recommends a “liberal pedagogy of philosophical ethics” where teaching practice and philosophical practice (i.e., ways of moral inquiry) are overlaid and generative (p. 205). Making a strong case for a generative relationship between philosophical ethics and teaching practice, Martin recognizes the “complex hermeneutic work” such a partnership requires. Balancing abstract, normative frameworks with the everyday situations of teaching and learning in schools (p. 206) is a significant task within Martin’s liberal pedagogy of philosophical ethics and teacher practice.

Teacher education programs, thus, treat ethics in education and moral practice among preservice educators in piecemeal fashion. In a small review of 22 articles about ethical and moral matters in teaching and teacher education, Bullough (2011) found at least three frameworks: “an ethic of purpose, an ethic of rules and principles, and an ethic of probability” (p. 28). The curricula of teacher education programs are also shaped by standards from accrediting agencies such as the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) in the United States. NCATE’s shift toward virtue ethics and dispositions has likely brought teacher education programs closer to Aristotelian ethics with particular articulation of dispositions such as fairness, caring, and responsibility. However, as McKnight (2004) explains, a close understanding of Aristotelian virtue dispositions discloses real limitations as to what can be accomplished in time-limited teacher education programs and as to the assessment of dispositions among teacher candidates. McKnight concludes with his “hope” that preservice teachers develop the “desire to operate out of praxis, a kind of thoughtful action that emerges from years of study and experience” (p. 227).

Ethical Possibilities in Teaching Practice

The significant role and power of ethics codes and schooling within professional socialization notwithstanding, a code of ethics cannot and does not make individual professionals ethical—nor does completion of a teacher education program. Each of these implies a conditional or instructive way of being ethical. They risk the presumption that within the conditions of following a rule or applying a principle, one can become ethical when one behaves professionally. While instrumental for preventing harm or balancing power differentials, shortcuts to ethical practice privilege efficiency and restrict the full range of possibilities of doing ethics. Framed as an attained condition or a state of being, being ethical qua professional relieves one of risky involvement, messy dialogue, reflection, and action. The full range of possibility within the context of doing (in particular situations and relationships) invites a much deeper sense of ethical responsibility. Doing ethics speaks to the Freirian notion of praxis, which requires a conscious process of reflection and action (see Peter Roberts, “Paulo Freire”).

Contrasting applied ethics, “implied ethics” denotes a situation in which “practices, technologies, discourses, and relationships always already participate in a field of ethical signification” (Todd, 2003, p. 14). “Implied ethics” recognize that ethical conditions and signification exist prior to professional discipline, discourse, and philosophical principles. A more phenomenological approach to ethics, like “implied ethics,” opens space for interpretation of the actual (what is) rather than applying ethical norms (what ought to be) onto real-world situations. Recognizing implied ethical signification within the hurried world of professional practice loosens the grip of prescriptive codes and opens possibilities for empirical study of ethics and, potentially, more responsive, pragmatic professional practice. Locating moral knowledge in action rather than abstract theory foregrounds practitioner experience and elevates the values that are most relevant in particular situations. As well, it pushes back against professional rationalization that constitutes, educates, and protects whole populations but also reduces individual “persons” to “objects” in need of proper management (Smart, 1999).

In line with pragmatic orientations to ethics, Widdershoven and van der Scheer (2008) claim that “the meaning of concepts lies in their practical consequences” (p. 25).2 Within professional practice they ask, “Which issues are relevant to practice?” and “What problems do practitioners experience?” (2008, p. 24). Not framing problems within “strictly defined principles,” they are critical of solving problems through “abstract procedures” (2008, pp. 25–26). Thus, they suggest that the problems of real-world practice are the “proper” objects for “normative analysis” (2008, p. 24). This is how they fuse the normative work of moral philosophy with empirical work. For example, a professional teacher who develops a relationship with a student living in the foster care system may demonstrate forms of in loco parentis care for her student that are outside of what might be considered “normal” teacher care. She might take him to the museum, make him a birthday cake, or invite him to her home for a holiday. Such involvement might present problems of practice if issues of “boundary crossing” arise. Do her actions give rise to a conflict of interest? Is involvement overly risk-laden? Accordingly, these are examples of questions of ethics that arise from professional practice.

In their second claim, Widdershoven and van der Scheer (2008) assert that “experienced persons have practical knowledge about what is good and bad in the concrete situation” (p. 32). They draw from Aristotelian “phronèsis,” or “practical wisdom,” to suggest that acting or judging from one’s practical insight results in “appropriate application of the rules” and makes normative content more visible (p. 31). Baptista (2012) explains that “control” and “courage” are the two virtues associated with “phronèsis.” These counterbalancing virtues reflect an understanding of ethics as “prudential wisdom,” which leads to “thoughtful and sensible action” (p. 40).

Finally, Widdershoven and van der Scheer (2008) describe a hermeneutic or interpretive, dialogical process in relation to the “phronèsis” of the experienced person. They “do not assume that the views of practitioners are perfect; they are open for improvement,” and there is a “process of negotiation between people investigating each other’s views and responding to each other’s claims” (p. 32). While such democratic orientations allow for continual improvement and include processes for changing ineffectual ideology, they do not fit the form of codes, the demands for efficiency, or the underlying tenets of professional expertise. Rather, democratic pragmatism may guide teams of colleagues, supervisors, parents, and others toward determining how ethical principles may or may not apply and toward responding to the particularities of the situation.

By privileging the practical knowledge and insight of experienced professionals, Widdershoven and van der Scheer (2008) may under-theorize the subjugating effects of professional identity and ideology. As noted previously, professional identity and the background practices of professional schooling can be understood as a technology of the self in which, by striving to be professional, professionals collaborate in their own subjugation. Such subjugation would likely call into question the phronèsis of the experienced professional. Nonetheless, such questions could be worked through in processes of negotiation and dialogue with others. Widdershoven and van der Scheer (2008) write:

Pragmatic hermeneutics stresses the importance of practical processes of meaning-making, related to concrete problems. It is critical of all attempts to frame the problem in terms of strictly defined principles and to solve it through abstract procedures. . . . [Pragmatic hermeneutics] emphasizes that moral knowledge is not theoretical, but embedded in action. (pp. 25–26)

Pragmatic hermeneutics provide sound justifications for conducting human science research to study questions of professional ethics. Such approaches contextualize ethics by taking into account “commitments to specific others, motives and emotions” (Banks, 2008, p. 1243). Thus, they provide an approach to the study of ethics that is embedded in the everyday lives of professionals.

To make sense of an ethics that is embedded in the everyday lives of professional educators, a small study of teachers and social workers who became foster or adoptive parents to youth whom they met in professional contexts (Martin, 2015) is examined. Given the significant needs of the youths and the challenging situations of their lives, these professional acquaintances (teachers and social workers) felt as if there was no choice but to respond by accepting parental roles. Participants in the study became either foster parents or adoptive parents to someone in their classrooms or on their caseloads. The professionals clearly did not limit their responses to the expectations of professional ethics or code. Moral decision-making and action eclipsed the bounds of professional identity and context. Study participants pointed toward a sense of moral responsibility that could not be overridden or dampened by countervailing professional duties and limitations. They described having “no choice” but to get involved. Participants were critically and ethically responsive to the situations that they were part of. Their descriptions resonated with Bauman’s (1993) understanding of a non-rational, moral impulse. Through their stories they demonstrate the limits of professional rationality.

Other studies critique rigid professional rules and recommend more situationally responsive and relevant forms of ethics (Alexander & Charles, 2009; Bagnall, 1998; Doel et al., 2010; Weinberg & Taylor, 2014). In a study of social work professional boundaries, for example, Doel et al. (2010) identify “positive boundary crossings”—“social workers who are prepared to cross hard and fast lines and ‘go the extra mile’” (p. 1884). They also found that, when compared to professional standards, “personal moral codes” are more likely to influence practitioners (p. 1882). In order for statements of professional ethics to remain relevant to everyday professional practice, statements must engage with research on empirical ethics in professional practice.


The convergence of professional organization and ideology with philosophical ethics and moral practice in the context of teaching and education has been highlighted. Because of similar forms of ethics codes across professions, scholarship from education, social work, psychiatry, and medicine has been examined. The codes, discourse, and standards of professional ethics are historically grounded in a framework of modern rationalism. As the field of education has grown to include a wider knowledge base and more forms of empirical research, the rational order of prescriptive ethics has begun to slip. While regulatory ethics codes are likely to undergird public trust and to provide legal insurance against malfeasance, educational scholars and practitioners engage a wider constellation of ethical perspectives and possibilities. Feminist care ethics, post-modern ethics, and phenomenological descriptive ethics represent only a few possibilities within an emergent field. As new interpretations of professional ethics gain traction, schools of education may look across other disciplines to re-examine how ethics are taught within teacher preparation programs. As well, regulatory bodies may become more responsive to increasingly diffuse understandings of professional ethics.


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(1.) In 2015 eleven educators from Atlanta, Georgia, were convicted of tampering with student test scores. The Governor’s Office investigated and described the scandal as the “ethical failing” of teachers and administrators. Some research may point toward more “altruistic” motivations. Wong (2016) reports on two studies that suggest “a little cheating does more good than harm, helping shepherd the kids in need on the path to college or a good career and compensating for the systemic challenges that perpetuate stubborn achievement gaps.” Consequently, it may be argued that such tampering with test scores was grounded in a sense of ethical responsibility rather than ethical failing.

(2.) Widdershoven and van der Scheer (2008) refer to psychiatric or medical practice. I extend their scope to include the professional practice of education.