3 Sticky Ethical Situations for Teachers (And How to Solve Them)

“Teaching didn’t used to be a pressure cooker job,” a Philadelphia educator told WeAreTeachers recently. “It was about the life[…]Continue Reading

“Teaching didn’t used to be a pressure cooker job,” a Philadelphia educator told WeAreTeachers recently. “It was about the life about the classroom and all the learning and small victories that happened every day.  Now, its so much more complicated.”

There’s no denying that teachers and administrators are feeling the pressure to prove to policy makers and the public that students’ achievement levels are always on the rise. Districts are under the gun to improve test scores, meet Common Core benchmarks, and deliver personalized education to every child at the same time, and that urgency affects the classroom in both positive and negative ways.

Recently, we asked a group of teachers to share examples of sticky ethical situations they’ve experienced. Then we shared three of the most common stories with a panel of experienced teachers and administrators to hear their advice. Does it match it with what you would recommend?  Let us know in the comments.

Sticky Situation #1: Interventions That Aren’t

We have a reading recovery program for our struggling students that in my opinion leaves a lot to be desired. Our students sit in front of the computer doing exercise after exercise with no teacher support. Our principal believes in this program and expects me to tell parents that adequate interventions are in place to help children succeed. Meanwhile, I see our struggling students falling farther behind. What can I do?

Our respondents agreed that there are several things you can do here without directly countermanding your principal. Start by thinking about what the program does do. What features do you like about it? How could you make computer time more engaging for students? Would a group challenge and prize be motivating?  Once you’ve looked at how you can get the most out the program, then think about what is needed to supplement. Perhaps, while some students are at the computer, others could do mini-lessons and then switch. Talk to your principal about how additions to the reading recovery program could improve results. Over time, you may see that change goes in the direction you are hoping for. As one educator wrote: “Straight out rejecting and criticizing a learning tool your boss believes in—especially to parents— is more likely to result in you changing jobs that he or she changing programs!”


In your conversations with parents, however, you might mention that any reading program only goes so far—and you need them to be part of the team! Suggest ways that that families can help at home and hands-on activities you think will help. Make a list of fun ways to practice emergent reading skills and send it home. And, of course, as one teacher suggested, “balance out the program with the activities you do in class. Then you know your students are getting a well-rounded approach.”

Sticky Situation #2: An Anonymous Parent Complaint

I teach fifth grade at a private school. A parent called my principal with complaints about my classroom demeanor. I was never told who the parent was—although the principal let out that it was not a parent of a child in my class. The principal seemed to take this parent’s word as gold, when I receive plenty of glowing reviews from the families of my actual students. What do I do?

“I think the best way to have the principal see ‘the light’ is to lead with a good example at school,” suggested one Texas school leader. “Teachers sometimes don’t share the great things going on with their students outside their classroom walls.” Big picture: Get the word out! Send home newsletters, share photos and display work. Find ways to showcase your students in the larger school community. The more everyone knows about the good things going on in your classroom, the more likely it is that your principal will take the occasional criticism of your work with a grain of salt.

At the same time, do your best to move quickly past this incident. Try to understand your bosses’ perspective. As a principal, it is difficult to ignore parent complaints. Humbly accept correction in any areas where you might need to grow and gently set the record straight on untruths. Over time, your good press will outweigh a little criticism here and there.

Sticky Situation 3: A Request to Retest

In my last evaluation meeting, my principal and I were reviewing my students’ DIBEL scores, which have improved since the beginning of the year but aren’t up to grade level. She reminded me that I was working in a “Blue Ribbon School” and told me I needed to “correct the scores.” I assured her that other assessments indicated that students had indeed, made great progress, and that the DIBELS scores would be only part of the bigger picture. My principal then made it clear I need to go back and retest my students, making sure to “mark the correct answers.” Help!

One of the school leaders on our panel put it quite bluntly: “You do what is right. Always. Never compromise your integrity, even if it costs you your job. You do not want to be working for an unethical principal anyway.”

Educators are sometimes put in situations in which they are asked to change grades or scores.  Giving in on this point can only end badly.  Several educators suggested first researching the testing requirements and then engaging the principal in a direct conversation. Calmly ask her for clarification. “Are you saying you want me to forge the children’s scores?” Sometimes administrators get tunnel vision and lose sight of the best interests of kids and teachers because of outside pressure. They might just need that reminder.

Do you agree with our panel’s advice? Share your recommendations and “sticky situations” you’ve faced in the comments! 

Looking for more teaching advice? Check out our Professional Teacher page for help.