College Quarterly
Spring 1998 - Volume 5 Number 3

Thoughts on a Professional Teaching Ethic

by Craig. W. Steeles


Among professions, the medical profession is pre-eminent in its development of a system of professional ethics. The United States military services spend much time and effort researching and codifying standards of professional ethics, and in training soldiers, especially officers, in their application. Even lawyers have a professional ethics system! Amazingly enough, however, professional educators do not. There is an increasing emphasis on ethics and their importance to students in undergraduate education in the United States (Derting, 1994). In addition, reports of professional impropriety of faculty towards students, and reports concerned with ethical misconduct in research and academia (Swazey et al., 1993) underscore the need for a professional teaching ethic in higher education.

What principles should an educational institution recognize? What generalizations can be made concerning a professional teaching ethic (PTE) that established standards of conduct for members of the educational institution? What principles make sense as those teachers would accept? If the ethic is understood by members of an educational institution and is accepted by them as the codification of acceptable principles for justifying teachers’ actions, the PTE will also serve as an effective behavioural constraint. The ethic would play a critical role in any decisions by teachers that directly affect the educational welfare of students.

How can we determine the appropriate elements of compelling PTE? First, the members of the profession must recognize its provisions as the appropriate standard for morally evaluating their actions. Second, the PTE must make sense to members of the profession. It must be acceptable because it makes sense; otherwise, group members will neither know how to apply the PTE consistently, nor will they consider it compelling. The PTE must also actually affect behaviour. Teachers must desire to act in accordance with it because they recognize it as the way to justify actions to others. The PTE should consist of principles or values that teachers could not reasonably reject.

Taylor (1986) lists five conditions for a valid ethical system. According to him, the ethical System must be: 1) general in form, without reference to specific persons or actions; 2) universally applied to everyone; 3) followed independently of an individual’s personal desires or goals; 4) appropriate for everyone; and 5) regarded with greater priority than other norms (e.g., values, customs, laws).

Without the background of a moral education or a formal education in philosophy or ethics, however, teachers may not be motivated to act in accordance with moral guidance (Steele, 1994). A moral education is the process of learning what is acceptable behaviour and recognizing that others expect such behaviour. Most people who grow up in social environments, however, learn what is acceptable and what is not. Although they may not always adhere to such guidance, they do develop the motivation to be seen as justified in their actions. Obviously, teachers are the products of various social environments. Most teachers, however, should be expected to understand the fundamental social value of what society expects regarding morally acceptable behaviour.

The goal of "successful" teaching is to produce educated, literate citizens who will be lifelong learners. Perhaps the first step in developing a PTE is to recognize the qualities that teachers must possess to be successful teachers. In my opinion, these qualities are the virtues of courage, loyalty, maturity, self-discipline, and competence. Additionally, Wynne and Ryan (1993) list eight ethical ideals, which they believe are the "proper goals of humanity": prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and charity. All these qualities constitute functional requirements of educational activity in that they generate student trust in a teacher. Pedagogical techniques aside, such trust is the foundation for achieving success in teaching. To be compelling and effective, a PTE must, therefore, incorporate these qualities, and properly educated and trained teachers should understand their importance. These "teaching virtues" are not in a class apart; they are virtues which are common to us all.

Functional requirements and fundamental social values of society apply to any educational institution; the more professional the institution, the more strongly they apply. Thus, these two factors should be the sources for the principles that comprise the PTE. These principles should define what it is to be a good person in an educational environment. A PTE that is a compelling moral system for a teaching force makes the moral commitments of a teacher the highest order desire he or she possesses. Being "morally motivated" means that we recognize what we really ought to do, and we do it. If the virtues functionally required for successful teaching are those of the accepted PTE, the teaching force will indeed be more effective than one in which such virtues are less developed. A teaching force whose members possess the virtues for moral (and physical) courage, loyalty, maturity, self-discipline, and competence is superior to one equal in ability but lacking these virtues.

If properly structured, efficiently promulgated, and widely accepted, a PTE will help develop a potent teaching force. Leaders of educational institutions striving to improve their organizations should place development of a compelling, effective PTE and development of the teaching virtues high on their priority list. By doing so, they truly place the students first, because these virtues all bear on the establishment of trust among teachers and students, a pivotal condition that can be an important "learning multiplier" in the classroom.

Acknowledgments. I thank Dr. Brad Wilson, Department of Philosophy, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, for constructive comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.


Derting, T.L. (1994) Teaching Ethics in the Sciences: How and Why? Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching, Vol.20, No.2, pp. 16-21.

Steele, C.W. (1994) Do Good People Make Better Teachers? Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching, Vol. 20, No 1, pp. 15-18.

Swazey, J.P., Anderson, M.S., and Lewis, K.S. (1993). Ethical Problems in Academic Research. American Scientist, Vol.81, pp. 542-553

Taylor, P.W. (1986). Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Wynne, E.A. and Ryan, K. (1993) Curriculum as a Moral Educator. American Educator, Spring, pp. 20-25 and 44-48

Craig Steeles is a professor who teaches in the Biology and Health Sciences Department at Edinboro University in Edinboro, Pennsylvania. He invites readers to respond to his comments in this article. He may be contacted at:


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
Copyright ©
1998 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology