Learning to do the right thing.
By Jennifer Lewington
Photo: KC Armstrong
“Your professional judgment needs to be bigger than the moment, bigger than the situation and bigger than the emotions.”
Emotions were running high in spring 2018, when Karen Murray, OCT, then a Toronto middle school vice-principal, made a decision she knew would upset students, staff and parents.
Her school’s relay team had just placed second at a track and field meet and were jubilant at securing a spot in the city finals. A parent volunteer offered to drive the team students to an impromptu pizza celebration and spare them an hour-long bus ride back to school.
Murray said no, diplomatically contradicting staff and rebuffing pleas from the students, the volunteer and parents who phoned with last-minute permission. Undaunted, Murray explained that Toronto District School Board safety rules require students to leave an event the same way they arrive — in this case, by bus.
She made her unpopular decision based on the best interests of students. “Your professional judgment needs to be bigger than the moment, bigger than the situation and bigger than the emotions,” says Murray. “I had no choice, as disappointed as the kids were.”
Every day, teachers and administrators are expected to make decisions based on their pedagogical training, ethical values and ethos of lifelong learning — the essence of professional judgment. But with the rise of social media, stricter privacy rules and heightened public expectations for schools to address racism, homophobia and social equity issues, the stakes are higher than ever for practitioners to polish their professional skills and values.
“In a society of ever-growing needs and concerns, professionalism is central to success in your career,” says Cathy Bruce, OCT, dean of Trent University’s school of education in Peterborough, Ont., among several faculties adapting curriculum to keep pace with emerging ethical challenges, including social media (see sidebar). “Teachers are making decisions minute by minute,” she adds. “A lot of those decisions are academic, but they almost always have a layer of professional judgment.”
As learners themselves, teachers have access to a wealth of resources on professional decision-making, starting with the Ontario College of Teachers’ Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, the Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession and The Professional Learning Framework for the Teaching Profession.
“They convey the collective vision of teacher professionalism,” says Déirdre Smith, OCT, the College’s manager of standards of practice and education, with College resource kits, Additional Qualifications (AQ) courses (oct-oeeo.ca/findanAQ) and workshops to bring the standards to life. “At the heart of that professional identity is professional judgment.”
In serving today’s learner — increasingly diverse in language, culture and special needs — teachers seek to stay current with their obligation to promote success for all students. This fall, the College expects to release a new resource on ethical standards of teaching from a Mohawk perspective. The resource was developed by a Mohawk artist and will complement other College-accredited Indigenous learning resources.
“It is an ethical stance that educators need [to take] so they are aware if there are curriculum or assessment practices or resources they are using that privilege some perspectives over others,” says Smith. “In Ontario for many years, Indigenous perspectives and world views were not privileged and they might have been absent or silent ... [We need to ask] whose voices are silent and whose are included?”
Also this fall, complementing earlier material for principals, the College plans to release educator-developed discussion guides, narrative booklets and other professional education material that reflect the lived experiences of teachers. They will also help support ethical decision-making and the inclusion of Indigenous history, world views and leadership, as well as help educators adopt an anti-oppressive, anti-racist and ethical stance in their daily practice.
“They are being co-developed with AQ instructors and designers who have a very sophisticated understanding of anti-oppressive practices and were embedding them already in their AQ courses,” says Smith. “We asked them to come and write about their emancipatory practices, uncover their anti-oppressive practices within AQs and make them visible for others.”
A commitment to ethical practices requires teachers to reflect on unconscious bias that, even inadvertently, could disadvantage some students.
Murray, now a board-wide principal of equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression at TDSB, says, “The situation for a middle-class, White student is not the same for a racialized student living in another part of the city … For professional judgment, you need to know what you are doing, why you are doing it and try not to make your bias or assumption be the driver.”
In her view, self-reflection contributes to making sound choices. “Was that the right decision? Why did we make that decision?” she asks. “We have to be OK with the decision we made.”
“Every day, teachers and administrators are expected to make decisions based on their pedagogical training, ethical values and ethos of lifelong learning — the essence of professional judgment.”
That ability to reflect on practices grounded in curriculum knowledge can boost teacher confidence for sometimes difficult conversations with parents.
Fred Van Elburg, OCT, recalls his shock on parent-teacher night when, as a third-year teacher with Lakehead Public Schools in Thunder Bay, Ont., one of his student’s mother questioned why her Grade 6 daughter had earned only a “B” average in writing and oral communication.
“I was sweating, of course, because I was a relatively new teacher,” he says. “But I had my curriculum documents in front of me and I explained that this is where [the student] is at [academically], and I was able to prove it.”
Van Elburg also explained his classroom strategies, including classroom conversations with the student who was generally strong academically but weak in communication skills. The discussion with the parent then turned to what the student needed to do to earn an “A” grade. In the end, he says the mother thanked him for being “the first person who has given my daughter the correct marks.”
Not all conversations with parents run as smoothly, testing a teacher’s responsibility to explain a classroom decision.
Several years ago, as a Toronto kindergarten teacher with 10 years’ experience, Nick Radia, OCT, chose to read a well-regarded book on gender identity, My Princess Boy, to his students. He anticipated some parental objection but knew the kindergarten curriculum expected students to learn the value of diversity, positive self-image and self-confidence.
As hoped, the students engaged in a thoughtful discussion. But a few days later at school, the mother of one student relayed her husband’s discomfort with the choice of book.
Since Radia had forged strong relationships with his students’ parents, he was able to sit with the mother, listen to her concerns and share his pedagogical rationale. He later talked to the disgruntled father who, though not convinced, acknowledged Radia’s explanation that “this is part of my job and I am not doing anything that is outside of my role.”
The outcome, he says, demonstrates the need to embed parent engagement in professional practice.
“It takes a while to learn how to do that [talk to parents] but the more you do it, the more you can do things that are important and may be controversial to some parents,” he says.
While teaching might seem a solitary experience, experienced teachers say they seek out the professional advice of colleagues.
“My human resources have always been my best tool,” says Natalie Shlemkevich, OCT, who teaches Grade 9–12 languages and religious studies at École secondaire catholique l’Horizon, a Greater Sudbury high school with Conseil scolaire catholique du Nouvel-Ontario.
A teacher for the past 10 years, she distinguishes between casual and informed discussions with peers.
“I don’t mean sitting in a lunchroom and talking about students,” she says. “I mean being able to have a professional discussion with one of the trusted adults in my school to say ‘What can I do for this student, or are there outside resources we need to talk about?’”
Early in her career, she recalls that a shy student came to her with concerns about “a friend” with mental health issues. Shlemkevich sought advice from a veteran counsellor at the school who recommended a social worker to help the student.
Now a veteran teacher, Shlemkevich says she benefits from the insights of school colleagues and board officials when they meet to develop Individual Education Plans for struggling students. “I have 23 kids in front of me, they all need to learn and they are all learning differently,” she says. “So what is working for one teacher, what is working for me and how can we work together for [the student]?”
That emphasis on collaboration, networking and mentoring is a curriculum theme at Western University’s faculty of education in London, Ont, which offers a “transition to practice” session for teacher candidates to hear from experienced teachers and administrators on how to manage in the face of “competing dialogues and discourses,” says Kathy Hibbert, faculty associate dean of teacher education.
“We try to help them understand that [decision-making] is never black and white, it is always grey,” she says. “Our job is to prepare them to think about the kind of decisions they are going to need to be making in practice.”
This fall, her faculty plans to pilot a course for teacher candidates to discuss difficult or controversial topics, including sex education, with actual parents in the course. Hibbert says the goal is for teacher candidates to practise listening and communication skills.
On professional judgment, Hibbert reminds teachers that “their ultimate duty, their higher duty is that they work for the children.”