Educator Ethics Interview with Professor David Thompson

Legal Digest is proud to present the upcoming workshop Educator Ethics in the Digital Age on March 29, 2018 with UTSA Professor David Thompson!

This one-day interactive event will cover all the latest developments on the topic of educator ethics. We urge you to visit our events page to learn more about the event and register today!

Read on below for our recent Q&A with David Thompson to learn more about why this is such a relevant topic for educators today.


LD: Tell us a little bit about the work you have done over the years related to ethics in education. Why is this such an important topic right now?

David Thompson: I have been working on issues of educator ethics for the past nearly nine years now. The topic is always something I’ve taught in my education law class, but I became much more interested in the topic when I had the opportunity to co-author the only book dedicated to the Texas Educators’ Code of Ethics. This research and writing opportunity opened up not just the code of ethics (which is really a code of conduct), but the history of the code and how it has been enforced and interpreted over the years. In addition, reading administrative law judge hearing decisions about real cases has provided real fact-based scenarios that I can share with students and other audiences when conducting professional development workshops. It’s my opinion that very few Texas educators have gone beneath the surface of the code of ethics to really understand what the code means, and more importantly the factors that should guide ethical decision-making.

More recently, with the able assistance of two now-former doctoral students and current educational leadership professors, I’m leading a research team that has conducted both quantitative and qualitative research on the issue of improper-educator student relationships. Qualitatively, we’ve looked at the impact of educator sexual misconduct on the school community as seen through the eyes of the principal, and plan to look at the impact on both educators who have lost their certification for engaging in improper relationships with students, and the spouses/significant others of educators who have lost their certificates for the same misconduct. This research will lead to a book manuscript within the next couple of years. Quantitatively, our research has examined social media policies across Texas and is currently examining the employment and certification characteristics of educators who have had their certificates sanctioned for either sexual misconduct or inappropriate relationships with students or minors (as both of those terms are defined by TEA). This research essentially builds one database from scratch (all Texas educators who have been sanctioned for sexual misconduct or inappropriate relationships) dating back to 1/1/99, and will overlay this database against the employment and certification databases maintained by TEA. In this way, we will be able to describe the employment and certification characteristics of educators sanctioned (e.g., how many positions did the educator hold prior to landing in the district where he/she committed a misdeed; e.g., was the educator “traditionally” or “alternatively” certified, etc.)

Partly due to the book and the research, I was honored to provide invited testimony to the Texas Senate Education Committee in December 2015, and to the House Public Education Committee in May of 2016, on the topic of improper educator-student relationships (please see the Senate Testimony and the House Testimony.) Several of the recommendations in this testimony made it into Senate Bill 7 in one form or another.

Finally, my work at the state level has led to invitations to participate in national-level panels devoted to educator ethics, namely with the Educational Testing Service, and with the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification.

The primary reason that this topic has become so important is because of educator improper relationships with students. In Texas alone, the Texas Education Agency has seen a 145 percent increase in the number of investigations opened into allegations of inappropriate relationships between educators and students/minors in the past nine reporting years (concluding with 2016-2017). Our research indicates that the rate of investigations opened per 10,000 educators has increased 127 percent over the same time period. However, educator ethics is more than just not engaging in damaging relationships with students or minors. It’s about the trust that the people and taxpayers place in educators to do right by our schoolchildren and public money, and the tools with which educators equip themselves to make proper decisions in the best interests of students. Nearly every educator goes into education with the most honorable intentions and with no desire to engage in unethical conduct. Yet, there are ethical breaches that occur, whether it’s mistreatment of students, financial malfeasance, or gaming the testing/accountability system. One of the things I hope that this professional development will impress on those who attend is that, as my friend and colleague Dr. Troy Hutchings notes, “misconduct is not an event, it’s a process.” Thus, it’s important for each of us to understand where our ethical “blind spots” lie, and to engage in thoughtful reflection about how we make decisions in the schoolhouse.

LD: How has the topic of ethics become more nuanced and complex in the digital age?

David Thompson: To give you an idea, my last year as a high school assistant principal was in 1993-1994, and we did not yet have email in my school. Cell phones did not have messaging technology, and the cost of making lengthy calls was prohibitive. That has completely changed in the last 20 years. With regard to educator-student relationships, appropriately used, technology can enhance the instructional process. Inappropriately used, technology can provide adults (including teachers) unsupervised access to children. A vast majority of inappropriate educator-student relationships now involve the use of technology, making it easier for adults to engage in appropriate relationships with students out of the sight of school supervisors and parents.  Thus, technology, whether used to text-message student or to post a personal opinion on a public blog (that may have nothing to do with school), has added nuance and complexity ethical conduct and ethical decision-making.

LD: How can educators be more proactive in thinking about ethics and how ethics should guide their interactions with students and colleagues?

David Thompson: As a profession, education has not done nearly the job that it should in preparing educators for the ethical dilemmas they face, either pre-service or in-service. We tend to assume that educators are predisposed to enter the profession because they want to “help kids;” while this is nearly always the case, this predisposition can lead educators to make poor decisions (for example, the educator who promises the student confidentiality before hearing what the student has to say, only to find out that the student has confided that he/she has been abused). Thus, as a profession, we owe our professionals the opportunity to engage in thoughtful reflection and conversation about their ethical predispositions, ethical dilemmas they may face, and the tools that can be learned to engage in ethical decision-making.

LD: Why is it important for educators to attend trainings like this one?

David Thompson: As I noted above, I believe it is important for educators to attend ethics professional development for the opportunity to reflect on where their blind spots lie and how educators can develop ethical decision-making skills. Also, it’s important for Texas educators to review real-life scenarios of ethics cases that have been heard by state hearing officers and to analyze these cases for the decision-points in the case to see where the educator in front of the hearing officer could have made a better decision. Finally, far too many Texas educators get little to no professional development in their preparation programs or through in-service professional development. These professional development sessions are real-life, technology-enhanced, interesting, and, quite frankly, appropriately entertaining; and I think those who attend will come away with a new appreciation for ethical conduct and a toolbox that will assist educators in navigating slippery slopes that do exist in schools.

LD: Anything else you’d like to mention?

David Thompson: How honored I am to be providing this professional development under the auspices of the Legal Digest. I attended these conferences as a graduate school and school administrator, and was in awe of the speakers and their expertise in their fields. Working with the Legal Digest is an awesome responsibility, and one that I truly cherish.


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