The Year is 1981. I am a pupil at a large urban co-educational college. One cold July morning I arrive at school to find a stream of excited teenagers heading around the back of two adjoining pre-fabricated classrooms. I follow the flock. The reason for the gathering becomes immediately clear. “Johnstone is a ******” adorns the white fibro walls in six foot high red graffiti spray-paint font. There is conjecture among the excited throng as to the perpetuator and motive. The speculation is swiftly brought to a halt when a large lock from the first fifteen hoists the front page of the New Zealand Herald aloft. There in black and white is a close up photo of an enraged Mr Johnstone tearing at the perimeter fence of Auckland Airport. On the other side of the fence the visiting South African rugby team disembark their plane ready to begin their first tour of New Zealand since 1965.
For many the notion of a teacher speaking out on a controversial issues such as the Springbok tour is unethical and unprofessional. The teacher should be impartial on such issues and rather than promote their own position, especially publicly, they should cultivate rational debate on issues amongst their students. For others the decision to speak out on controversial issues, particularly those impacting on their students, is fundamental to being an ethical professional.
The recent replacement of the ‘Code of Ethics for Registered Teachers’ with a new ‘Code of Professional Responsibility’ by the Education Council New Zealand has highlighted these different ideas on the ethics of teachers speaking out on controversial issues. The former Code of Ethics outlined the four ethical principles of justice, autonomy, responsible care and truth that teachers need to consider when making ethical decisions. The principle of justice reminded teachers that they should strive for equitable outcomes for disadvantaged groups while the principle of justice encouraged teachers to show independence of mind and action when that is required. I suggest that these principles could have been used to justify Mr Johnstone’s historical decision to speak out on the Springbok tour, however I have some doubts whether the current Code of Professional Responsibility would offer such ethical guidance.
The current Code of Professional Responsibility no longer retains the key principles mentioned above, rather the code now has a focus on four fundamental commitments to the teaching profession, learners, families and whanau and society. Examples of acceptable behaviour and unacceptable behaviour are provided against each of the commitments. One such example of acceptable behaviour is that teachers take care that their actions outside of work do not affect the integrity or standing of the teaching profession. I have no doubt that back in 1981 there were some teachers, parents and students who viewed Mr Johnstone’s actions as unbecoming of a teacher and as such the new code could potentially have been used to censure his actions.
In losing the principles of the old code it could be argued teachers have lost some protection to speak out on controversial issues. However I am reminded of educational ethicist Elizabeth Campbell’s call for teachers not to rely on others to define their professionalism but rather exercise moral responsibility in defining what it means to be an ethical professional. There is much in the new code that could promote teachers to speak out on educational issues. An example of a professional behaviour that upholds a commitment to the profession is leading and engaging in professional conversations about ethical conduct, something I have endeavoured to do in this opinion piece.
The new code is entitled ‘Our Code Our Standards’. Let’s make it ‘our’ code by using it to empower teachers to speak out on issues of educational and social importance. I suggest we start by challenging whether a professional organisation that purportedly champions teachers can truly represent teachers when the profession has no say over who sits on its governing council.
Paul Heyward is Associate Director of the Graduate Diploma in Teaching (Primary) programme at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. He is also a Professional Teaching Fellow in the School of Learning, Development and Professional Practice.