The Profession of Education: Responsibilities, Ethics and Pedagogic Experimentation 

Shannon Kincaid, Ph.D.

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

The art of teaching is to teach, to teach well and to teach even better.

Chapter: III.              Teacher-Student Relationship Models 

Education should create an interest in all persons in furthering the general good, so that they will find their own happiness realized in what they can do to improve the conditions of others.--John Dewey.  1908.  Theory of the Moral Life. (New York:  Rivington Publishers.  p. 98)

 Section I 

In defending a conception of education as growth, both at the level of the learner AND the educator, and in arguing that faculty members in post-secondary education must acknowledge their dual sets of professional responsibilities as both scholars and educators, it becomes necessary to outline the structure of the student/teacher relationship.  If we are to understand professors as members of the profession of education, we must develop an adequate account of the relationships which obtain within the educational context in the effort to generate the fundamental professional obligations they incur.

It is important to note that the various models of the teacher/student relationship identified in this chapter is neither meant to be an exhaustive account, nor is it meant to be a directly normative account of the way people ought to teach.  This chapter is meant primarily to describe the various ways in which post-secondary educators identify themselves as teachers, and to highlight some of the potential problems with these sorts of models.  In Chapter IV, we will deal with the prescriptive implications of these models, developing a starting point by which to assign professional and moral responsibilities to faculty members. 

Regardless of whether or not college professors conceive of themselves as professional educators, nearly all understand that they have certain fundamental moral obligations to their students, and that these obligations rise out of the unique structure of the student/teacher relationship in higher education.  

So how do post-secondary educators view their relationship with their students, and how does this view affect their understanding of their professional responsibilities as teachers? There are a numerous models of the teacher-student relationship in contemporary education, and as we shall see in the following pages, these models are not exclusive of one another in every case, nor are they specific to any particular level or education or type of institution. From kindergarten teachers to dissertation directors, there is a broad spectrum of roles and responsibilities assumed by educators. Any viable concept of the teacher/student relationship must account for the significant variations throughout education. These variations include (but are not limited to)

  • Age level and expertise of learners

  • Type of educational institution

  • Discipline

Given the wide diversity of roles and responsibilities assumed by professional educators, it is of little surprise that each teacher must determine for themselves the exact nature of their relationships with their students. Different teachers have different students, different styles of teaching, and differing self-concepts of their roles as educators. While these conceptions of the relationship between student and learner might not be explicitly stated, it will nevertheless hold important implications for interaction both in and out of the classroom.  Also significant are the assumptions regarding moral correctness and pedagogical responsibilities that are connected with these various conceptions of the student/teacher relation.  Few teachers make explicit their ethical principles and conceptions of virtue, but in relating to students in specific ways, these values and virtues become actualized within the context of the pedagogical relationship. 

In examining how moral questions are dealt with by educators, it is instructive to consider the self concept or the model of the relationship of the educator to the recipient of instruction held by educators and how those basic modal concepts factor into the deliberative process. This is so because the members of the profession carry with them a model or basic idea of how it is that they relate to those whom they serve.  Stated simply, all faculty are aware of the type of teacher they want to be, and strive, consciously or not, to achieve that ideal.  Whether a faculty member has learned from extensive pedagogical research what type of teacher they want to be, or (more likely) have drawn their pedagogical ideals from their own educational experiences, this pedagogical “template” functions to structure much of their pedagogical practice.  Now, since the educators themselves exert control over the educational process, the nature of the relationship of the educator to the recipient of instruction will serve as the focus here. With some modification, some of the basic models discussed below are also evidenced in many (but not all) other professions. 

Educational Practice and the Ontology of Student /Teacher Relations

Practitioners of education operate within a set of interpersonal relationships which differ significantly from the relationships seen in the business, service, and retail sectors of society. At times, the unique nature of the teacher/student relationships can cause a strain or present a dilemma for the educator.

Consider that on the one hand educators have a relationship with the recipients of education, called “students” and on the other hand educators have a relationship with all other educators, whom they call “colleagues.” Educators also maintain significant relationships with the families of students, with administrators, and, given the social expectations placed on the profession, with society as a whole. It is this complex constellation of inter-personal relationships that generates the ethical responsibilities of all educators.

Navigating the ethics of education means recognizing the often-conflicting demands placed upon educators by all of the individuals involved in or affected by the profession. For example, there will be times that a teacher feels torn between a sense of loyalty towards and responsibility for professional colleagues, and a sense of obligation towards the well being of the recipients of education.  This interplay of individual, institutional, and collective responsibilities (which will be discussed at length in the next chapter) is the source of significant ethical conflict for the educator. 

The ways in which an individual instructor attempt to resolve these ethical conflicts often has more to do with the more general conception the teacher has of what a teacher is, the role of the teacher, and the nature of the relationship with the student rather than an explicitly held set of ethical principles. Both educators and students may be willing participants in holding to these conceptions of the responsibilities of educators and model dynamics which they might adopt. Therefore it is inappropriate to simply apportion the origin or responsibility for these models with the educators themselves when the expectations assumed by the profession are generated within this complex web of interpersonal interactions.

Some Basic Self-Conceptions of Professional Educators:

What follows is an attempt to identify the various ways in which the individual educator might conceive of their relationship with their students, and the means by which they might best fulfill their professional obligations. We use the term “professional educator” to distinguish between the duties of teachers and the larger obligations of all members of a democratic society to educate those around them. As parents, co-workers, community members, friends, activists, and citizens, each person in a democratic society has a responsibility to inform and educate the people around them. And while everyone in society has a duty to educate, professional educators take education as their primary professional duty. It is also important to note that very few educators fit neatly into the categories we delineate.  These models described below are "ideal types" and operate in the realm of conceptual forms.   In the classroom, educators typically appear to act as if they have adopted some or all of the components of one or more of these various models of the student/teacher relationship.  However, as our colleagues will note, very few individuals fit exactly into any group operating with any one of these basic models, and in this sense, the following list is more a heuristic device than an attempt to categorize teaching styles.   

"Confession must be made that talk of these models as being actually instantiated in the basic thought patterns of individuals may be a bit condescending, but it needs to be admitted that in the teacher-learner relationship there is something like these models involved in education."-Jay Mullin, QCC, CUNY

Nevertheless, elements of these basic models can be seen to obtain within the context of student teacher relationships.

1. Paternalistic (Authoritarian)  

Some educators consider themselves to have responsibility for the well being of those who come to them for assistance. They think of themselves as a parent would think in relation to their children. The term “paternalism,” derived from the Latin pater (father) literally means treating someone in a “fatherly” way. Traditionally, this entails providing for a person’s basic needs without giving them autonomous, decision-making authority. The professional practitioner of education assuming the role of a parent will make decisions for the child (student), determine what information will be provided, and provide only as much information as the parent thinks best for the student. The educator might even act in ways to influence or coerce the decisions or actions of those considered to be that educator's “child.” At bottom, pedagogical paternalism is the tendency of educators to act in what they perceive as the best interest of the student, regardless of what the student actually perceives as his her own best interests. This attitude often results in a teacher acting in a most authoritarian manner, even though the educator believes he or she is acting in the best interests of the student.

Important in the understanding of paternalistic models of education is that the profession of education, as rooted in the fiduciary (from the Latin fiducia – trust) commitments of beneficience (charity, benefit, kindness), and it has an intrinsically paternalistic dimension. All teachers make decisions regarding course content and pedagogical methodology. This means that we are deciding what our students SHOULD know, what sorts of criteria we use for assessing that knowledge, the format for inquiry and discussion, and the normative claim that this knowledge will benefit them.

Educational paternalism occurs on many different levels. First and foremost, education is paternalistic in the sense that students (or their parents) have implicit trust that we, as educators, will teach them things that will benefit them in the future. However, the paternalistic implications of pedagogy are not consistent over time. As Ronald Dworkin argues, children are not autonomous, and we are justified in making decision for them in their own best interest based on the fact that they “…lack some of the emotional and cognitive capacities in order to make fully rational decisions.”  Dworkin, Gerald. 1972. “Paternalism.” The Monist. Vol. 56, no. 2 (January, 1972). pp. 70.

It is a mistake to assume first-graders will make informed decisions regarding their education, and so we, as adults, structure their education in ways that we think will benefit them in the long-run, and to best provide for the development of autonomous decision-making in the future. As children age, their choices become more informed, and we rightly allow them to make more and more significant choices regarding their education.

Adult learners, while in possession of the emotional and cognitive capacities which signal informed consent and autonomy, are still lacking the intellectual capacity to decide the content of their studies . A student might make autonomous decisions regarding their career path and major field of study, but most students are ill-equipped to make decisions concerning course content. (Note: Of course students in upper-level and graduate courses often do make these sorts of content decisions-independent studies, senior projects, and thesis projects - yet these are simply another result of growing academic autonomy of advanced learners.). In making the informed choice to attend college, students are implicitly giving institutions the right to determine curricular programs and standards, and giving individual faculty members the right to set content and methodology in the classroom. This tacit “approval” of paternalistic treatment given to colleges by students carries with it a set of reciprocal obligations on the part of administration and faculty. All individuals involved in post secondary education must constantly evaluate, and where necessary, modify, their curricula and courses to meet these fiduciary obligations.

At its most basic level the relationship of the post-secondary educator to the adult learner is paternalistic, though not in the strongly paternalistic context of the kindergarten classroom. The basic responsibilities individuals have to respect the autonomy of others is radically transformed in the context of the teacher/student relationship in higher education. Post-secondary educators, in their professional roles as teachers, encounter a new set of responsibilities akin to that of parents of grown children.   On these grounds, autonomy is not something you either have or you don’t.  Autonomy is not a steady state, but is seen in both generative and degenerative contexts.   Thus, while there is significant differences between the paternalistic decision-making of the educator and the autonomous action of the learner depending on the level of education, some element of paternalism always exists.  Dewey, long a foe of paternalism, recognized that education was the inculcation of certain values into the minds of students of all ages.

Throughout the span of an individual’s life, there is growth in the capacity for autonomy or a "generative autonomy " on the part of children and students alike and thus there is a tendency for paternalism to decrease. The least evidence of paternalistic behavior would be and is exhibited in graduate and post graduate education. In latter life there are oft times conditions that lead to a "degenerative autonomy" whereby children often need to exercise a paternalism in their relationship to their aging and ailing parent. The development of programs for the aged have led to children "enrolling" their parents in education programs aimed at assisting them with adapting to circumstances of their aging.

The professional responsibilities of the educator are also dictated by the educator's social role. The educator is in a covenential role (see below) with society and with the individual learners. The educator is, in John Dewey's view, not simply the transmitter of some well defined set of skills or body of knowledge. For Dewey, education prepares people for for fulfilling lives by not simply providing them with the information and the skills they need for professional success. Education is , in one sense, life itself, and one of the crucial functions of education is preparing people for a lifetime of learning.

Like it or not, the educator plays a central role in shaping the decisions of students, both academic and personal. In giving bad grades or performance ratings, for instance, an educator can close off entire avenues of professional development. And on these grounds, an educator is not only responsible for student learning , but in one sense functions as society's "last line of defense" with regard to the maintenance of accepted standards for personal achievement and professional development.

On these grounds, the educator must determine for each student::

·        what potential for academic, professional, and personal growth the learner has

·        what is known and still unknown and yet to be known

·        what there is to be accomplished by the learner

·        how knowledge and skills can be used

Educators are in a “softly” paternalistic relationship to the degree that they serve as educators due to the decision of the parent(s) and/or learner to ensure proper academic development, at least in part, to others who are trained and professional educators. On these grounds, the educator serves in loco parentis in the development or growth of the learner. The partnership is between the parents and educators in the academic development of the student.

Educators enter into either an implicit or explicit relationship with the parents or those serving in the stead of parents, guardians or the state in the form of public institutions for education. At times there is an explicit contract between parent and educator at other times it is through some mediating body such as a school system.

Parents must produce changes in their children, else they die for lack of physical change known as growth. Children left unfed will not prosper or long survive. Parents attend to the needs of their offspring before such are known or appreciated by their progeny. Parents, at least those who attempt to be responsible parents, make their best judgments as to how to best serve the needs of their children for physical and intellectual development or growth. So parents are to produce changes in their children. Parents enter into this relationship and its incumbent duties of their own accord. There is no contract that explicates either the relation or the duties.

Educators must produce changes in their students, else they “die”,  in an intellectual, cognitive and academic sense, for lack of the cognitive change known as intellectual growth. Students left untaught will not prosper in society, or even survive, lacking the basic tools of social interaction. Educators attend to the needs of their learners before such needs are known or appreciated by their students.  A student signing up for an introductory philosophy may neither understand the importance of philosophical discourse nor the content of these types of courses, and must rely on the instructor to make curricular choices in their best interest. Educators, at least those who attempt to be responsible educators, make their best judgments as to how to best serve the needs of their students for intellectual development or growth. As we shall see in Chapter VII, educators have a fundamental responsibility to change their student’s minds, whether the student wants change or not.

Problem:  Young children are one thing, but most mature adults do not want to be treated as if they were children. Most human beings want to maintain their autonomy and right of self-determination. The law supports the rights of individuals to make their own decisions and their right to the information needed to make good decisions. This model may work well with small children and those lacking full intellectual capacity as autonomous moral agents capable of responsible decision making. The paternalisitic model seems to break down as children mature, and certainly becomes most problematic, if not downright insulting, when used with adults. This being said, it seems that in higher education, the relationship involving the educator and the learner have NOT accumulated equal or equivalent knowledge or skills and so there is often need for the learner to surrender decision making authority to the educator.  The educator, who assumes the fiduciary responsibility for the learner when making decisions on behalf of the learner, must aim of to both benefit the learners and protect the learner from harm.

2. The Therapist is In: Pedagogy as Therapy

In the relation of a educator to a learner there are some similarities to the relationship of a physician to a patient. The physician has a relationship with those treated wherein the physician's responsibility is to provide cure or alleviation of the pathology and the maintenance of health wherever possible. There is the therapeutic relationship in which it is the obligation of the physician to restore a person to wellness and to maintain wellness. Can (or should) this type of relationship exist between the educator and the learner?

For wellness, the human needs to grow in a number of ways: physically, socially, intellectually and emotionally. Parents assist their children in that development. Parents can contract directly or indirectly with professional educators to assist them in the intellectual development of the child. If the child encounters pathological condition, the parents seek to ameliorate, remediate or alleviate it. Parents are responsible to provide for such as best they can. Many times parents seek professional assistance in addressing these needs and through which they fulfill their duties to their children. Something similar exists when focusing on the intellectual development of the child. In performing this duty most parents look for assistance from professional educators to assist in the normal development of intellectual capacities and to address pathologies as best they can do so.

What would be an intellectual pathology to be addressed through formal education? Given what we know from cognitive and developmental psychology there is a range for normal development of cognitive skills and acquisition of information. For some part of formal education to be seen as a form of mediation or "medical" therapy there would need to be some condition that the professional educator would need to relieve or at least address so as to lessen its severity in impairing the human. What might that be? It might be cognitive development that was running behind the range of the normal or it might involve the actual contents of the intellect: its beliefs, information and habits of organization. If so what would be the pathology to be remediated, remedied, or cured? As humans are born ignorant and without skills, the normal natal condition of a human cannot be viewed as a pathological condition. So where would be the need for a cure?

Consider the following chart comparing the various conditions treated by physicians, and a potential list of pedagogical counterparts:





Bacterial Infection

Incorrect Belief

Viral Infection or Genetic Disposition

Incorrect Information


Debilitating Habit of Mind

A belief held that is not supported by evidence and has counter-evidence in abundance available to the believer would be an "incorrect" belief.   An educator can identify such beliefs and then attempt to remedy them if there is an available counter agency or therapy in the form of counter evidence or the presentation of other beliefs held by the learner that are inconsistent with or in direct contradiction to the belief identified as incorrect in some way.  Such an “incorrect" belief can be eliminated.

A virus once acquired nearly always remains in the human body for its remaining life. The virus has been fought off through a period of resistance to it as the immune system brings about a new state of equilibrium with the virus. The educator approaches incorrect information so as to place it in proper context and provides the needed correctives and more accurate information. The learner continues to remember the incorrect information but now recognizes it -post correction- as being inaccurate or incorrect in some way.  Each person "inherits" a great deal of information inherited from the social environment.  Not all of it is accurate and much of it can be false.  Education can address this condition and change ideas that a person inherits or that have been "given" as true into ideas that are revealed to have been disproved claims and unwarranted assumptions and improperly unqualified claims.

A method for organizing information and acquiring knowledge and fixing beliefs is a habit of mind that might not always be the most effective at enabling the human to make the best judgments, decisions, and evaluations. When the predominant habit of mind is not well functioning for the entire organism it is as if an injury had occurred and a debilitating condition set in. Such habits of mind can be identified by the educator and then repaired or improved upon through a program of studies and experiences intended to develop in the learner an alternative habit of mind that would better serve the entire organism in the midst of the human community.

Problem: It happens at times that physicians focus more on the disease entity or organ system than on the person who is ill and in need of assistance. This has been commented on often in the fields of medicine and medical ethics as this situation brought attention to itself through the resultant set of problems generated in the realm of interpersonal relationships and respect of basic human rights and sensibilities that becomes lessened when the focus is not on the person. There are ongoing attempts to address this through medical school curricula incorporating more humanities instruction and legislative measures setting out basic rights for recipients of medical care. In education a professional educator can become more focused on the curriculum or the discipline and its cognitive contents than on the persons being educated. When this occurs, educators can lessen the emphasis on the growth process of individuals as they attend to the development and delivery of course content. Some attempts to address this are now in evidence as there is a rapid rise in centers for excellence in teaching and learning and the move towards learner centered education. The literature or SOTL is replete with materials urging or supporting a focusing on the learner.

The contrast between focusing on the content of the curriculum rather than on the development and growth of the learner evidences itself in discussions on the relative importance of depth as compared to the breadth of the instructional program or class. It is also in evidence in the nearly perennial debate amongst those in higher education that pits instruction in the liberal arts and sciences against vocational and professional training.

3. Priestly

In this model the role of educator is extended the role of the educator beyond that of an expert in education or a professional field of study to that of a supposed expert in morality and of life in general. Here, the educator functions as a sort of “sage.” This educator is imbued with as much certainty concerning the the ultimate goals of the instructional program and the sort of person to be produced by it as is any person possessed of faith. This faith empowers the priest-educator to make many decisions as to what is in the best interests of the learners. This fallacious move promotes the unjust aspects of educational paternalism whereby the student's role is severely reduced.

Problem:  Significantly, this model lacks the implicit obligations generated by post-secondary institutions with regard to the fiduciary obligations of faculty and staff in the adult-learner context. In a secular society the religious faith or the priest is replaced by the faith of the educator in the ideal person as conceived by the educator. The coach who teaches classes in sports and in health is akin to the priest laboring to save souls. The priest is building character while teaching some subject matter. The priest is turning out the perfect member of the congregation. In the secular world the product of priestly instruction is the proper citizen and participant in society. In place of the soul filled with grace we have the person whose character is noble filled with civic virtue and who participates in the fullness of the social life of the community. In this sense, the educator is seen as infallible, and the process of inquiry is replaced with indoctrination and training. The learners are to accept and participate in the faith as espoused and practiced by the priestly educator.

4. Employee (less Authoritarian)

 As an opposing alternative to the paternalistic approach some educators consider themselves to be contracted employees and the person in need of assistance is the employer who contracts for certain services to be supplied by the educator. There is no obligation of the one toward the other beyond that of employer to employee.

Problem: Most educators are not willing to see themselves and simply employees of the student and obliged to do only what they are instructed to do by those students. Teachers think of themselves as more knowledgeable about the student’s condition and thus in a better position to make decisions concerning instruction than the learner.

5. Collegial (non-authoritarian)

 In this approach the educator would be seen as a colleague of the recipient of instruction, as an equal. The collegial approach to the basic relationship is one which attempts to be non-authoritarian in as much as neither party has a position of power over the other. The provider of care and the recipient of instruction are as equals. They meet and share a common concern for the intellectual and vocational well being of the person seeking assistance. Together they discuss the situation, consider the options available and reach a decision as to the most appropriate and desirable course of instruction.

Problem: Educators are not the equal of the recipient of education in so far as knowledge and skills. They do not see themselves on equal footing with those who they teach.

6. Contractual (non-authoritarian)

 In this approach the educator would be seen as a party to a contract and as such contracts with the recipient of instruction to perform services. If both agree to terms there is a contract. The educator is obliged to do only what is stated in the contract and the recipient of the service must in turn provide remuneration as stated in the contract.

Problem: There are several problems (see also below) not the least of which is that the parties to the contract usually have different educational backgrounds and knowledge of the intellectual condition of the potential student. It is difficult, if not impossible, to arrange a fair contract between parties who are so unequal in their knowledge and interests.

7. Entertainer-Audience Model (Edu-tainer)

While there is no doubt that the ability to keep students interested and entertained during lectures and discussions can play a valuable role in post-secondary education, there is a pernicious danger in emphasizing “style” over “substance.” Perhaps most significant is the fact that the teacher-entertainers are often beloved by students, and rank very high on student evaluations. The rise of web sites such as highlights student desire for entertaining and lively presentations. Instructors deemed “funny” (or even “sexy!”) consistently receive the highest ratings on such sites. Students flock to their courses, and they achieve celebrity status on campus.

Problem:  There is a tendency for practitioners of this model to unwittingly adhere to the rationalistic conception of education, seeing themselves merely as presenters of inert facts instead of taking seriously their responsibilities as facilitators of informed and critical thought. Though entertaining and popular, these “edu-tainers” can pose a significant threat to the integrity of the profession. If post-secondary education is to be conceived of as the entertaining transmission of facts, the fundamental mission of the academy is lost.

Another problem with the entertainer-audience model of pedagogical relationships lies in the tendency for such educators, while engaging in presentation, to disengage from their students. Professors who are entertaining and are engaged with their students and who strive to achieve the goal of informed and critical thought in their classrooms are meeting the ethical obligations of the profession. But so are instructors who, while not pedagogically “exciting,” are cultivating the minds of their students in a variety of other ways.

Entertainment and education are not mutually exclusive. But entertainment alone is mere amusement. Amusement is the discouraging of thought in favor of visceral excitement. “Sit back and enjoy the ride, and maybe you’ll learn something along the way” is the implicit assumption in such an approach to education. Yet this model turns the academy into an amusement park, with students seeking out courses that amuse them rather than challenge them. Education is opposed in some fundamental ways to amusement, in as much as, far from removing the learners from the influence of their "muses", educators are to fulfill the role of the muse in prompting thought and creativity which are active modes of life rather than the passive.

8. Covenential

The eighth approach enumerated here would have the educators seeing themselves as involved in a covenant with a deity or society itself and as such obliged to society to render care unto its members in return for what society had provided to the educators.

The key elements of the covenant model (CM) are promise and fidelity to the promise. In this model the educator has received a gift of the knowledge and skills needed to practice the art of instruction. In return the educator has made a promise to incur a debt in return for what was provided to prepare the educator to be a member of the profession of education.

The educator is responsive to the debt and has taken on an obligation to the society that extended itself to provide the knowledge, training and skills of the educator to those who enter into education programs.

As William May points out, the covenant model involves a Canon of Loyalty and Fidelity. The educator, under the debt to society for training and renumeration, is obliged to provide society with the accuracy and fidelity in their professional pedagogical practice, and to be faithful to the promise to provide effective instruction.  The ethical “aim” of this model is not simply proficiency but genuine care about the intellectual development of learners. William May, " Code and Covenant or Philanthropy and Contract" in Reiser, Jay, Dyck, A.J. and Curran, W.J. Ethics in Medicine: Historical Prospectives and Contemporary Concerns. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977, pp.65-76.

Problem: There are not many educators who are ready to acknowledge any indebtedness to society (see also below) and the concurrent obligation to provide service to others in return.  Why should education be anything more than another job?

Section II:  Code, Contract, Covenant : Three Models of the Relationship between Education Provider and the Recipient

Now keeping in mind these basic forms of self conception, next in order is an examination of three basic models or conceptual ideals  for the relationship of the education provider to the recipient of instruction. The three models or ideals are, respectively, Code, Contract, and Covenant.  These are based upon the analysis made by William May of medical professionals. (William May, " Code and Covenant or Philanthropy and Contract" in Reiser, Jay, Dyck, A.J. and Curran, W.J. Ethics in Medicine: Historical Prospectives and Contemporary Concerns. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977, pp.65-76.) When examining the manner in which May used these concepts, models, ideals and norms for behavior with regard to medical professionals it can easily be seen how they are as applicable to professional educators as well.   Each of these models has its own governing ideals, a different conceptual framework and the resultant perspectives that influence the decisions made and actions taken by the practitioner. How has it been established that educators actually make decisions using any one or more of these models?    Through observations of educators making decisions and then through conversations it is not difficult to find expressions of justification for actions taken or avoided that incorporate a language of obligations towards colleagues, even against the interests of students, or obligations based on written contract or those based on some overriding sense of social responsibility and obligations to students.  In post secondary education there is often heard the celebration of the technical proficiency of academicians and the quality and volume of their publications even unto the avoidance of consideration for their skills in a classroom with students.  Why is this so?  These ideals or models help to explain what is observed often enough that evidence is not hard to obtain that elements of these models are operative in the decision making or many professional educators.


The model based on Code is one that finds its historical foundations in the mediaeval guilds. These are written and unwritten, traditional guides, and rules to govern the conduct of the members of the professional guild. The purpose of such regulations is the development and maintenance of technical proficiency. The knowledge and skills of the members of the guild is of the greatest importance and value in maintaining the integrity of the craft.

There are written and official pronouncements made by the governing authorities of the guilds, and their aim is to foster a sort of etiquette among guild members. Members of such professional associations have their own special language, often have initiation rites, and are under an obligation of secrecy concerning the inner workings of the profession. Members have duties towards one another prior to the members of society at large.

Given this, guild members have deep feelings of solidarity which leads them to support one another and to be more cooperative rather than competitive. There would be a sort of anti-competitive monopolistic practices, such as price fixing, including the use of a sliding scale in order to maximize income. Teachers form their own professional associations and labor unions in order to maximize income, improve conditions of their labor and conduct political actions to secure increased funding. Their associations effectively remove competition in the market place that could reduce income for educators.

For the members of the professional organizations (guilds) the overarching aim appears to create those institutions and practices that provide for a life style, an image, a sense of decorum and basically a beautiful life. The codes aim for the realization of an aesthetic ideal. They are not founded upon a concern for the welfare of society, but on an overarching concern for colleagues and for the maintenance of the craft itself.  Because of this, five factors tend to mitigate against self-criticism and self regulation:

1. Sense of community - this is very strong

2. Power of the priestly caste - this is undermined by doubts and questions raised by colleagues

3. Power of the modern educator unstable- based on power over ignorance and incapacities -undermined by admission of limitations on effectiveness of instruction

4. Suspicion of officiousness, injustice, hypocrisy - caused by the special language, attitudes and secrecy of guild members

5. Basic conflict- there are two sets of obligations: to guild and to those outside of the guild

On the one hand, and like guild members, professional educators appear to acknowledge obligations to colleagues. Such obligations are seen as being responsive as an obligation or a debt owed to other members of the guild for training, admittance and privileges of membership.  On the other hand, obligations to students are seen as being self-incurred and any duties involved towards the recipients of care are the result of the philanthropic acts of guild members.

The educator enters the profession acknowledging debts owed to those who trained the practitioner. This establishes a special relationship amongst those who make that acknowledgement that sets them apart from the general public. It establishes a relationship of debt and obligation amongst the professionals. Towards the recipients of their instruction the acknowledgement establishes a relationship of largess. The educator regards other members of the profession as colleagues, teachers, and progeny.

In the codal model there is the ceremonial taking of an oath in which the member of the guild professes what is owed and what obligations are incurred. Further there is a recitation of what appropriate and inappropriate conduct is for a group member.

This oath includes the codal duties to students and the conventional obligations to colleagues. It is set in the context of an oath sworn before the gods as witnesses but not as the originators of what the guild members possess. There is no obligation to the gods incurred in return for any gift bestowed upon the educators. They are what they have become due to what their predecessors have given them: knowledge and training.

So there is no reference to a gift from the gods and no promise to return anything to the gods. But there is such for their senior colleagues.

So this initiation oath and the acceptance of a code is seen as involving the educator in a profession because it was chosen, a chosen profession and a transformation that has occurred through the self chosen act of self transformation.

There are no obligations to a god or gods or to any transcendent source or authority.  

As an example of a code for educators consider that of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)

The preface of this statement is excerpted below.  It sets the general tone as it recognizes that education is a profession and that it has responsibilities consequent thereto.

The statement which follows, a revision of a statement originally adopted in 1966, was approved by the Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics, adopted by the Association’s Council in June 1987, and endorsed by the Seventy-third Annual Meeting.


From its inception, the American Association of University Professors has recognized that membership in the academic profession carries with it special responsibilities. The Association has consistently affirmed these responsibilities in major policy statements, providing guidance to professors in such matters as their utterances as citizens, the exercise of their responsibilities to students and colleagues, and their conduct when resigning from an institution or when undertaking sponsored research. The Statement on Professional Ethics that follows sets forth those general standards that serve as a reminder of the variety of responsibilities assumed by all members of the profession.

In the enforcement of ethical standards, the academic profession differs from those of law and medicine, whose associations act to ensure the integrity of members engaged in private practice. In the academic profession the individual institution of higher learning provides this assurance and so should normally handle questions concerning propriety of conduct within its own framework by reference to a faculty group. The Association supports such local action and stands ready, through the general secretary and the Committee on Professional Ethics, to counsel with members of the academic community concerning questions of professional ethics and to inquire into complaints when local consideration is impossible or inappropriate. If the alleged offense is deemed sufficiently serious to raise the possibility of adverse action, the procedures should be in accordance with the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the 1958 Statement on Procedural Standards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings, or the applicable provisions of the Association’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Now in this statement there is much more attention to obligations to disciplines and colleagues than there is on the relationship with the learners. Most of those duties are to individuals, groups and institutions other than the learners.  Of special note is the seeming conflict between the primary responsibility of the professor as being towards the maintenance of the integrity of the discipline and the expressed responsibility to be an effective teacher.

 Item one concerning the primary responsibility of an educator being towards the subject or discipline is in conflict with item four whereby educators are to strive to be effective teachers and scholars.  The conflict exists in so far as what is to receive the highest priority or attention: either (1) the discipline and their discipline colleagues or (4) their teaching.  Here, there is a significant confusion regarding the priorities of the professoriate.

1. Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them. Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge. They practice intellectual honesty. Although professors may follow subsidiary interests, these interests must never seriously hamper or compromise their freedom of inquiry…

4. As members of an academic institution, professors seek above all to be effective teachers and scholars. Although professors observe the stated regulations of the institution, provided the regulations do not contravene academic freedom, they maintain their right to criticize and seek revision. Professors give due regard to their paramount responsibilities within their institution in determining the amount and character of work done outside it. When considering the interruption or termination of their service, professors recognize the effect of their decision upon the program of the institution and give due notice of their intentions.

Operating with a code can help members to avoid the acknowledgment of a duty to report members who are failing to observe the rules of conduct that may be resulting in harm to others outside of the guild. In an article by Wendy Wassyng Roworth, the chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Professional Ethics, the following is reported:

“Most of us don’t give much thought to professional ethics as we carry out our day to day duties as teachers, researchers, committee members, and advisers. We may read about a case of plagiarism or hear about scientific fraud at another university, but such serious violations seem to be rare or distant from our daily routines. Faculty who have no problem expressing views on teaching strategies, research methods, or university politics hesitate to question a colleague’s conduct in the classroom, the space in which each professor reigns supreme..…

Several years ago, the committee grappled with a controversial statement, On the Obligation of Faculty Members to Respond to Misconduct, which was published in draft form in the November–December 1998 issue of Academe with an invitation for comment. The statement provoked both strongly positive and critically negative responses from members of the profession. Some believed that individual faculty members should be responsible for speaking out and reporting misconduct to authorities when they have knowledge of violations and that, furthermore, guidelines should be developed to handle ethical breaches by faculty colleagues. On the other hand, several faculty members expressed grave concerns about what such a policy might unleash. How could an individual be absolutely sure that he or she was right about a perceived wrongdoing? How could one assess the seriousness of an infraction? What would be the consequences of a false or mistaken accusation?

The divided reaction to the committee’s statement highlighted the troublesome and perplexing question whether faculty can respond appropriately to misconduct by colleagues without trampling on individual rights or endangering other professional standards. It also revealed the need for broader understanding of ethical issues and individual responsibility for adherence to ethical standards.”

(Roworth, Wendy Wassyng. "Professional Ethics, Day By Day", Academe, Jan-Feb, 2002, 24-27.)

Roworth goes on to argue that “[u]nlike the professions of law and medicine that have associations to enforce their standards, responsibility for enforcing ethical standards in the academic profession lies with individual colleges and universities. In other words, it’s up to each of us to ensure the integrity of our professional conduct.” (Roworth, 2002; p. 28).  And while this seems a fair expression of the relative autonomy and freedom of the American professoriate, there are some who would argue that such a statement might be seen by some as a bit like leaving the kids in charge of the candy store.  Lacking external mechanisms for the development and enforcement of the obligations to those outside of the profession, the profession itself opens itself to criticism from the very public it purports to serve.


In the contractual model there is certain symmetry in the relationship of the members of the educational profession and those for whom they render service. They are seen as nearly equal parties engaged in a voluntary association for mutual benefit. This model is one promoted in a time of frequent litigation. The enforcers of contracts promote envisioning the basic relationship between human beings in terms of an instrument that has a feature of legal enforcement.

It is a model in which the participants are seen as singularly motivated by self-interest and not philanthropy.  Informed consent is desired by the recipient of instruction as needed for intelligent decision making in keeping with the goals and values of the recipient of instruction and in acknowledgment of the right of self determination. Informed consent is seen by the provider of instruction as desirable as a means of protection against charges of coercion or any other charge that would hold the provider liable for the outcomes of the services rendered.

This model is beset with difficulties and despite its being urged by litigators, practitioners are not taking to it in its entirety. It is influencing educational institutions in so far as the taking of measures to minimize exposure to liability.

Here are some of the problems.

A. Minimalism - With a contract the educator is obliged to do only what is set out in the terms of the contract-no more and no less- or else there may be a claim ( and possible damages-monetary damages) against the educator by the other party in the contract.

B. Unpredictability - Often in education there are unpredictable circumstances that could arise. If they are not covered by the contract then there is no ground for the educator to respond to those circumstances including those that may pose a strong threat to the well being of the other party in the contract.

C. Maximalism- Defense Mechanism - The educator in order to protect the practice from possible claims against it by the other parties to the contracts for services, would be pressured to include procedures, practices and treatments in the contract not so much for the well being of the learner but to protect against possible malpractice suits. Thus, more tests may be ordered than are strictly needed in order that there not be a claim that the educator had done anything less than what was in order to detect or prevent a harm to the recipient of instruction.

D. Inequality - The parties to an education contract between the provider and the recipient of instruction are not equal in knowledge or skill, nor do they have equal aims or values. Thus any contract between them is less likely to be a fair one as one party is usually much more knowledgeable and likely to influence the other due to that knowledge. The recipients of instruction are under the pressure and anxiety to do well and in fear that ignorance impairs their decisions. Such a condition operates against a mind needed for rational decision making.

E. No freedom of choice - Often the recipient of education has little or no choice but to accept the terms of a contract as produced by the provider when that provider of care is the only one near to or affordable to or provided to the recipient of that care.

F. Denies transcendent rights and duties - This model does not allow for the educator to acknowledge that there is any ground for an obligation to provide service other than the one voluntarily incurred by the parties entering into the contract and then that obligation is only to the extent indicated by the terms of the contract.


The key elements of the Covenant Model (CM) are promise and fidelity to the promise. In this model the educator has received a gift of the knowledge and skills needed to practice the art of instruction. In return the educator has made a promise to incur a debt in return for what was provided to prepare the educator to be a member of the profession of education.

The educator is responsive to the debt and has taken on an obligation to the society that extended itself to provide the knowledge, training and skills of the educator to those who enter into education programs.

The Covenant Model involves a Canon of Loyalty and Fidelity. The educator under the debt to society is obliged to provide society with the truth and be faithful to the promise to provide instruction and effective instruction. The aim of this model is not simply proficiency but genuine care about the intellectual development of learners.

With this approach the teacher undergoes a change in ontological status.  The person who becomes a member of the profession becomes an educator not just at those times when in the office or school, but at all times. The person has undergone a transformation into a different sort of being, one possessed of knowledge and skills not found elsewhere in the populace. As such, whenever such a person encounters someone in need of those skills there is an obligation to provide whatever service that can be reasonably rendered. 

This ontological shift in some ways parallels the professional responsibilities of the physician.  On the dramatic side it can be noted that while few cries of “is there a teacher in the house” are heard on a daily basis, like the physician, the educator has a fundamental responsibility to fulfill their duties both in professional and non-professional contexts.   A professor of biology, on hearing a politician make a erroneous remark about evolutionary theory, has an obligation to correct that remark.  In a less dramatic but more profound level the ontological shift is noted in the manner in which the general populace responds to news reports of people who have committed social transgressions and illegal acts who in the report are also noted to be educators.  While expressing a disapproval of the behavior, whether dealing in drugs or prostitution or lesser offenses such as ticket scalping, added on  that expression is another response such as “and he is a teacher, too!”, indicating that more or at least different behavior is expected particularly of an educator.  This is likely to be so because society entrusts educators with behaving so as to have politicize influences on others , particularly the young, whether they be in the classroom or not, whether they be students of the particular, individual educator or not.

Yet the primary problem with this model is that it needs a transcendent reference for the proper context. It needs a transcendent norm for rights and duties of educators and students. It needs a source of limits for expectations and duties outside of the profession itself.  Otherwise, it is little more than a modern version of the guild.

What is the source outside of the profession that generates the ethical obligations of the practice?  The traditional answer has been theological.  If there is a god and that god gives someone the gift of knowledge and skill then the person owes it to that god to return something for what has been given. The source of obligation that is the basis for the sense of duty is the transcendent being. But if there is no god or no effective belief in a god or no acknowledgment of anything being given by such a being to members of the profession, then what grounds the covenant? Who is in the covenant with the educators?

In place of a supreme being or transcendent deity as the source of the indebtedness society itself may serve as the origin of the gift and as the party in a covenant with the profession of education.  In other words, the ethical obligations of the professoriate are generated by the debt owed to society by the professoriate itself.

The educators’ indebtedness to society may be established by five (5) factors:

1. Education - no school of education is entirely self sustaining. Almost all teaching institutions receive state and federal aid and the students receive a variety of financial aids, most stemming from government subsidies and private endowments.

2. Privileges - members of the profession of education are permitted what others in society are not. They may presume certain deference in virtue of their occupation-profession that others must earn.

3. Social Trust- Society places its children into the care of educators relying on them to provide the best possible forms of instruction in order to prepare people to take their place within society as productive members of it.

4. Experimental Subjects - There can be no knowledge of pedagogy and no development of pedagogic skills without human beings serving as students with whom future educators work to develop their skills as educators. Pedagogic research is needed and training must take place to gain the knowledge and skills that make members of the profession of education what they are. The educators who acquire that knowledge so obtained owe a return to those from whom and through whom that knowledge was secured.

5. Continual Support of profession and individuals -Society continues to support the Institution of Education and educators through the continuing support for schools of education. Society may expect something in return.

The Covenant Model includes and extends beyond that of code and contract. It includes aspects of the code: fidelity to duty, responsibilities to students and colleagues. It includes elements of the contract model in terms of fidelity to the terms of a contract.

However, the Covenant Model requires more because there is a surplus of obligations to society and these are the final advantage of this model over the others.

The obligations (debts) to society in the Covenant Model are greater than debts to colleagues in the Codal Model. Thus the Covenant Model has its advantages:

1. Permits possibility of self-discipline

2. Not so personal- applies to the whole profession; a covenant with society broadens accountability

3. Permits setting professional responsibility for one human good –         knowledge- within social limits

In each of these models the "Student" role relates to the educator's self image and general model for the relationship between the provider and recipient of instruction.

If the educator's self conception is as parent or priest, then the student is seen as dependent.

If the educator's self conception is as technician, then the student is seen as passive host of ignorance.

If the educator's self conception is as contractual partner, then the student is seen as equal participant.

If the educator's self conception is as covenanter, then the student is seen as active participant and is there are with all other parties, providers and recipients, mutual reciprocal rights and duties, gifts and debts, promises and obligations.

Now consider the application of the models and self conceptions to cases involving difficult decision making related to the relationship of the parties involved in the situation and rather different results might emerge in the same situation by using a different conceptual setting, a different model for examining the nature of the relationships and whatever obligations may be involved.

Applied Ontology:  Code, Contract, and Covenant in Practice

Consider the following case:  An instructor is thinking about making a change in the manner of instruction in the coming year with the laudable goal being to improve on the efficacy of instruction. In particular the teacher is thinking of having more group work and collaborative learning exercises. The teacher wonders about whether or not such a change will be of benefit to the learners. Should the instructor simply proceed to introduce the new pedagogic approach and see what happens? A different answer might result depending on what model of educator the particular teacher is operating with in relating to the learners.  Each model would generate and provide basis for a quite different approach to the need for an institutional review of pedagogic experimentation.

A likely result based on a decision making process that operates with the code model would be for the educator-researcher to consider what the obligations and liabilities as are indicated in the relationship with fellow educators. Codes of professional conduct along with institutional rules and regulations and any relevant laws would be observed. There would likely be no ethical review of the course of action being contemplated beyond what was required by the code and legal agencies. Even if there is recognition within the educational institution of the regulations requiring reviews for research involving human beings and the Institutional Review Board (IRB) often professional colleagues can be relied upon to minimize the onerous task of submitting to review or eliminate it altogether.  While there are reports of institutions that range from requiring review of all pedagogic experimentation to exempting all such experimentation (Hutchings, Patricia A., "Ethics and Aspiration in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning", Introduction in Hutchings, Patricia A. (ed) Ethics of Inquiry: Issues in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.  Menlo Park, CA: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching., 2002. ) still most typical are institutions that exempt all experimentation not involving publication and most of that which does. 

If there is to be a change in the instructional design or methodology and it is not to be examined carefully and the results reported through publication then there will likely be no review by an Institutional Review Board (IRB).  If there may be a publication then there may be an exemption given to such pedagogic research or experiment either as a result of a blanket institutional policy exempting all pedagogic research and experimentation from IRB review or as a result of a policy that requires an IRB review of all research and then an exemption granted for just about all pedagogic research. In the codal model blanket exemptions from review are most welcomed by fellow members of the guild-colleague educators.   In most cases with or without IRB review there is not likely to be consideration for the entire range of possible and avoidable harms that might result to the students involved.  Any such harm that is not included in the language of contracts, regulations, codes and laws are not operative in this model.

Operating with the contract model would result in the educator-researcher considering what the obligations and liabilities as are indicated in the contractual relationship with the employer and what the strict obligations are to fellow educators. Rules and regulations and any relevant laws would be observed and quite strictly. However, there would likely be no ethical review of the course of action being contemplated beyond what was required by the relevant agencies.  While all pedagogic experimentation will likely be required by institutional policy to be submitted to review by the IRB the outcome is likely to be widespread exempting of all such experimentation not required to be examined by a strict and literal interpretation of the statutes and regulations.   As with the code model, in most cases with or without IRB review there is not likely to be consideration for the entire range of possible and avoidable harms that might result to the students involved.  Any such harm that is not included in the language of contracts, regulations, and laws are not operative in this model.

For those who base their decision making within the context of ethical obligation to society that is characteristic of the covenant model, the approach to decision making involves still different considerations and certainly a different sense of the professional responsibilities of an educator. With the covenant model pedagogic assessment and research that leads to innovations and revisions are part of a basic set of responsibilities of a professional educator who is obliged to insure efficacy of instruction. Such research would be conducted in a manner that would be approved as being morally correct after an ethical review process that is designed to insure that there are no avoidable harms to the learner involved.  This process would be more inclusive and extensive than that which involves current IRB review.   And it is here with the covenant model where we find the sources of the professional obligations of the professoriate.  Those operating out of the covenant model would recognize a fiduciary responsibility to students and review any and all pedagogic research and experimentation, including innovations, in order to insure that there be no unnecessary and avoidable harm that would result to them.

In the next chapter the model that will serve as the basis for ethical obligations is later considered it will be established (chapter IV) that it is the fiduciary model born out of the recognition of the necessity to follow the general social norms within the profession of education.  This model within education is the one most consonant with the concept of covenant and responsiveness to society in terms of the origin of its moral norms and the obligations to serve the individual and society as well.

This work will now turn to consider the entire range of ethical responsibilities of professional educators, individually and collectively, and to the basic relationship model that is at the base of those responsibilities.

@copyright 2004 by S. Kincaid and P. Pecorino

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