Official Policies and Teachers’ Tendency to Act: Exploring the Discrepancies in Teachers’ Perceptions

August 31, 2015

Source: Education Policy Analysis Archives, 23(82).


The aim of the study is to investigate whether there are discrepancies between teachers’ perceptions of the ‘official policies’ and their ‘tendency to act,’ based on their ethical decision-making. A qualitative analysis of 60 Israeli teachers’ questionnaires consisting of critical ethical incidents revealed multifaceted ethical dilemmas nested in categories of ‘discrepancies between official policies and teachers’ tendency to act: ‘Harm (to people, property),’ ‘parental involvement/ interference’ and ‘academic process.’

The discrepancies noted between official policy and teachers’ tendency to act may encourage educational policy to design teachers’ training and professional development programs that include dealing with critical ethical incidents, through team-based simulations and formulating ethical guidelines based on their ethical decision-making process.

This study shows that despite the existence of formal policy (morality of justice) for handling ethical dilemmas, in several cases the teachers did not know how they were expected to act. It appears that teachers showed a tendency to react with empathy and caring (morality of care), even if they were aware that stricter measures were mandated by either the law, or in case the law did not refer to the incident, the Israeli educational management circular. A possible explanation for this might be that teachers often find it hard to square their tendency towards caring for their pupils with some of the state laws required of them. Thus, for example, only a few teachers said they would refuse to go to the girl at the mall who was beaten by her mother. The findings can also be explained by the fact that many teachers suggested using educational modes of behavior, which were not mentioned in the ministry circular, e.g., personal conversations with pupils and positive reinforcements.

Our study’s findings suggest that while teachers are generally expected to care about their educational system, in practice teachers see themselves as highly committed to caring for their pupils (morality of care), and it is not uncommon for loyalty to the pupil to outweigh loyalty to the system. In this study, the tendency to act may diverge from the official policy (morality of justice), which is seen as overly strict and impersonal. Thus, teachers prefer to explore alternative case- and student sensitive approaches first (morality of care).

The discrepancies we noted between teachers’ tendency to act and official policy may encourage educational policy to empower the teachers and promote their autonomy to deal with ethical incidents by developing their ethical decision-making process. In this way, teachers will learn how to manage their ethical decision-making while balancing between their caring for students and acting according to official policy in a way that will not cause harm to the pupils or to the educational system. This may be achieved, for example, by team-based-simulations, through role modeling the incidents, then investigating the simulations, and finally discussing how to combine legal requirements with teachers’ initial tendency to act according to their caring.

In addition, it is insufficient to formulate official policies (e.g., laws, educational management circular, school rules, or codes of ethics) alone, if our aim is to empower teachers to act in real-life ethical situations. Therefore, educational policy led by superintendents and school principals should encourage teachers to develop ethical guidelines during teachers’ professional development programs that may help them in making future ethical decisions. Although ethical guidelines cannot be formulated to suit every potential ethical dilemma, teachers may be instructed in how to identify instances of conflicting values and how to manage the situation, while considering the culture, people, and particular context (Ben-Peretz, 2001). Since the ethical dilemmas described here were found to be similar to ethical dilemmas reported in studies on schools and teachers conducted in other countries, future studies should explore whether we can generalize these findings to other educational systems.

Finally, despite the desire of many school administrations to create uniform policies and a common language within their school, there are still discrepancies in the ethical perceptions of the teaching faculty. By encouraging teachers to take part in simulations and developing ethical guidelines during their teachers’ development programs, we can promote a unified ethical language in schools.

Updated: Sep. 21, 2015