The definition of teacher misconduct is not universal. Most teachers belong to unions and are protected from disciplinary action following a misconduct allegation. As such, school districts must spend a great deal of time and money to pursue such allegations. Consequently, many don't, and instead either reassign teachers who face allegations or buy out their contracts, leaving those teachers to obtain jobs at other schools. Several studies are cited which describe the perceptions of teachers and students regarding teacher misconduct. While sexual contact is identified by most teachers as unethical, students consider teacher preparation and confidentiality issues to better represent a teacher's ethical conduct.
The Florida Department of Education defines teacher misconduct as any behavior that is damaging to a student or that negatively affects the teaching profession. The former generally includes "physical or sexual abuse" while the latter can include anything from cheating on certification exams and drug use (which may not directly affect students) to giving students grades they do not deserve because of pressure from parents or school administrators ("Parent FAQ: Misconduct," 2005). In contrast to Florida's definition, the National Education Association (NEA), a professional organization that provides leadership to the education community, offers only a generic overview of what it considers to be "unethical or unprofessional teacher behaviors" (Barrett, Headley, Stovall & White, 2006, p. 422).
There is an issue larger than the lack of a common misconduct definition, however. Because the teaching profession is unionized, teachers are protected from being fired due to an accusation of misconduct. This protection makes it virtually impossible for a teacher to be fired or even investigated without costing the school district a great deal of time and money.
For example, New York City has dealt with a teacher discipline process so indecisive, it cost the city over 30 million dollars in teacher salary in 2009 (Medina, 2010). An article published in the New York Times describes "rubber rooms" -- offices that contain no students, no class work, and no specific assignments for teachers who have been reassigned due to misconduct allegations. Rubber rooms were not a popular concept with NYC Mayor Bloomberg, but until 2010, he had not put a procedure into place to combat "teacher reassignment" (Medina, 2010).
The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union that represents teachers in New York City, agreed with Mayor Bloomberg and the public outcry that followed the New York Times article, that reassignment to a rubber room is not the best solution to any misconduct case. The union agreed to hire more arbitrators to hear cases and to have cases heard more quickly than in the past. This was a positive step, especially for a teacher who has been wrongly accused of misconduct. However, if a teacher is simply ineffective, the City of New York has no more recourse than it did before this agreement was recognized: "Administrators still must spend months or even years documenting poor performance before the department can begin hearings, which will still last up to two months" (Medina, 2010, 6). In other words, teachers who are accused of misconduct will be investigated more quickly than teachers who are simply bad at their jobs. Under the agreement, once an instructor is removed from the classroom,
"Education Department officials will have 10 days to file incompetence charges and 60 days for charges of misconduct. Any teacher not formally charged within that time will be sent back to the classroom. In more serious cases, typically when teachers are charged with a felony, education officials can suspend a teacher without pay" (Medina, 2010, 10).
According to Medina, one teacher was assigned to a rubber room for five years, earning his full pay yet not teaching for a second of that time. He was removed from the classroom because of a student allegation of sexual misconduct. Even though "he was acquitted on charges of endangering the welfare of a minor in a criminal trial" he was not allowed to return to the classroom as per the Education Department (Medina, 2010). That teacher was one of over five-hundred teachers in reassignment centers earning full pay and benefits (Medina, 2010).
According to a report in the Huffington Post ("Rubber Rooms," 2012), even though there was agreement to shut down rubber rooms in 2010 and the number of teachers "sitting idly" has improved, the city has still been using empty offices and sometimes even utility closets for teachers awaiting hearings. In 2012, approximately 200 teachers collected their salaries while being prohibited from the classroom. Many of these teachers were supposed to be given administration work but were not. These teachers cost the city $22 million in 2012.
Of course, paying teachers to do nothing is bad business and sends a bad message. Nobody is above the law, and those who come in direct contact with children should be held accountable to the law in ways that are clear and concise. Otherwise, the purpose of public education loses credibility and so does the authority of school districts who are supposed to be representing the public.
Examples of Misconduct
Dishonest Test Scores
In an annual report submitted by Nevada's public school administration, "incidents involving student cheating and teacher misconduct, increased by more than 50 percent in 2003-04 [including] 24 incidents of student cheating and 10 incidents that involved the improper disclosure of testing materials to students by teachers in the past school year" (Hurst, 2004, par. 2). In defense of these numbers, then Nevada Superintendent of Schools, Keith Rheault, stated that half of the testing irregularities were identified as test administration errors. Rheault said that the testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act "and the demand for schools to meet targets for adequate yearly progress have put more pressure on teachers and students to get better scores" (Hurst, 2004, 6). In Nevada, instructors caught cheating to improve grades or standards can have their teaching licenses revoked, which has happened in at least one case. Dishonest testing practices is not a topic that has been vigorously researched and it is likely that it occurs frequently because of federal mandates for school accountability (e.g., No Child Left Behind, Common Core State Standards). In response to Nevada's situation, more training for teachers who administer standardized tests is now required.
For most teachers, giving students answers to test questions is clearly a violation of professional conduct. However, because there is no universal definition of misconduct, teachers have to figure out on their own what is ethical behavior for someone in their profession. That is not always an easy task. Barrett et al. (2006) note that, "when education is compared with other human service-delivery professions such as medicine, psychology, and law, a carefully conceived, professionally recognized, and enforceable code of ethics is conspicuously absent" (p. 422). As such, Barrett and colleagues conducted a...
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