Making sure teachers work with helpful, clear rules

Published 10:29 pm Monday, August 24, 2009

The last thing you want to do is weigh folks down with red tape and hurt them with bureaucratic rules and regulations. We need laws, but they should always be clear and foster a climate for progress.

There was recently a controversy over something called the “Educator Code of Ethics.”

It started out with high ideals. The code came about when a group of state officials, academics, and a few teachers got together and wrote up a set of ethical guidelines for educators to follow.

The guidelines included many things that would be self-evident to teachers and anyone else for that matter. The code outlined many things as unethical that were already illegal like providing alcohol and tobacco to students. The code also spelled out some basic things already prohibited like helping students cheat on standardized tests. The code also outlined some lofty goals for teachers, like advocating for all children to exceed their potential.

The code was adopted as a resolution by the Alabama State Board of Education in 2005, and copies of the code were distributed to every school. The code worked well in this manner; it provided a guideline for teachers and principals on how their school could best function.

In July, however, the State Board of Education decided it would make the ethics code law by placing it into the state administrative code. The administrative code regulates all government agencies, and it has the force of law for folks who work in public entities like schoolteachers.

Because of the board’s vote, all the vague language had the force of law and could be used against teachers. As you can imagine, teachers were worried.

One example of the vague language was “ethical conduct means providing an environment that does not needlessly expose students to unnecessary embarrassment or disparagement.” What does needless or unnecessary embarrassment mean? If a teacher catches a student cheating on a test and hauls him up in front of the class to set an example, will she get into trouble because the student got embarrassed? It is not far fetched. Teachers get complaints against them like this all the time.

In this day and age, it is getting harder to maintain classroom discipline. Kids are more apt to sass and be rowdy, or worse. It is also unfortunate that some parents will now side with their children rather than the teacher when there is a behavior problem. Teachers are certainly under fire when it comes to discipline.

It is still legal to use corporal punishment in Alabama schools. There are some that argue that paddling is “needless” and “unnecessary,” including some of those parents whose children run wild. There is no doubt that paddling is very embarrassing. When the State Board of Education made the code law, it allowed the possibility for parents to haul teachers up on ethics charges for discipline enforcement, threatening their careers. This was unacceptable.

Laws must never be confusing and contradictory. The educator ethics code as law was both.

Because it has the force of law, any time a state entity places new things into the administrative code it must be approved by a committee in the Legislature. The committee that oversees such things met a few weeks back and for two hours grilled state officials and teacher representatives on the code. In the end, legislators took out the confusing language and left the sensible stuff, sending it back to State Board of Education.

It can already be tough to teach. Of course we want and expect our teachers to maintain high standards. But the last thing we ever need to do is make that job tougher with fuzzy bureaucratic language that can threaten their job and make things like discipline that much harder to achieve.

It is a legislator’s job to make clear statutes that foster a better climate for progress, and to make sure bureaucracies do the same.

Jimmy Martin serves as Chilton County’s representative in the Alabama Legislature.