28.11.2018 | Blogpost

Teacher codes of ethics: How to account for an ethical culture in schools?

Orly Shapira-Lishchinsky
Orly Shapira-Lishchinsky is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration, Leadership and Policy, School of Education, at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.
With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goal (SD4) 4, the international education community has taken a strong stand to ensure equitable quality education. In order to achieve this goal, countries should build up effective monitoring and accountability mechanisms, adapted to national priorities, in consultation with civil society.

But while most common strategies focus on national and international assessments and surveys (Global Education Monitoring Report, 2016) or government monitoring, reporting and evaluation policies, systems and tools (World Education Forum, 2015), I would like to suggest an additional approach focusing on accountability, based on the development of a code of ethics.

Our analysis of a random sample of thirty codes of ethics for educators from 45 countries participating in TIMSS 2015, showed that only in a small number of cases, governments – through their Ministry of Education or through educational committees – have promoted the development and the dissemination of a code of ethics, generally without the involvement of the teacher unions. It is in fact more common for codes to be developed in an ad hoc way by teachers' unions, but without official support from the Ministry.

The ethical culture of an organization is regarded as an important (Sims and Brinkmann, 2003), if not the most important (Kaptein, 2011), component of the organizational context that accounts for unethical behavior. However, studies dealing with educational systems and international school assessments focusing on this issue are difficult to find. Most existing studies focus instead on school climate (e.g. learning conditions) rather than the ethical culture. Therefore, we have tried to define what constitutes an ‘ethical culture in an educational system’ more clearly, and to identify the main dimensions that it comprises.

In general, the ethical culture of an organization can be defined as those aspects of a perceived organizational context that:

  • may impede unethical behavior and encourage ethical behavior;
  • encompass the experiences, assumptions and expectations of leaders and their employees about how the organization prevents them from behaving unethically; and
  • encourage members to behave ethically (Ruiz-Palomino, Martinez-Canaz, Fontrodona, 2013).

In an educational context, ethical culture therefore refers to the perceptions on the conditions prevailing in a given school, which are (or are not) in compliance with what constitutes ethical or unethical behaviors. According to Kaptein (2011), an ethical school culture can be viewed as resulting from the interplay between the formal (e.g., educational policy, codes of ethics) and informal (e.g. colleagues behavior, ethical norms) systems that help promote ethical behavior among teachers. More specifically, through an analysis of different codes of ethics we were able to identify the five following main dimensions of an ethical school culture:

  1. The ethical aspect of the teachers’ profession – including teacher professional development, quality of teaching, evaluation and monitoring;
  2. The ethical aspect of students’ caring – including student's knowledge and skills, respect of student culture, student safety, student needs;
  3. The ethical aspect of parental involvement – including parent collaboration, respect of parent culture, discretion;
  4. The ethical aspect of the relationships between teachers and their colleagues – including respect, confidentiality, collaboration, provision of emotional support, good will;
  5. The ethical aspect of respecting law, regulations, collective contracts, and student rights – including respect of the democratic system, respect of the spirit of the law, respect of the government policy.

Based on these primary results, teachers themselves should lead and be accountable for the development and the enforcement of the codes, while governments should encourage this process, and international and national assessments and surveys should reflect and monitor it. Doing so, and encouraging the assimilation of these codes at school level, may increase teacher  accountability regarding the promotion of an “ethical school culture”, characterized by the various dimensions listed above – a culture which ultimately will enable teachers to promote equity and equality in their classrooms.

This blog presents one aspect of my new book:

Shapira-Lishchinsky, O. 2018. International aspects of organizational ethics in educational systems. Howard House, UK: Emerald Publications.

Note: The analysis of thirty codes of ethics for educators has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 701911.



UNESCO. 2016. Global Education Monitoring Report 2016. Education for people and planet: Creating sustainable futures for all. Paris: UNESCO Publishing. Retrieved at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002457/245752e.pdf

Kaptein, M. 2011. “Understanding unethical behavior by unraveling ethical culture”. In: Human relations, 64(6), 843-869.

Ruiz-Palomino, P., Martínez-Cañas, R., Fontrodona, J. 2013. Ethical culture and employee outcomes: The mediating role of person-organization fit”. In: Journal of Business Ethics, 116(1), 173-188.

Sims, R. R., & Brinkmann, J. 2003. “Culture matters more than codes”. In: Journal of Business ethics, 45(3), 243-256.

Education 2030. 2015. Incheon Declaration. Towards inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all. Retrieved at: http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/ED/ED_new/pdf/FFA-ENG-27Oct15.pdf


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