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Teacher ethics in China: a teacher for a day is a father for a life

Wangbei Ye

Associate professor, School of Teacher Education, Faculty of Education, East China Normal University, Shanghai

Ⓒ Shutterstock

I would like to start this introduction to teacher ethics in China with a story. Years ago, when I was a second-year PhD student, I met one of my supervisor’s PhD graduates at a conference. I greeted him, saying, “Hi! I know you were Dr Law’s student. So am I!”. He responded with, “Yes, but that was many years ago”. As a Chinese person, I was shocked. In Chinese culture, one’s teacher for a day is one’s father for life.

China has a long, tradition of emphasising teacher ethics and regarding teachers as “moral guardians” (Paine, 1995). Ancient Chinese culture held very high expectations of teachers’ character and conduct. A person’s character and conduct were seen as inextricably linked to their values, and these desirable values could be transmitted effectively only by those who possessed and exemplified them. Teachers thus faced high expectations regarding their personal conduct, forms of expression, attitudes, and even appearance.

Famous Chinese scholars/educators, such as Confucius (B.C. 551-479) and Han Yu (B.C. 768-824), developed China’s “shi dao chuan tong” – i.e. the approach to teaching which became part of China’s tradition. According to this tradition, teachers are expected to model good ethical character, master the knowledge in their field, be devoted to teaching, undertake research, study with passion, be lifelong learners, and love the teaching profession. The founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 replaced Confucian ideals with Marxist theory but retained China’s traditional emphasis on ethical standards for teachers.

During the past two decades, China has issued a series of policies and laws regarding teacher ethics. The 2008 Code of Ethics for Primary and Middle School Teachers listed six major basic requirements reflecting China’s traditional expectations of teachers as mentors and role models for their students, in addition to the political and civic requirement of being loyal to the Chinese Communist Party and PRC.

The 2014 Method of Disposition for Handling Primary and Middle School Teachers Who Violate Professional Ethics and the 2018 Ten Norms for Middle and Primary School Teachers in the New Era set a minimum standard for teachers by highlighting forbidden behaviours, including speech or actions violating CCP and state policies, negatively influencing students through unfair treatment, etc.

More recently, China’s profound post-reform economic changes have challenged teachers’ abilities to live up to these ethical codes. Chinese schools became the first observable impact point for social change among children and adolescents: economic reforms spurred massive urbanisation, leading to increased internal migration that, in turn, overturned traditional family dynamics and increased stress levels among youths in schools (e.g. Author, 2016). Teachers were faced with challenges such as larger class sizes, high student mobility, uneven learning achievements (due to China’s rural-urban divide), and less supportive parents (Tian et al. 2008).

In order to investigate the impact of these challenges and possible solutions, my colleagues and I in East China Normal University explored the following two questions.

What role do ethics play in helping in-service teachers confront the challenges caused by recent social changes?

In this context, we studied 14 Special Rank Teachers (SRTs) from 13 provinces in China, all of whom had taught for 20 or more years. The SRT title, established by the Chinese state in 1978 to honour outstanding teachers, is the state’s highest award for all-round teaching excellence based on teacher ethics and teaching competence.

Our study confirmed this understanding that teacher excellence does not only encompass knowledge and skills, but also an ethical dimension. (Brunetti and Marston 2018). Indeed, teacher ethics and teaching are inherently compatible and unavoidably intertwined, and teachers’ professional development is characterised by increased concomitant manifestations of teacher agency (Beauchamp & Thomas 2009).

It echoed existant studies which show that teachers tend to show greater evidence of particular ethical values at different stages in their career.

We identified that, while the SRTs placed a premium on strong ethical values in all stages of their career, the emphasis on particular values evolved over time. For instance, in the first five years, their love of and dedication to the teaching profession (which motivated them to persist) was most apparent; over the following five years, it was their ability to continuously improve; and after 10 years, teachers placed more emphasis on students’ development beyond the classroom. Therefore, our study suggests the benefits of allowing younger teachers to learn teacher ethics from more experienced teachers.

How do China’s pre-service teachers develop their understandings of teacher ethics in university courses and through teaching practice?

Here we examined the construction of an understanding of ethical teaching practice amongst 87 pre-service teachers in China. We found that three major changes emerged in pre-service teachers’ understanding of teacher ethics once they had gained some on-the-job experience: the interactive nature of ‘caring’, a greater emphasis on teachers’ sacrifices, and the importance of authority in the teacher-student relationship.

As pre-service teachers’ understanding of teacher ethics is a dynamic process, teacher education programmes should not only provide students opportunities to learn state-sanctioned teacher ethic codes and theories of teacher ethics, but also authentic interactions in universities – through, for instance, role-play, micro-teaching, and informal teacher ethics learning opportunities via university teacher-student communication – to help pre-service teachers locate themselves in their teacher role, reflect on the standards regulating teacher ethics, etc.

To sum up, while China’s historical and cultural context is quite different from that in Western countries, this study of 14 Special Rank Teachers and 87 pre-service teachers has implications for understanding in-service teachers’ ethics and pre-service teachers’ ethical role construction, which are two themes that transcend cultural backgrounds and national boundaries.


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