How to be Fair and Ethical in the Classroom

Many aspects of the teaching assistant's role may create ethical dilemmas of one sort or another. Your roles as adviser, evaluator, exam administrator, authority figure and peer have the potential to become problematic at times, often because they present conflicting demands. Because fairness is a perception based on interpretations of behavior, not intentions, many instructors may inadvertently engage in what students perceive to be unfair behavior.

Although one might expect students to be most concerned with outcome or procedural fairness because it affects their grades, Dr. Rita Rodabaugh has found that students consider violations of interactional fairness to be the most severe. Interactional fairness refers to the nature of the interaction between instructor and students and encompasses impartiality, respect, concern for students, integrity and propriety.

Below we offer tips on how to be fair and ethical in the classroom, thereby avoiding as many classroom problems as possible.

Impartiality. Students expect an instructor to treat everyone in the class equally. Few professors intentionally favor certain students over others, but it is probably impossible not to like some students more than others. Differences in liking may foster differences in interactions, such as allowing certain students to dominate discussions. Even subtle differences in how students are treated may lead to perceptions of partiality where none exist. To avoid giving the impression of partiality, carefully monitor your behavior and interactions with all students.

Respect. Respect involves treating students politely. Ridiculing a student or calling a student's comment “stupid” is inappropriate in all circumstances. Students expect an instructor to listen to, carefully consider, and give thoughtful replies to their ideas when they challenge the instructor’s views. An instructor who is perceived as impatient or demeaning, either directly through comments or indirectly through tone of voice, facial expressions, or posture, loses students' respect.

Patience is especially difficult when students actively misbehave in class. However, students also expect instructors to be polite in those situations. Should you face disrespect, try to remain civil and calm, thereby modeling the appropriate behavior for students. It is always appropriate to meet privately with an offending student, during which you can be more direct in communicating expectations for classroom deportment.

Concern for students. Students expect their instructors to care about them and their academic performance. You can demonstrate such concern by learning and using students' names, talking to them before and after class, carefully answering questions, and inviting students who appear to be having problems with the course to discuss those problems and potential solutions. You also can express concern by giving due consideration to student complaints, taking remedial action when the complaints are valid, and carefully explaining your position when the complaints are not valid.

Integrity. Integrity means being consistent and truthful, and explaining your policies, procedures and decisions and why they are necessary, so that their fairness can be judged and understood. For example, an attendance policy may be justifiable because attendance is correlated with increased learning and better grades. Explaining the educational goals of various types of assignments also can be effective. You also can demonstrate integrity by delivering promised rewards and penalties, and admitting ignorance when appropriate.

Propriety. Propriety means acting in a socially acceptable manner that does not offend students' sensibilities. Students expect you to follow the rules when interacting with them, even if you believe there might be pedagogical value in breaking them. For example, research indicates that most students find it inappropriate in most or all circumstances for an instructor to tell an off-color story or joke. Likewise, showing an emotionally upsetting film without warning students in advance was considered highly inappropriate. 

Students also expect instructors to respect their privacy; most students find it inappropriate to require them to reveal highly personal information in a class discussion. Finally, students expect instructors to maintain an appropriate social distance: 54% of students surveyed in a 1993 study by Patricia KeithSpiegel and colleagues thought it inappropriate for an instructor to date a student and 70% believed it inappropriate for a professor to have a sexual relationship with a student.

Conclusion. Ethical issues are often seen in terms of outright abuse of power or privilege. However, where fairness is concerned, many behaviors that teachers may unthinkingly exhibit on a day-to-day basis, such as sharing personal information about their weekend “activities” or making changes in course content and procedures during the semester, may be perceived quite differently by students. According to Stephen Brookfield, author ofThe Skillful Teacher, perceptions of unfairness can undermine the trust between student and teacher that is necessary for effective learning. It’s important to carefully monitor one's behavior and policies to ensure that they are not only, in fact, fair but are perceived as fair by students.

Adapted with permission from Whitley, Jr., B., Perkins, D., Balogh, D., Keith-Spiegel, P. & Wittig, A. (2000, July/August). Fairness in the classroom. APS Observer, 13 (6).