Ethical dilemmas at work placements in teacher education

December, 2021

Source: Teaching Education, 32:4, 403-419

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The authors investigated what influences student teachers’ challenges during work placement education.
The aim of the study was to investigate ethical dilemmas that student teachers experienced during work placement education, using the sensitising concept of the notion of care.
To their knowledge, this has not previously been explored in relation to student teachers’ work placement education in an exhaustive manner.
Thus, this study adds to the literature on the ethics involved in teacher education.

A qualitative research design based on a grounded theory approach was adopted.
Grounded theory is a suitable method when studying social processes, meaning and interaction (Charmaz, 2014; Glaser, 1978), and is thus appropriate when studying experiences of ethical dilemmas during work placement education.
The authors used a constructivist grounded theory because they were interested in the meaning co-constructed by the student teachers during semi-structured interviews and how they represented an ethical dilemma.
Twenty-two student teachers participated in the study.
The student teachers were studying to become elementary school teachers at Swedish compulsory school for children aged six to 12, which includes kindergarten/preschool class (K) to grade six.
The student teachers were asked to participate via e-mail, and every student teacher who volunteered was interviewed.
All interviews were conducted by the first author.
All participants in the current study were completing their last semester of teacher education at the time of data collection.
The teacher education programme involved a total of 20 weeks of work placement education distributed throughout the teacher education programme, with the longest placement consisting of ten weeks during the last semester.
During their work placement education, student teachers shadow and assist a supervising teacher and their teaching responsibility progresses over the course of the programme.

Data collection and analysis
The interview questions focus on
(a) reasons for working as a teacher,
(b) perceived challenges during teacher education, and
(c) worries about working as a teacher in the future.
The interviews were recorded and transcribed.
The length of the interviews varied from 31 to 68 minutes.
When analysing data, grounded theory tools were used to navigate close to the data material.
Initial, focused and theoretical coding was conducted, not in a linear way but in a flexible way.
The stages were intertwined and complemented each other as the analysis progressed.
During the analysis, the authors maintained an open mind but did not attempt to analyse the data without preconceptions.
Instead, they adopted an informed grounded theory approach that involved theoretical agnosticism and theoretical pluralism, enabling them to be open and sensitive to data while at the same time reviewing and consulting literature (Thornberg, 2012).
Through this process, the ethical dilemmas and the notion of care were introduced in the analysis as they fitted with the data and earned their place in the analysis.

Findings and discussion
In work placement education, the actors involved in the dilemmas described in this study included pupils and teachers.
In the context of this study, it is important that student teachers’ understanding of the dilemmas they might encounter, or trying to understand the reasons why teachers act the way they do in teacher lounges or in relationships, before being too judgmental about their actions.
Even so, teachers seem to be somewhat unaware of the ethical consequences of their actions (Colnerud, 2006; Sockett & LePage, 2002; Thornberg, 2008; Thornberg & Oğuz, 2013).
There is a potential risk of coming to a workplace loaded with relational ambiguity about teachers, as this might result in conflicts (Lindqvist et al., 2019b).
A main finding in the study is the importance of the notion of care (Noddings, 2012), here related to protecting pupils from harm from other pupils or teachers.
The notion of care is contrasted against the limited means of action that student teachers identify.
This ethical dilemma of not being able to act in accordance with convictions (e.g. protect pupils from harm) could result in moral stress.
Moral stress is defined as troublesome emotions that arise when a professional identifies an appropriate action but is unable to act accordingly due to external or situational obstacles (Colnerud, 2015; McCarthy & Deady, 2008).
Moral stress is described as contributing to teachers experiencing their work as a burden.
Another issue in relation to pupils is connected to the ethics of care (Noddings, 2012).
Student teachers described a dilemma about care and their options for actions.
Student teachers have commonly been described as having unrealistic notions of caring (Aultman, Williams-Johnson, & Schutz, 2009).
Caring is a complex matter.
For example, a caring relationship can only be complete if the recipient accepts the care.
Laletas and Reupert (2016) found that student teachers studying to teach at secondary schools described caring as essential in order for discipline and teaching to be effective.
Caring involves no principles, as the actions derive from the needs of the recipient of care (Colnerud, 2006).
Caring also gave rise to actions that could control care, using boundaries and barriers in order not to be overwhelmed (Laletas & Reupert, 2016).
In teacher education, teaching or discussions of care were limited to observations during work placement education (Laletas & Reupert, 2016).
The objective of the work placement is for the student teachers to encounter what teachers’ work involves.
Work placement could be based on a model of learning through cooperation with their supervising teacher.
However, work placement is often described as focused on technical aspects of teaching being passed on to the student teacher, and not explicitly on educative mentoring (Trevethan, 2017).
Student teachers who experience disillusioned supervising teachers or derogatory conversations among teachers might suffer from such experiences, as they could compromise their learning during their work placement education altogether.
In relation to care, student teachers made decisions based on their position as a student teacher, which also involved doing things that went against their moral compass, for example not speaking out or avoiding being in the teacher lounge.
Being a student teacher and meeting a supervising teacher involves a power imbalance.
The supervising teacher assesses the student teacher, and this power imbalance influences interventions towards supervising teachers and how student teachers try to find their opportunities to engage in their work placement education (Zhu, Waxman, Rivera, & Burlbaw, 2018).
In this study, the authors have focused on teachers (viewed by student teachers as future colleagues) and pupils, and have further distinguished the ethical dilemmas of these relationships in relation to the notion of care.
The limited means of action that the student teachers discussed were negotiated against the main concern of caring for students, protecting them from harm and staying idealistic in order to be able to do so in the future.
To do so, student teachers need analytical tools (cf. micro political literacy, Kelchtermans & Ballet, 2002) to understand the dilemmatic space in which they find themselves in schools. Another pertinent aspect could involve the teaching profession enhancing the language of professional ethics and establishing a moral vocabulary that could influence how teachers describe and discuss the ethical practice of teaching (Colnerud, 1997; Shapira-Lishchinsky, 2011).

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Updated: Mar. 07, 2022