Legal and Ethical Contexts in my Digital Practice

Within my professional context, my particular area of teaching is both constrained and supported  by a NZ-wide ethical code of practice which reflects standards, attitudes and obligations in my current organisation particularly with regard to:

  • Relationships with people and students
  • Relationships with the built environment
  • Relationships with the natural environment

This week, I will look at ethics and some important tools to assist ethical decision-making for teachers like me.

Ethical decision-making is challenging because teachers are often required to resolve tensions when their professional Code of Ethics is applied. The ethical principles underlying the Education Council Code of Ethics do not stand in isolation. The four principles exist in a continuing relationship of tension as illustrated in the diagram opposite:

Resolving the competing claims of different ethical principles and different interest groups is usually best achieved through reflective professional discussion where the interests of learners are regarded as being of prime concern. The process of making ethical decisions requires practice and is worthy of inclusion in both the pre-service education of teachers and their continuing professional development.” (#1)

 “Teachers hold a position of trust – teaching and nurturing young New Zealanders.  We want the Code of Professional Responsibility to honour the privilege of being a teacher and reflect the high expectations the public rightly has of us when we are entrusted with the education and care of  their children and young people. This is an opportunity to lift the status of our profession and build on its reputation as one which values the highest standards of behaviour and professionalism. Legally, the new code is required to be in place by 1 July 2017, replacing the Code of Ethics for Certificated Teachers which was written in 2003.” (#2)


An ethical dilemma that teachers up and down the country face is “should I be friends with my students on Social Networks?”

I first experience this dilemma back in 2004 when I returned to secondary teaching after 6 years out of mainstream education due to the passing of my wife (I worked in alternative schools/education during this time). My immediate boss, a greatly-loved and long serving staff member at an all-girls school had the cell phone numbers of all the seniors in her hockey team. I was installed as the second XI soccer coach and briefly considered doing the same but did not. Since then the situation has been presented to me in a variety of contexts but my response has almost always been the same (in fact, in the end, I have stopped using Facebook almost completely and have not joined any other social networking sites like Snapchat or Instagram as well)

Analyzing the Ethical Issues Involved from a Student Point of View:

Harder though is what stance a school/teachers should take in dealing with the fall-out from social networking conflicts amongst students. It is now common for all schools to be dealing with digital situations that have arisen because of conduct that has taken place outside of school grounds/hours, situations that are often too difficult for school administrators to police without outside assistance. With the introduction of the ‘Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015’ police now have the legal authority to enforce situations of cyber-bullying for anyone exposed to such practices. This does change the landscape in terms of what schools might be able to do in a court of law but almost all would be extremely keen to stay away from except in extreme cases (question: what does an extreme case look like given what takes place inside teenage social networks most days).

“The law aims to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to protect individuals from cyber bullying” (#3).

In any case, a District Court must not grant an application from an applicant referred to in section 11(1)(a), (b), or (c)for an order under section 18 or 19 unless it is satisfied that the breach has caused or is likely to cause harm to an individual” (#4).

‘The Harmful Digital Communications Bill’ passed in Parliament last week, making intentional cause of harm by posting a digital communication a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment or a maximum fine of $50,000.

The legislation passed with an overwhelming majority, with 116 votes for the bill and only five votes against. People between the ages of 14 and 16 will go through the existing youth justice system and anyone over the age of 16 will be subject to the full extent of the legislation. It will not apply to children under the age of 14”. (#5)

Some Important Tools That Assist My Ethical Decision-Making.

Often Laws or a Code will not always provide the specific answer but can be a legal ground upon which you can move towards a possible solution.

A Code of Ethics is one way an organisation can set the limits for minimum behaviours in their profession or organisation. As a registered teacher in NZ, my practice is governed by the Code Of Ethics for Certified Teachers (and will be replace by the new code by 1 July 2017)” (#6).

Re Cyber-bullying:

The social media policies within Amuri Area School and the Code of Ethics for Certificated Teachers (Education Council) are as follows:

“Never reply to a harassing message as this can escalate things;

  • Make sure only trusted friends are in the phone address book;
  • Save harassing messages and then report the incident to an adult;
  • Stop using the cell phone!


The school has a complaints policy and if you wish to lodge a complaint about some aspect of school the following procedure should be followed:

  • If the complaint is of a minor nature, see the person concerned and discuss the nature of the complaint.
  • If the issues cannot be resolved, the complaint should then be put in writing to Mrs Habgood if it is a Year 0 – 8 issue, Mrs Mossman if it is a Year 9 – 13 issue or Miss Teulon if it is a bus issue.
  • If the issue cannot be resolved by this person, the complaint should be passed on to the Principal to deal with.
  • If it is not resolved by the Principal or the complaint involves the Principal, it should be put in writing to the Board of Trustees through the Secretary or directly to the Chair.
  • If it is not resolved by the Board, the complaint can then be lodged with the Ministry of Education in Christchurch.

The Principal is also available to discuss complaints of a minor nature at any time.” (#7)

Considering how this code should be interpreted to assist me in my ethical decision-making processes, the Ethical and Professional Dilemmas for Educator: Facilitator’s Guide suggests these guiding questions when working through ethical issues:

  • “What possible issues/concerns might this scenario raise?
  • How could this situation become a violation of the law, the “Code” or other school /district policies?
  • In this situation, what are some potential negative consequences for the teacher, for the students and the school community?
  • What responses/actions will result in a more positive outcome and/or what proactive measures might be considered? “ (p.7)

Our required reading from Hall (2001) recommends another set of questions to guide the process, including:

  • Which stakeholder should be given priority? Why?
  • What restrictions are there to your actions?
  • Which courses of action are possible?
  • How should the course of action be implemented? “ (p.5)

The questions above are useful as guides and are certainly helpful for the process of making ethical decisions about my day-to-day teaching practise. They cannot be more specific (in a digital sense) simply because it is impossible to be more specific given the ever-changing nature of how teachers are required to interact with their students, parents and community. Sometimes direct text contact with a student or parent is appropriate (e.g. in a sporting/cultural group or a fundraising day etc…).

It is hoped that the new guidelines that are coming in on July 1st, 2017 (#8) will not stifle communication and collaboration between, specifically, teachers and parents at a time when this digital generation truly needs greater contact, not less. However, the problems presented through social networks and the like make this kind of contact problematic at best and in the end I effectively suspended my Facebook account so that I wasn’t presented with such ethical dilemmas.


Actually I feel that there might be some anecdotal evidence to not being wedded to our smart-phones 24/7 (#9) which does represent another problem to being constantly connected digitally to our education stakeholders.




(#3) Susan Hornsby-Geluk,


(#5) Thomas Heaton, July 5 2015,






One thought on “Legal and Ethical Contexts in my Digital Practice

  1. A great read Robert. 3 points in your post resonated with me particularly. 1) friends on digital media – after reflecting on this for my blog ( it seems like no big deal but there are potential hazards. I think teachers need plenty of guidance on this (I personally don’t think it’s wise).
    2) cyber bullying. I think this is one of the most difficult things for students today and the more education they (and we) get about it the better.
    3) I agree, sometimes we all need to get away and not be contactable.


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