Ethical Decision Making in the Elementary Science Classroom


It is a common observation that ethically positive individuals prove to be happier than those who destruct their inner peace by compromising moral principles and wasting their efforts on afflicting emotions. The moral framework is crucial for teaching as one of the noblest professions. This paper will discuss the application of the moral principles outlined by Aristotle, the Dalai Lama Foundation, and Martha Nussbaum to the ethical conduct of education leaders in the context of No Child Left Behind legislation.

The ethical concerns associated with the NCLB act

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a rather controversial legislative act giving rise to debates among school administrators, teachers, parents, and legislators. Regardless of the initial goal of improving the quality of public education, this act had several negative implications, including the issues of unfunded mandates and the pressure put upon teachers and students because of the necessity to perform better on standardized tests so that the school district could receive proper funding. Thus, after the enactment of the NCLB, teachers have to face a moral dilemma of teaching by heart or teaching ‘for the test’.

The emphasis put upon the importance of demonstrating good scores at the test for receiving the necessary state funding has overburdened school administrators and teachers. Furthermore, in certain situations, standardized tests cannot estimate the quality of the educational system. For instance, these tests would be inappropriate for children with developmental disabilities as well as those who speak English as a second language and those who recently immigrated to the United States. Regardless of these biases and other inconsistencies in the NCLB, teachers cannot understate the importance of preparing students for the tests because the received state funding and school budget will have a significant impact on the quality of the school facilities and teachers’ compensation. Applying the philosophical assumptions made by Aristotle in his Nichomachean ethics, it can be stated that the task of educational leaders in this situation is to find the middle between the two vices (Aristotle, 1998). To find the middle in any sphere is not an easy task. For this reason, educating in the right way with the right motives at the right time, complying with the requirements of the state system, and listening to one’s heart can be a real challenge for modern teachers.

To find the golden mean in their professional activities, teachers should use their critical and imaginative powers. Their discernment would allow them to distinguish between temporary and long-term benefits and choose the greater good over the smaller one (The Dalai Lama, 2004). Therefore, facing a moral dilemma in their daily activities, the education leaders should use the insight approach to evaluate the situational context of this dilemma, assess the expected outcomes of certain actions, and make decisions that cause the least harm. Taking into account the specifics of the situation in the contemporary educational system, it can be stated that ethical discipline is important for mediating between the competing claims of the interested parties, including students and school administrators, for example. On the one hand, students may want to satisfy their curiosity and quest for knowledge and add more entertaining elements into the curriculum. On the other hand, school administrators may encourage teachers to concentrate their efforts on preparing students for standardized tests. To balance these competing claims and to make ethical decisions, teachers should exercise ethical discipline and make sure that virtues such as love, compassion, tolerance, and patience are considered in the process of decision making.

Empathy is the supreme emotion for educators

Notwithstanding all the challenges faced by educators in balancing the conflicting claims of different parties, they should deepen their experience of empathy to make the right professional decisions and teach with compassion. Dealing with the difficulties of developing an effective curriculum and complying with the needs of each student and the demands to demonstrate high performance at standardized tests, teachers need to enhance their capacity to empathy which is crucial to their professional ethics.

Empathy is defined as the ability to enter into the pain of another person and take measures for healing it. According to the definition provided by Tibetans, empathy is the individual’s inability to bear the suffering of another person (The Dalai Lama, 2004). Applying this principle to the situation at the school district under the NCLB act, it can be stated that teachers would need empathy to see the suffering of students struggling against the standardized curriculum and unable to achieve the necessary scores. Another example of students’ suffering is the exclusion of underachieving students and those who speak English as a second language because they cannot achieve the desired scores on the tests. Students suffer because of this discrimination and understanding of their inability to make the target achievements can lower their self-esteem. Furthermore, kindness fostering empathy would enable the student to respond with more trust and improve the atmosphere in the classroom. Even though the importance of meeting the targets cannot be understated, the kindness and empathy of teachers can contribute to the atmosphere of the teaching-learning process and make it more favorable for high performance.

By developing their capacity for ethics, education leaders would strengthen their professional ethics and become more sensitive to potentially harming decisions and more likely to avoid them. It is important to distinguish between harming and non-harming to estimate the expected outcome of our actions and consider the students’ long-term outcomes when making certain decisions. In that regard, the target of demonstrating higher scores at the tests can be defined as short-term goals, whereas developing students’ skills and building their knowledge can be regarded as long-term goals. At the same time, under the NCLB policies, the low scores will result in poor funding and lead to a deficit in the school budgets and a lack of funds for buying the necessary facilities and resources. In other words, the estimation of the potential harm of particular decisions is a rather complicated task.

Application to mental resources in the form of logical reasoning can be a valuable resource for educators willing to enhance their empathy and compassion. Nussbaum (2002) stated that moral sentiments are especially important for the realms requiring the sacrifice of personal self-interest. In that regard, feeling empathy towards students, teachers may sacrifice their interests because more time is required for preparing different tasks for different students and complying with the interests of different categories of students. However, by making their conduct more ethical and developing their compassion, educators would be able to bring peace to their hearts and not only improve the outcomes of others, but also improve their well-being.

The ethic of compassion and restraint

To develop their compassion, education leaders need to consider the importance of both cultivating and restraint factors. The important components of the ethic of compassion include the cultivation of feelings fostering compassion, including love, patience, and tolerance and control over the factors subduing the compassion such as negative thoughts, emotions, and habits.

Insight into the destruction which can be caused by negative emotions can help cultivate the habit of inner discipline. An important precondition to gaining inner discipline is rooted in the teachers’ voluntary efforts to understand themselves, their emotions, and the influence they have upon others so that they could make a conscious choice of self-discipline and ethic of restraint (The Dalai Lama, 2004). Teachers should accept the fact that the moment of sorrow does not diminish the cause of the afflictive emotion but contributes to the negative thoughts of an individual and may have negative effects upon his/her inner calm. For example, expressing their indignation with the current policies of the NCLB act, teachers cannot change the current state of affairs, but these negative thoughts can be destructive for their inner peace. The same goes for the teachers’ attitudes towards the standardized testing and curriculum which cannot change the current legislation but can lead to negative emotions in educators and following negative impact upon students.

According to the ethic of virtue, by putting virtue at the hearts of their daily lives, teachers would be able to make their decisions spontaneously ethical. For this reason, educators are recommended to habituate themselves to the antidotes of afflictive emotions to prevent the emergence of the afflictive from the very beginning. Thus, it is advisable to give get accustomed to patience as an antidote to anger, humility as an antidote of pride, contentment instead of greed, perseverance instead of indolence, and spirituality as opposed to helplessness and despair (The Dalai Lama, 2004). A similar assumption can be found in Aristotle’s second book of Nicomachean Ethics in which the philosopher admits that moral virtue is a result of habit and constant training (Aristotle, 1998). Though people are prepared to receive virtues by their nature, they can be made perfect only through constant training and habituation.

Applying the ethic of compassion and restraint to the case of contemporary teachers working under the conditions of the NCLB act, it can be stated that education leaders should not concentrate on the disadvantages of this legislation because it may do harm to their inner peace and hurt the learners’ outcomes. Not wasting their time and efforts on ineffective modes of opposing the current law, teachers should focus on the primary objective of all representatives of their noble profession and their universal responsibility before the growing generation and community in general. Habituation to using antidotes to afflictive emotions and putting the virtue to the hearts of their daily activities, teachers would be able to get accustomed to practicing ethics of restraint and compassion which are crucial for making ethical professional decisions and focusing on the actual needs of students instead of the objective of improving their performance in the standardized tests.

The solution offered for the moral dilemma

Analyzing the moral dilemma faced by teachers who need to prepare their students for the standardized tests because the budget of their school district depends upon the scores shown by students and comply with the needs of individual learners at the same time, it can be stated that fostering professional ethics and practice of the ethics of restraint and compassion would be the most appropriate solution for this problem.

Acknowledging the fact that NCLB legislation may have certain disadvantages, teachers should not waste their energy on afflictive emotions which may be damaging to their inner peace and hurt the effectiveness of the learning process and the learners’ outcomes. Even though certain unethical decisions, such as excluding underachieving students for improving the scores of the standardized tests, can seem effective their effects would be destructive. In other words, compromising the interests of certain categories of students for the good of the majority, teachers violate their professional ethics and damage their inner peace of mind at the same time. Certainly, educators may and should take action for changing the existing situation and draw the legislators’ attention to particular inconsistencies in the current legislation. However, regarding the actual educational process, the process of decision-making should be guided by virtues of love, compassion, and tolerance. Instead of going into extremes of opposing to the NCLB and not preparing students for the standardized tests or focusing on this preparation exclusively would be unwise. As it was recommended by Aristotle, an individual should find the golden mean between the two vices which would be the most effective solution beneficial for both students and the school district in general (Aristotle, 1998).

Though finding the golden mean between the vices and balancing the conflicting interests of different groups is a very complicated task, education leaders should use self-discipline, the ethic of restraint, and constant training to control their emotions and set proper priorities to make ethical decisions. Practicing empathy to better understand the students’ feelings and factors causing their suffering, teachers would be able not only to make their strategies more ethical but also to improve their wellbeing and inner peace (The Dalai Lama, 2004). Educators must understand that they should control not only their behavior but even their thoughts trying to avoid any negative thinking. The practical recommendation for teachers is to habituate themselves to the antidotes to afflictive thoughts. Particularly, giving preference to patience, humility, and spirituality, teachers would be able to strengthen their virtues and prevent negative thoughts before their very appearance. Facing the truth, it should be noted that a wide array of difficulties can arise in designing the teaching process following the requirements of the NCLB and professional ethics. However, understanding their universal responsibility and potential impact upon the students’ minds and souls, educators should not compromise their professional ethics.

In general, by making empathy their supreme emotion and practicing an ethic of compassion and restraint, teachers can find a solution to the moral dilemma caused by the policies of NCLB.


Analyzing the moral dilemma caused by certain inconsistencies in NCLB legislation, including the principle of funding schools according to the student’s scores in the standardized tests, it can be stated that strengthening their moral ethics would be the most appropriate solution for teachers. Combining the moral framework developed by Aristotle, the Dalai Lama Foundation, and Martha Nussbaum, it can be concluded that education leaders should look for the golden mean between the vices, make empathy their supreme emotion, and practice ethics of compassion and restraint to improve the students’ outcomes and foster their inner peace.

Reference List

Aristotle, (1998). The Nicomachean ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nussbaum, M. (2002). For love of country? Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

The Dalai Lama (2004). Ethics for the new millennium. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.