Embracing the Gray: An Intentional Focus on Professional Decision-Making

Anne Marie Fenton, GaPSC

Education is a complex profession with educators having to make multiple decisions in their daily work. Competing tensions and highly nuanced variables inherent in this work can add to the vulnerabilities and risks educators must navigate, especially when it comes to professional decision-making.

Educators may choose to leave the profession or in some cases must leave the profession due to these complexities and a lack of understanding in how to mitigate these risks and to avoid missteps. Not only can many, if not most, of these missteps be avoided, but also professional relationships with students, colleagues, and other members of the school community can be enhanced by authentic dialogue about these risks, using a common language as a guide.

The education profession did not have this common language until 2015, when the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC), after convening a diverse and representative group of practitioners from across the nation, adopted the profession’s first Model Code of Ethics for Education (MCEE). The MCEE “facilitates a broad understanding of what constitutes the ethical best practice and helps ensure educators are equipped with a framework for ethical decision-making” (NASDTEC, p.1, 2017). In short, it was developed by the profession for the profession.

So what is the difference between a code of conduct and a code of ethics?









Think of a code of conduct like a stop sign. Drivers know what that sign means. It does not mean slow down, roll through, or ignore. It means stop. This is a rule or policy. Codes of conduct, which most states have, are just that – regulatory policies on which decisions are made regarding licensure/certification, employment, etc.  Georgia’s Code of Ethics for Educators addresses licensed educator conduct.











A code of ethics is more like a yellow caution sign. Think of a curvy road warning, which does not provide an explicit command, but gives a general warning to drive with caution. Certain variables and competing tensions determine a driver’s action, which could depend on the weather, condition of the road or tires, the need to be somewhere quickly, etc.  A code of ethics is intended to guide, yet is not designed to state explicitly right from wrong. Professional ethics are common standards that guide the professional decision- making of all practitioners within the profession.



Both are important. Pre-service educators and in-service educators not only need to know their own state’s code of conduct regarding what behavior can lead to sanctions on a certificate/license, but also need an understanding of ethical principles that provide guidance and a common language to avoid the slippery slope in the “gray” areas in situations where there is often no clear delineation between what is right or wrong. It is in the “gray” that the risks are highest.

So how can one use the common language the MCEE provides to embrace the “gray” and guide conversations about the day-to-day realities of the practicing educator?

The MCEE “establishes principles for ethical best practice, mindfulness, self-reflection, and decision-making, setting the groundwork for self-regulation and self-accountability by:

  • clarifying to current and future educators, and to those they serve, the nature of the ethical responsibilities held in common by all educators;
  • establishing principles that define ethical behavior and ethical best practice;
  • serving as an ethical guide designed to assist educators in constructing the best course of action;
  • serving as a basis for educator learning, accountability, and remediation; and
  • helping mitigate the risks and vulnerabilities inherent to the profession” (NASDTEC, p. 7, 2015).

The MCEE is divided into five principles, each with individual standards:

  1. Responsibility to the Profession
  2. Responsibility for Professional Competence
  3. Responsibility to Students
  4. Responsibility to the School Community
  5. Responsible and Ethical Use of Technology

Appropriate use of social media as an example:

An intentional focus on the risks and competing tensions educators face regarding the use of technology is an emerging need in today’s schools. Dr. Paul Shaw, the Ethics Division Director with the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, estimates approximately 97% of complaints regarding relationships with students involve some type of social media.

Principle V of the MCEE provides guidance regarding the responsible and ethical use of technology from which authentic conversations can result in ethical understanding to help guide the decisions educators make.  It reads, “Responsible and Ethical Use of Technology: The professional educator considers the impact of consuming, creating, distributing and communication information through all technologies. The ethical educator is vigilant to ensure appropriate boundaries of time, place and role are maintained with using electronic communication.”

In digging deeper into this principle, MCEE, Principle V: Standard A7, reads, “Exercising prudence in maintaining separate and professional virtual profiles, keeping personal and professional lives distinct.”

Consider the power of having targeted discussions in your context and across contexts about what this specific standard, which is only one of many, looks like or could look like in practice. Consider the potential of examining real-world ethical scenarios educators have faced or could face, interjecting different contextual variables, exploring potential consequences given those varying contexts, diving into the framework of the MCEE for guidance, and, finally, discussing what might be appropriate and inappropriate courses of action to consider, all of which helps ensure educators are better equipped to navigate and even avoid risks. Doing so can also lead to a common understanding of best practices in a variety of contextual situations.

For support in using the MCEE, the National Council for the Advancement of Educator Ethics (NCAEE) houses resources on using the MCEE here: https://www.nasdtec.net/page/NCAEE_Landing

Available at this site, recent webinar and webcast topics include:

  • “Focusing on Ethics: Smartphones in the Classroom”
  • “Blurred Lines: Protecting Educators from Social Media Mishaps”
  • “An Intentional Focus on Mitigating Risks,” featuring the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) and the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Educators (AACTE)
  • “Model Code of Ethics for Educators: An Overview”

The MCEE, including a printable brochure, is available here: https://www.nasdtec.net/page/MCEE_Doc

Leaders can embrace the “gray” by taking an intentional approach not only in regulatory enforcement, but also in ethics education, outreach, and prevention, using the MCEE as a guide. Doing so equips educators to better mitigate risks and informs professional decision-making, ultimately leading to more professional and safer learning environments.


National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. (2017). Overview: Model Code of Ethics for Educators. Retrieved from https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.nasdtec.net/resource/collection/7C8FAAA3-65CF-4B6E-B0B4-801DDA91A35F/FRONT_MCEE_Brochure_7.7.17_2.pdf

National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. (2017). MCEE: National Press Club PowerPoint. Retrieved from https://www.nasdtec.net/page/MCEE_DOCS

Anne Marie Fenton

Director, Rules Management and Educator Assessment

Georgia Professional Standards Commission

Chair, National Council for the Advancement of Educator Ethics (NCAEE)