Skip to main content

Should Law Teachers Teach Ethics?

There is disagreement in the academy about whether or not we should be teaching ethics in our classrooms. The truth is that ethics are in our classrooms--whether we explicitly discuss them or not. As one scholar notes:

Teaching is always, first and foremost, a social encounter. But when human beings power up their ethical grids--both teachers and students--they do so with such quickness and immediacy that they are usually unaware of having done it at all.[1]

The bottom line is that we are constantly making snap judgments about our students, and they are making those same judgments about us. Students quickly make judgments about whether we will treat them fairly and with respect, or not. Students may not realize they are making these ethical judgments, but all students judge us on whether we are fair, concerned, honest, willing to see them as distinct individuals—and these judgments have a profound impact on students’ and teachers’ classroom experiences and students' level of engagement.

In his chapter on Ethical Pedagogy, Marshall Gregory lists just a few of the questions students ask themselves that are ethically-related:

·         Is my teacher really interested in what I am saying?
·         Is my teacher really interested in what he or she is saying?
·         Is my teacher energetic and committed or lazy and inattentive?
·         Does my teacher understand and care about my anxieties in this class?
·         Is my teacher fair and generous or prejudiced and mean-spirited?
·         Is my teacher going to judge me with sensitivity, charity, and fairness, or superficially, uncharitably, and contemptuously?
·         Is my teacher showing proper respect to me as a person?[2]

Even if we do not want to have direct conversations with our students about ethics, it is critically important to remember that we are modeling ethics through our interactions with our students. The answers to the questions above can have a profound impact on how students feel they need to act in their professional relationships.

Numerous factors inform our students in making these judgements — from non-verbal cues like our facial expressions and our eye contact to our tone of voice, the way we interrupt our students, and the manner of our pauses. Moreover, by the time law students enter our classrooms, they have been greatly impacted by those ethical experiences they’ve had earlier in their educations; those previous interactions can have a profound impact on how students view us. While our teaching expertise in our discipline and our delivery of material are important, the

most salient aspect of classroom experience is the ethical nature—what students would call the ‘personal’ nature—of their social relationship with the teacher as an ethical agent. Teachers who fail to understand the significant of this point from their students’ point of view are not full participants even in their own classrooms because they are blind to the single most influence dynamic that sets students up for learning or not learning.[3]

Gregory identifies four ethical commitments that must be central to effective teaching: fairness, respect, charity, and civility.

1.      Fairness: Students must believe that teachers are evaluating their work in a fair manner, using standardized measures of evaluation. For law instructors, this might mean having a rubric for assignments or exams and giving feedback on assignments in such a way that is consistent with those rubrics.
2.      Respect: Respect, in its most basic portrayal, is treating other humans with dignity. This can mean overcoming your own bad day to treat students kindly--and not matching even the most rude student's behavior. We have a professional obligation to treat all our students with respect--even when they may not treat us that way.
3.      Charity: “Charity is the tolerance and forgiveness that heals our gaps in performance and leaves us free (rather than bound in guilt) to do better on another day.”[4] In the law school environment, this might mean giving students a pass on answering one day or taking it easy on a student who seems to be having an off day. Obviously, we have an obligation to teach students professional responsibility, but at some point in their professional lives, they will be the ones in the position to grant tolerance. Let’s model that behavior.
4.      Civility: According to Gregory, there are two aspects of civility. The first means not presuming innate superiority over others. The second involves acting in a courteous, friendly manner. This is one where law teachers may struggle, presumably because we may be superior because of our educational training and professional experience. This does not, however, make us superior human beings—and having such a manner conveys condescension and often contempt. This is a particularly important message to model to our students; as attorneys, they will be the ones in a position of power, and they must not treat their clients with superiority.

None of these ethical qualities require that teachers be entertaining or put on a show for our students (note how often enthusiasm, niceness, and humor come up in evaluations)—even if you’re more reserved or have a more serious temperament, if you observe these four ethical commitments, your students will likely view you favorably.When students reflect back on their classes, these ethical qualities are what they tend to remember about their teachers.


[1] Marshall Gregory, Teaching Excellence in Higher Education 6 (Melissa Valiska Gregory ed., 2013).

[2] Id. at 81.

[3] Id. at 83.


[4] Id. at 86-87.

Popular posts from this blog

Using Backward Design in Course Development

There are different methods instructors use to design their courses. In his book Creating Significant Learning Experiences, L. Dee Fink identifies three major approaches:
In the first approach, the instructor picks out some number of major topics within their course subject matter, then preps lectures for each topic. Then he or she adds in a final exam and sometimes a midterm, and the course is ready to go.  Fink notes that this approach is less time-consuming, but "pays little or no attention to the quality and quantity of student learning." [1] He explains that this type of learning "has a relatively short half-life and, more significantly, does not meet the educational needs of students and society today." [2]In the second approach, instructors still designs their course around major topics, but rather than focusing solely on lectures, he or she incorporates a variety of active learning opportunities. This approach is more engaging for students, but it still does…

Four Aspects of Effectual Teaching (& Why Instructional Design Is the One Missing In Many Law Courses)

There are four general components of teaching, which all must come together for a teacher to be successful:
Knowledge of the Subject Matter: Most instructors in higher education have this covered. The largest potential hurdle of this aspect of teaching is perhaps remembering to view the material from the perspective of the beginner learner, as opposed to from the teacher's own advanced learner status. In my first year of teaching, I found this to be an issue, as I jumped over steps that were so obvious to me that I didn't even notice them anymore. It was only by students asking questions that illustrated I was missing an important step in their comprehension and by watching the legal writing professor I co-taught with that I began to break down my material into pieces that were more digestible for my students.

Interaction with Students: Instructor-student interaction can take a myriad of forms. As L. Dee Fink writes in Creating Significant Learning Experiences,

"Teacher-stud…

Helping Students Learn to Learn

One aspect of learning that I see students struggle with the most is applying the skills they have learned to new scenarios or situations. It is critical that students are equipped with the ability to continue to advance in their profession and in their knowledge after they have left our courses and law school altogether. This is true for two reasons. First, it's not possible for students to learn everything there is to know about the law--or even one topic within the law--during the course of law school. There's simply too much content to learn; the best we can hope for is to identify the fundamental knowledge for our subject areas and do our best to make sure our students know that material. Second, even if they could learn everything, they would have to be able to continue to learn as new areas of law emerge and preexisting areas of law evolve.

In his book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, L. Dee Fink identifies three different meanings for "learning how to l…

Students Forget Most of What We Teach (And What To Do About That)

Studies show that humans forget most of what they learn. But, students acquire new knowledge better when we keep a couple of things in mind:

1)  Students learn better when they have a clear understanding of why they are being expected to learn new tasks and information. As such, it is critical that we explain to students why we are teaching what we’re teaching. Tying curriculum back to practical application can help students understand the importance of what they are learning. 

For those of us teaching legal research, this is vitally important. We have to tell students why being strong researchers is central to their ability to be efficient lawyers—that they will be spending approximately 35% of their time conducting legal research in their first few years of practice. We have to explain to them that research is an analytical skill that they must practice in context so they can learn to do this critical lawyering skill effectively. It’s also important that we explain the importance of t…

The “Burden” of Being An Excellent (Legal Research) Teacher

The challenge of being an excellent teacher stems from the necessity of having to be an expert in two areas, one’s subject specialty and the craft of educating. For law librarians who instruct, this means first being an expert in using constantly-evolving legal research databases, not to mention those newly developed resources that we must quickly learn to use, and in the analytical process inherent to legal research. Staying fully abreast of changes to the huge volume of legal materials could alone be a full-time job. When combined with efficiently and effectively serving our patrons, engaging in collection development, and doing any of the other dozens of tasks that librarians undertake on a daily basis, it becomes easy to see why finding the time to hone our craft as teachers would be difficult. Despite these challenges, it's critical that we make time to do so.
As one scholar explains, Really good teachers who want to preserve their skills and get better over time have to go int…