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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.

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