The Educators’ Code of Ethics

What you need to know about this code of conduct

As with many professions requiring a state license, the teaching profession—like law and medicine—is governed by a code of ethics. This code outlines standards of personal and professional conduct that you, a member of the profession, must uphold. Violating a standard can have serious consequences for your teaching certificate. (This, too, is similar to law and medicine.)

Unfortunately, the Educators’ Code of Ethics is not well-covered in many educator preparation programs. Also unfortunate: The code originally voted upon and ratified by the majority of certified Texas educators was amended by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) in 2010 without an educator vote. As a result, we want to make you aware of these important standards. In this case, what you don’t know can certainly hurt you.

The code is divided into three categories: Practices & Performance, Conduct Toward Colleagues and Conduct Toward Students. Learn more about the Educators’ Code of Ethics in the Texas Administrative Code.

This category applies to the educator’s personal professional behavior. The rules are broken up into 13 individual standards. Among other things, the standards significantly prohibit:
  • Making false statements about school district policies and rules. 
  • Using district resources for personal profit. 
  • Accepting gifts or favors that could impair professional judgment.
  • Falsifying records or making someone else do so.
  • Making threats of violence.
  • Misrepresenting past criminal or employment or certification history.
  • Illegal use or abuse of drugs, including drugs for which the educator has a prescription.
  • Consumption of alcohol on school property or at school events when students are present.
Perhaps the broadest basis for disciplining an educator is Standard 1.10: “The educator shall be of good moral character and be worthy to instruct or supervise the youth of this state.” This standard is defined by SBEC as “[t]he virtues of a person as evidenced by patterns of personal, academic, and occupational behaviors that, in the judgment of the State Board for Educator Certification, indicate honesty, accountability, trustworthiness, reliability and integrity.”
Clearly this standard gives SBEC a great deal of discretion to address educator conduct the regulations do not otherwise specifically prohibit.
This category applies to the educator’s conduct toward other educators. It is broken up into seven individual standards. Among other things, the standards prohibit:
  • Revealing confidential health or personnel information concerning colleagues, absent a lawful purpose.
  • Knowingly making false statements about a colleague or the school system.
  • Failure to adhere to written local board policies and state and federal laws governing the hiring, evaluation and dismissal of personnel.
  • Interfering with a colleague’s exercise of political, professional or citizenship’s rights and responsibilities.
  • Discrimination against or coercion of a colleague on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, age, gender, disability, family status or sexual orientation.
  • Using coercive means or promise of special treatment in order to influence professional decision or colleagues.
  • Retaliation against any individual who has filed a complaint with SBEC.
Not every rule in this section is a prohibition. A rule also requires that an educator adhere to local policy, state and federal law in hiring, evaluation and dismissal of personnel.

Although these rules apply more to administrators with supervisory authority than to beginning educators, the rules are important for everyone to know.

For example: A teacher tells her friend about an evaluation she is unhappy with. Later, in the teacher’s lounge, the friend tells other teachers about the evaluation. This would violate the prohibition on disclosing confidential personnel information—even if the comments were supportive.

It is also worth noting that the Educators’ Code of Ethics is one of the few places in which the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, whether against colleagues or students.
The third section governs the educator’s conduct toward students. It is probably no surprise that educators run afoul of the code most regularly in this area. This category is also the most strictly interpreted and enforced by SBEC. So, it is critically important that educators know the expectations set out in the nine standards.

SBEC amended this portion of the code in 2010 to add standards related to interacting with students via newer technologies.

Here, the code prohibits:
  • Revealing confidential information concerning students, absent a lawful purpose.
  • Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly treating a student or a minor in a manner that adversely affects or endangers the learning, physical health, mental health or safety of the student or minor.
  • Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly misrepresenting facts regarding a student.
  • Excluding a student from participation in a program, denying benefits to a student or granting an advantage to a student on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, national origin, religion, family status or sexual orientation.
  • Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly engaging in physical mistreatment, neglect or abuse of a student or minor.
  • Soliciting or engaging in sexual conduct or a romantic relationship with a student or minor.
  • Furnishing alcohol or illegal/unauthorized drugs to any person under 21 years of age, unless the educator is a parent or guardian of that child, or knowingly allowing any person under 21 years of age, unless the educator is a parent or guardian of that child, to consume alcohol or illegal/unauthorized drugs in the presence of the educator.
Again here, not all the standards are prohibitions. There are also required actions:
  • Maintaining appropriate professional educator-student relationships and boundaries based on a reasonably prudent educator standard.
  • Refraining from inappropriate communication with a student or minor, including but not limited to, electronic communications via cell phone, text messaging, email, instant messaging, blogging or other social network communication. 
Factors that may be considered in assessing whether the communication is inappropriate include but are not limited to:
  • The nature purpose, timing and amount of the communication;
  • The subject matter of the communication;
  • Whether the communication was made openly or the educator attempted to conceal the communication;
  • Whether the communication could be reasonably interpreted as soliciting sexual contact or a romantic relationship;
  • Whether the communication was sexually explicit; and
  • Whether the communication involved discussion(s) of the physical or sexual attractiveness or the sexual history, activities, preferences, or fantasies of either the educator or student.
SBEC is sensitive to the number of cases in which educators have been found guilty of engaging in sexual or romantic relationships with students or ex-students. SBEC has reacted to the fact that these relationships are usually both secret and deniable by both educator and student by looking at conduct that infers the possibility that either an educator is engaging in a sexual relationship or a relationship is leading down that path.

Educators need to know that flirting with a student, even if there is no actual physical contact, can lead to sanctions and a loss of the educator’s career because it is viewed as potentially preparing or “grooming” a student for an inappropriate relationship.

This puts pressure on educators—particularly new educators who might not be that much older than their students—to maintain an appropriate professional relationship with their students at all times. Flirting, commenting on physical appearance (especially in a suggestive way) or even paying an inordinate amount of attention to a particular student can send up red flags and force educators to defend themselves.

Social media

Texting, Facebook and new forums for communication such as SnapChat have increased opportunities for personal, private communication between educators and students. In some situations, questions arise as to whether this private communication is evidence of an inappropriate relationship between an educator and student.

When this communication becomes the focus of a TEA investigation, investigators often find themselves stymied because both teacher and student have deleted texts or messages. All that remains are records indicating the number of messages and the time they were sent.

Because the actual substance of the messages is often unavailable, SBEC has modified the rules. The subject matter of a communication remains important, but now, the board can also determine that communications were inappropriate based only on the timing or number of messages:
  • SBEC considers it more likely that messages sent in the evening or late at night are inappropriate.
  • It is also assumed that subject matter was more likely inappropriate if there are many messages as that increases the likelihood that the communications were personal rather than academic.
The bottom line: Be mindful of appearances when messaging students. It is possible that those chats are going to look suspicious to an investigator.       

The legal information provided on this website is for general purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for individual legal advice or the provision of legal services. Accessing this information does not create an attorney-client relationship. Individual legal situations vary greatly and readers should consult directly with an attorney. Eligible ATPE members should contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department using our online contact form