Skip to content

Blog post

Between a hard place and a hard place: A study of ethical dilemmas experienced by student teachers while on practicum

Maree Davies Paul Heyward

Drawing attention to the types of ethical challenges faced by experienced teachers has been an internationally common teaching approach in pre-service teacher education when exploring the ethical dimensions of teachers’ work. Furthermore, there is a body of research looking at ethical dilemmas experienced by teachers in schools that are commonly drawn on by initial teacher educators to support this learning. However, little research has been conducted into the actual ethical dilemmas experienced by pre-service teachers (PSTs). Given the agreed importance of developing an ethical disposition during the crucial formative initial teacher education experience (Campbell, 2001), it is perhaps surprising that research has largely ignored the ethical dilemmas of pre-service teachers in this way.

‘The ethical dilemmas presented in initial teacher education should be the dilemmas faced by pre-service teachers, reflecting their nuanced experiences, rather than those of experienced teachers.’

In our new article published in the British Educational Research Journal, ‘Between a hard place and a hard place: A study of ethical dilemmas experienced by student teachers while on practicum’ (Davies & Heyward, 2019), we attempt to address this gap in the research by revealing the types of ethical dilemmas commonly identified by 100 student teachers during their experiences of practicum (practical time in schools) in New Zealand. We conclude that ethical dilemmas presented in initial teacher education should be dilemmas faced by PSTs, and not experienced teachers, to acknowledge the nuanced experiences of PSTs.

An example of a dilemma identified by the PSTs that represents this nuanced experience involved the PSTs’ personal pedagogical beliefs versus the mentor teacher whose responsibility the class normally is (associate teacher), and who is mentoring the PST/school pedagogical practice. The PSTs spoke of the the inherent power imbalance in the relationship between the associate teacher and the pre-service teacher. Even when an associate teacher allowed opportunities for the PSTs to try out their own pedagogical ideas in the classroom, the PSTs described feeling compelled to conform to their associate’s approach.

Our study also revealed how important it is that PSTs seek to explore the roots of dilemmas within their specific contexts, placing critical thinking at the forefront. While we acknowledge that dilemmas are often highly emotional, when PST’s were able to view both sides of the dilemma with evidence-based logic and to be cognisant of possible biases within their thinking such as confirmation bias (looking for evidence that confirms an existing strongly held belief), a satisfying and professional outcome was most likely. We maintain that dilemmas for PSTs should be emancipating rather than debilitating and we also uphold the importance of PSTs having the confidence to explore the likely historical, political and social influences on their thinking.

An example of PSTs considering why they might have a bias towards one side or another of a particular dilemma due to historical and contextual reasons was given by the number of male students who identified their fear of accusations of misconduct versus meeting the needs of children. The pre-service male teachers discussed how they found themselves in circumstances in which they needed to balance assisting a child in difficulty with the possible repercussions of their good intentions being misinterpreted as possible abuse or misconduct.

The media appear to continually draw attention to accusations of child abuse in schools, even before the accused has a had chance to defend themselves in court. Even when the charges are dropped or successfully defended, the stigma of abuse remains. With such heightened media awareness of issues of abuse in schools, it is not at all surprising that student teachers should be sensitive to these types of dilemmas while on practicum.

We contend that, by laying bare the critical incidents that teachers are faced with in their careers (but would often rather conceal), the critical incidents that emerge are made public in a way that allows educational professionals to potentially deal more successfully with their own ethical challenges. We believe that encouraging pre-service students to engage with language that incorporates a moral vocabulary will help to normalise the grappling with one’s moral convictions as a student teacher. We concur with Sockett and LePage’s (2002) assertion that moral language is, in general, missing from classrooms, and that PSTs will therefore develop a principled disposition rather than a problem-solving attitude to ensuing ethical dilemmas (Colnerud, 1997; Pope et al., 2009; Ehrich et al., 2011).

This blog post is based on the article ‘Between a hard place and a hard place: A study of ethical dilemmas experienced by student teachers while on practicum’ by Maree Davies and Paul Heyward, which is published in the British Educational Research Journal and is free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


Campbell, E. (2001). Let right be done: Trying to put ethical standards into practice. Journal of Educational Policy, 16(5), 395–411.

Davies, M. J., & Heyward, P. (2019). Between a hard place and a hard place: A study of ethical dilemmas experienced by student teachers while on practicum. British Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication.

Ehrich, L. C., Kimber, M., Millwater, J. & Cranston, N. (2011). Ethical dilemmas: A model to understand teacher practice. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 17(2), 173–185.

Pope, N., Green, S. K., Johnson, R. L., & Mitchell, M. (2009). Examining teacher ethical dilemmas in classroom assessment. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(5), 778–782.

Sockett, H., & LePage, P. (2002). The missing language of the classroom. Teaching and Teacher Education, 18, 159–171.