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Teacher professional boundaries: online & offline

posted on 21.02.2017, 00:00 by Morris, Zoe Anna
The 21st century has emerged as an era of accountability and standardisation for the teaching profession (Mikulec & Miller, 2012). The current research is comprised of 4 interrelated empirical studies which measure and explore individual differences in perceptions of teacher-student boundaries in the secondary school context from an ethical perspective. This research is timely given it has been 8 years since the Teacher Code of Conduct was introduced in Victoria (The Institute, 2008). While the relationship between teachers and their students has been recognised as a powerful contributor to learning, engagement, and development, the professional limitations of teacher-student interactions have been relatively unexplored. Further, technological advances in the last decade have created new environments that potentially expose teachers to new possibilities and vulnerabilities such as Social Networking Sites (SNS). Within a contingency framework for ethical decision-making (Ferrell & Gresham, 1985) the current research employs a mixed-methods approach and a cross-sectional design. Participants were preservice secondary teachers (N = 288) enrolled at a Victorian university and early career secondary teachers (N = 227) registered in Victoria. All participants completed a questionnaire during class time (preservice) or online (early career) which took approximately 40 minutes. In the absence of a measure of attitudes towards teacher-student interactions and behaviours, the Professional Interactions and Behaviours Scale (PIBS) was developed and validated in Study A. Based upon the Victorian Teacher Code of Conduct, (The Institute, 2008), 5 types of teacher-student interactions were educed from the items; emotional support, physical support, teacher disclosure, connectivity, and befriending. Although average endorsement was modest, early career teachers reported higher endorsement of teacher disclosure and preservice teachers provided greater approval of connectivity and befriending. An opportune international collaboration enabled further comparisons with preservice secondary teachers in Norway (N = 227), who demonstrated greater endorsement of the provision of physical support to students than Victorian preservice teachers. Differences in reported ethical training provided during teacher education are also noted and considered as a context for the development of attitudes toward professional behaviour. Utilising a person-centred approach, Study B explored profiles of trait-like characteristics among the Victorian preservice teachers through cluster analysis. This study proposed that individual differences in personality (Mc Crae & Costa, 2003) and attachment style as defined by Bartholomew (1990) may relate to other personal characteristics such as the need for popularity, domains of contingent self-worth and perceptions of professional behaviour as measured by the PIBS. Preservice teachers described as “responsive resilient” in personality were more likely than “curious & sensitive ambiverts” to endorse teacher provision of emotional support to students. Further, securely attached individuals were more likely to endorse the provision of physical support than dismissive individuals. Study C utilised a mixed-methods approach to explore profiles of teacher-student interactions styles in early career secondary teachers and their responses to ethical dilemmas relating to teacher-student boundaries. Four profiles emerged; “sparing investors”, “reserved professionals”, “relational enthusiasts”, and “supportive ambitious” and in terms of interpersonal goals, professional expectancies and values, burnout, career satisfaction and career aspirations. Few quantitative differences were observed between profiles in terms of ethical decision-making, yet thematic analysis highlighted contextual considerations and protective behaviours as key considerations of early career teachers. Study D explored current and prospective social networking behaviour and found both preservice and early career teachers were highly engaged with SNS, with preservice teachers reporting greater usage. Almost half of participants in both the preservice and early career samples reported negative experiences as a result of online social networking such as bullying or workplace issues. In relation to connecting with students, early career teachers were more likely to accept a friend request from a past student than preservice teachers. Taken together, these studies explore individual differences in teacher-student boundaries as they are perceived by preservice and early career teachers in Victoria. The PIBS is presented as a valid contemporary measure of perceptions towards teacher-student interactions, and differences of experience and culture considered. Implications of the findings are considered in relation to teacher selection processes, the ethics curriculum in teacher education, and regulation of the teaching profession in Australia.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Helen M.G Watt

Additional supervisor 1

Paul W Richardson

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Education