A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 31 2010

The Ethical Quandary of Composition Notebooks

For as far back as I can remember being a newspaper-reader, Randy Cohen’s “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times has been a favorite weekly read. In it, Mr. Cohen provides pointed, and sometimes-snarky, ethical advice to reader-provided moral problems.  I enjoy reading “The Ethicist.” Though I don’t think his moral philosophy is necessarily superior to anyone else’s.  But the succinct way in which he provides worthy advice for those without guidance always impresses me. It’s also, as I said, fun to read.  I will forever remember that one time, almost 5 years ago, when he skillfully responded to one of my email queries, about the ethics of selling successful college application essays (according to him, it’s generally something to be wary about, although there are some exceptions).

As a teacher, one’s life is fraught with moral quandaries. One of the expectations that students have of teachers is that we be consistent.  Favoritism is the killer of teacher support. Translated into something more philosophical, teachers need to respect rules of equity.  But what’s fair?  Is it fair to force students who are 1 second tardy to fill out tardy reflection forms? Is it fair to give out raffle tickets to the first two  volunteers but not the third? Is it fair to excuse MA–who works, by the way, in a kitchen at a DC restaurant from 4pm to 1am, Monday to Sunday–from homework strictly because of his strenuous work schedule?  If so, how about a student who works 8 hours each day? There is much gray area here.

Recently, I’ve come across a classroom situation in which I am questioning both my ethical and legal judgments. Here are the facts:

  • This semester, I am requiring that all students purchase a composition notebook of some form or another.
  • This notebook will be used solely for the purpose of writing (in-class Do Nows and out-of-class homework assignments).
  • Today was the day by which students needed to have their notebooks.
  • Many didn’t have them.
  • Having anticipated this situation, however, I had already acquired, at no cost, a sizable number of extra notebooks from the English department.
  • I sold these notebooks, at $1 a pop, to students who didn’t have them.
  • Many snatched them up.

My question(s): is it ethical for me to charge students money for these composition notebooks, even if I received them for free? Is it even legal for me to sell–theoretically, at a profit, since I acquired them at no cost–these notebooks?

I thought carefully about putting a price on these notebooks. Want of money certainly did not drive my decision. Rather, my awareness of moral hazard did: if students knew that they could receive free notebooks from me, even the ones who were responsible enough to acquire their own notebooks might have done otherwise.  Plus, the issue of fairness emerges when I do not charge any money for the notebooks: is it fair that DM, who has been lazy, gets a free notebook while AV, who is conscientious, pays out of her own pocket to acquire one?  In that situation, the “reward” goes to the wrong person. Finally, putting a price on a notebook, even if it costs me nothing, teaches students that “money doesn’t grow on trees” and about personal responsibility.  For these reasons, I feel justified in the way I acted.

Then again, I’m not sure. But what do you think? Ethically speaking? Legally? Realistically? Help a teacher out.

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7 Responses

  1. Deanna

    I think its both legal and reasonable to sell these notebooks to students. I will be doing the same this coming Fall. I spent $.10 on each of mine, and I’ve seen many students not come with materials from the store. They have the option and then deadline day they’ll most likely end up paying a $1.00 for one. Most students had discussed that it’s just easier to buy one from the teacher than purchase at a store, and they usually don’t mind. I let them know that any money made on school supplies goes to a fund. That fund then is used for incentives, or breakfasts, or birthday celebrations. So, they know where the money goes to, and in the end they are able to get their school supplies directly from the source for a sometimes lower price than the STAPLES.

    • The one key difference here is that in your situation you personally spent the money to buy the supplies. I’ve done that before and have had absolutely no qualms about selling these items at whatever price I thought reasonable. But what if, as in this case, I received these notebooks for free from my school? Does this change the circumstances significantly?

  2. That’s such a tough one. In my district we could get in big trouble for profiting off the kids like that, unless we’d registered that the money was going to the PTA/after school activity/etc. If you’re putting the money back into the classroom I think it makes it a bit better, but it’s still a fuzzy line.

    When I was a classroom teacher I’d “sell” school supplies, tooth brushes, winter hats and gloves, etc. to my kids, but they’d use their behavior tickets to buy those things instead of actual money. They’d have to save up for them- which meant suffering the consequences of not having a pencil/notebook/or winter hat when they originally needed it, but that encouraged them to earn tickets. Once I implemented this I actually saw a huge change in their behavior- it was as though they suddenly realized they had control in their lives beyond relying on their parents and they rose to the occasions. (I also charged for extra bathroom breaks and water breaks).

  3. I agree with others that as long as the money goes back into your classroom for something it’s probably ok. It is a difficult scenario, but if students are already willing to buy the notebooks for $1 I think it’s fine to tell them that you’re using the profits for classroom resources.

  4. Will

    What I did last year was set up a classroom fund, and make it visible — as much as you can without danger of it being stolen. I had a shoebox that I labelled “Classroom Fund” and stuffed money into it, making sure to empty out whenever I left my room, and whenever I made a new purchase for the room I emphasized that it came from the classroom fund. That way it was clear, as Rebecca mentioned above, that it goes right back into the classroom.

    I also charged for other things, like a quarter for every pencil I handed out, for the same reasons of avoiding unfairly rewarding the unprepared student. Partway through the year I created a Unprofessional Language tax, and each time anyone cursed they owed the class (holding them responsible to their peers and reinforcing that they owed “the class”, and not just me, was important) a quarter that went into the box. During the first week of this, I made sure to “accidentally” let a bad word slip and put it a quarter myself, to reinforce that everyone, including myself, had to play by the same rules. I don’t know how effective it was, but my students really enjoyed seeing me pull change out of my pocket. Go figure.

    • Thanks for the ideas.

      I charged 25 cents for pencils last year too. I justified the profit margin for the same reasons as mentioned but also because I bought many of them myself.

      It’s interesting how money greatly affects student behavior. It changes the structure of incentives in an immediate, tangible way.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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