Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Administration/Ethical Leadership

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What does it mean for leadership to be ethical?

Ethical leadership in education is essential in order for principals and teachers to run effective schools. Principals must show ethical judgment in dealing with teachers as well as students. Teachers hold the responsibility of ethical judgment, not just to ensure their well-being, but also to act as an example to their students. Students learn many of their ethical values at school. It is important to understand the difference between ethics and the law. “Ethics refers to a system or code of morality embraced by a particular person or group” (Cooper, Ryan p.395). The law is defined as “a system of rules that governs the general conduct of a particular community’s citizens” (Cooper, Ryan p.395). While it is true that many laws are grounded in ethics, not all laws are ethical. An example is the segregation of schools in America before the Civil Rights movement. To make a school work, principals and teachers must work within the law, but they must also create a trusting working relationship with each other and their students through ethics.


Principals have a double responsibility of being leaders to teachers and students. Here are some examples of how principals should treat their teachers:

  1. Contracts are not broken unilaterally.
  2. Anonymous information is not used to injure others.
  3. One does not personally profit from the position held.
  4. Confidential materials are kept confidential.
  5. One does not use school employees and school materials for personal matters.
  6. Expense accounts are not falsified.
  7. School leaders tell the truth, have integrity, and adhere to the ethics of the profession (Phi Delta Kappa ’98).

All of these rights are things that teachers should be able to count on from their principals. However, that power must never be abused, a principal should never act as a dictator. The relationship between students and principals has always been a stressed one. Children tend to dread being sent to the principal’s office, because they have that air of authority. Principals have difficult jobs in that they are often the people parents complain to first and they have to report to the superintendent. Suppose you were a principal and one of your students had a problem with the way a teacher said something in class, they report it to their parents, and before you know it the superintendent is calling you on the phone demanding the dismissal of that teacher. The teacher has not had any kind of due process in this case. There are two kinds of due process “substantive due process, which has to do with the issue itself” and “the other, procedural due process, which concerns the fairness of the process followed” (Ryan, Cooper p.405). The teacher should have been given an investigation into the case before the superintendent called you. Do you have the gumption to tell your superior “no”? In short, principals must “work with employees who are more articulate now than ever in voicing their needs, with parents who wish to become more involved in the day-to-day operations of the schools, with legislators who desire to provide more detailed direction to schools regarding specific programs or activities, and with school boards feeling the pressure from all of the groups, who desire to ‘keep control’ or ‘manage’ the schools” (Phi Delta Kappa ’98).


Teachers have a responsibility to act as an unbiased ethical example to their students. One way for teachers to start this is to decide on what ethical code of conduct to use in their classroom. This involves identifying several traits and attitudes they feel their students should follow, and then modeling these behaviors. One example is placing the student’s needs before their own, students seeing this may one day come to appreciate the effort (Killion, 2001). Teachers today are up against great ethical obstacles; a 2002 poll by the Josephson Institute of Ethics (a non-profit organization) discovered that 74% of 12,000 high school students admitted to cheating on a test the year before (Lehr, 2003). This being the case, it becomes imperative that teachers teach ethics to their students. Teachers are in a position of power, they have the authority to send students to the principal's office, decide grades, and have parent-teacher conferences. Everyone remembers at least one teacher in their grade school career they were afraid of. Teachers also must learn to regulate themselves so that they do not abuse their power. After all “stewardship asks leaders to acknowledge their own human faults and limitations rather than hiding behind their status and power” (Lashway, ‘97). The National Education Association (NEA) has a code of ethics that is used by the teaching profession as a whole. In it’s preamble it states that “The educator, believing in the worth and dignity of each human being, recognizes the supreme importance of the pursuit of truth, devotion to excellence, and the nurture of democratic principles” (Ryan, Cooper p.402). It then goes on to list two basic principles, a commitment to the student, and a commitment to the profession (Ryan, Cooper p.402) In a way, being a teacher is a bit like being a doctor, including the pledging of ethical treatment to those they serve. Ethical decisions will not always be cut and dry. “An ‘ethical dilemma’ is not a choice between right and wrong, but a choice between two rights” (Lashway, ’97). For example: Making a choice between two students who are both equally qualified to be on the debate team. Being a teacher requires the skills to make decisions that are not always easy. In addition to student responsibilities, teachers have their own code of conduct or responsibilities to adhere by which may include all or some of the following: instructing students by using guidelines of courses of study provided for the grade and subject matter taught, planning instructions in order to provide efficient teaching and learning, keeping accurate attendance on a daily basis, counseling students who have any problems or referring students to the principal if problems are severe, storing and using supplies and equipment properly, reporting any repairs to the office, attending faculty and staff meetings, sponsoring school or class clubs upon the request of the principal, using the cumulative records of each student to aid in understanding their progress to help them individually, evaluating the achievement of each student and recognizing development, understanding the school board’s policy, and fulfilling any duty assignments etc. These responsibilities should be performed every day during the school year by the teacher unless otherwise instructed. The student is always the top priority, and the teacher’s main responsibility (Teacher Responsibilities).

School Success[edit]

A successful school is one governed by ethics. It is not only a delicate balance of what is right and wrong, but of opinion and circumstance. Conveying this idea to employees, parents, and students has been the challenge of teachers and administrators since schools began. The “moral imperatives of the effective leader embody shared values, trust, honesty, fairness, equity, empowerment, human dignity, doing the right thing, rule of law, justice, and beneficence” (Phi Delta Kappa ’98). For any human being this list can be overwhelming, but for teachers and principals it is imperative that they live by it for the sake of each other and their students.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Ethics refers to a shared system of values. Tommy is failing your class, but you know his home life is also falling apart. The grade book says that you should fail him for this semester, but an alternative would be to give him an incomplete in the hopes that he will do better next semester. What is the ethical thing to do?
A. Ethics are laws so he should get the grade he earned.
B. Ethics are debatable so you should ask the principal.
C. Ethics are basic ideas of morality which are shared and should not exclude understanding, therefore give him the incomplete.
D. There is no right answer, both choices are fine.

C. Ethics are basic ideas of morality which are shared and should not exclude understanding, therefore give him the incomplete.

You really like Joey, he's always been a good kid. One day you come across him and some friends with a bag of what appears to be marijuana. You aren't sure, and Joey has never done anything wrong before. What do you do?
A. Ethics involve trust so you should let it go.
B. The law is a codification of rules that are enforced by a governing body, he needs to be reported to the principal.
C. Laws are subject to interpretation, and you decide to wait and observe Joey for further infringement.
D. Skip the principal and call 911.

B. The law is a codification of rules that are enforced by a governing body, he needs to be reported to the principal.

Substantive due process involves this issue at hand. If a teacher is accused of sexual harassment against a co-worker, and this issue comes to you as a principal what does substantive due process require you to do?
A. Suspend the teacher immediately pending an investigation into the charges.
B. Fire the teacher on the spot.
C. Collect all rumors of other offenses to use against the teacher.
D. Fire both the accused and the defendant to completely eliminate the problem.

A. Suspend the teacher immediately pending an investigation into the charges.

Procedural due process involves the fairness of how the process is followed. Let's follow the case from question #3, but this time consider how you would use procedural due process.
A. You should assume guilt until proven innocence since this is a school full of impressionable children, better to be safe than sorry.
B. You should call in all other teachers and get their stories before speaking with the accused, this will give you a better idea of what questions to ask.
C. You need to get the story of the accused and then decide whether or not there is reason for suspicion.
D. You should call in both teachers separately and get both sides of the story, then determine if further action is required.

D. You should call in both teachers separately and get both sides of the story, then determine if further action is required.

You are a principal in a school where it is obvious one particular teacher isn't liked among the staff. They keep leaving you anonymous tips of infractions she has committed. How do you handle the situation in relation to the rights of the teacher?
A. Confront the teacher with the information against her.
B. Start giving more in class observations on the said teacher.
C. Insist on receiving the names of the accusers before you do anything. The teacher has a right to protection against anonymous accusations.
D. Advise the school board to transfer her to another school where she may be more well received.

C. Insist on receiving the names of the accusers before you do anything. The teacher has a right to protection against anonymous accusations.

What is a responsibility of the teacher?
A. Keeping accurate attendance on a daily basis.
B. Reporting any repairs to the office.
C. Attending faculty and staff meetings.
D. All of the above.

D. All of the above.

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal a sample response.

Does the principal have a greater responsibility to the teacher or the students? Is there a way to balance the two? Explain.

A principal’s job is a very difficult one. When it comes to balancing between responsibility to student or teacher, I think it must be handled on a case by case basis. The principal should never, without consulting the teacher, undermine their authority; however, in extreme cases (abuse, sexual misconduct) it may be necessary. In most cases the teacher’s word should be accepted as law. Every situation will be different and should be handled as such. Never should a decision be made without evaluating all the facts and consequences. For example, if a principal does not agree with a teacher’s recommendation, should he or she act against the teacher? Would this lead to the teacher’s authority and ability to effectively control his or her classroom to come into question (by the students)? I believe if there is a question the principal should discuss this with the teacher before acting against their requests. This enables the teacher to keep respect from students and enables the principal to understand the teacher’s request and reasons for it. There will be some cases where this is not possible. In these cases it is important for the principal to act diplomatically and be prepared to explain his or her reasons for those actions. Grey area will come up and should be dealt with accordingly. A principal is very simply the judge and jury of the school, when it comes to students or teachers. —April K. Smith


  • Killion, Joellen (2006, January). High School Ed.. Principal Leadership 6 no.5 53-4. Retrieved September 9, 2006, from Wilson Web database.
  • Lashway, Larry (1997, January). Ethical Leadership. ERIC Digest. Retrieved September 15,2006 from
  • Lehr, Judy Brown (2003, Fall). Using learner: Centered Education to Prepare Teacher for Ethical Leadership. Education. Retrieved September 15, 2006, from Looksmart database.
  • Mattocks, T. Chris, chairperson AASA Ethics Committee (1985). Legal and Ethical Bases for Educational Leadership. Phi Delta Kappa Fastbacks no.426 7-51 (1998). Retrieved September 11, 2006 from Wilson Webb database.
  • Ryan, Kevin et. al. (2000). Those Who Can, Teach: Ethical and Legal Issues Facing Teachers. (pp. 394-438) Boston, New York Houghton Mifflin Co
  • "Teacher Responsibilities" Retrieved July 15, 2007 from: