As a teacher, I worked for several principals. Each had a different way of leading their school, teachers, and students. These principals taught me a variety of lessons about leadership. For example, my last principal taught me that values-based leadership begins your first day on the job. At her very first staff meeting, she led us in a celebratory rally honoring our cafeteria and custodial staff. She had big ideas about school leadership, but greeted us nervously, remarking that “everyone keeps calling me Dr. R——, that doesn’t feel like me; I’m Jen. I’m still Jen.”
A couple years later when I arrived for my first day as the director of academic affairs for a large school system, I experienced that same sense of humility and imposter syndrome. Waiting for me in my new office was a giant mahogany desk. I was reluctant to take my place behind it and held my first meeting in two chairs facing “The Desk.” Truth be told, that desk didn’t quite fit my leadership style or my personality.
I began in my position after the school year was already underway, which is a little bit like being thrown into the deep end. Within an hour of my first day, teachers, support staff, counselors, and other administrators had all come to me needing decisions. A teenager panicked and left an exam, do we let her do a retake? Two students had fallen behind in their classwork, should we start an intervention plan? A student didn’t submit a service project; do they still get Honor Society credit? There is an upset parent on the phone [no information yet], may I transfer the call to you?
These are all ethical decisions that fall under the category of micro-ethics-the interpersonal opportunities we have every day to engage (or not) in ethical behavior. I knew the ways I responded to each of these dilemmas would speak volumes about my values in school leadership. How administrators handle micro-ethics in their schools or districts determines their character, vision, and effectiveness as a leader. Responding to ethical situations requires first identifying your core values. As a principal, it’s important to work with your teachers to identify their core values.
My core values as a school administrator include: learning, compassion, communication, equity, and hope. Administration is fast-paced and filled with many moving pieces. There are often times when teachers and staff need quick answers. In these times, I weigh my options using these core values as a guide.
So, as a principal, how do you devise a “map” to decision-making questions with regard to core values? Consider these guidelines:
- Learning: What is the student learning? Am I safeguarding learning at high levels? What is my staff learning? Are we improving as a school or district?
- Compassion: Who needs support in this situation? How can we give support? What support would I want if I were on the other end of this decision?
- Communication: Have I listened to all relevant parties? Do I have a clear plan for relaying this decision and the rationale behind it?
- Equity: Am I considering the needs of this particular student/teacher/administrator? Have I thought of ways to ensure access? Have I considered the role that different cultures or background experiences might play in this situation? Am I valuing diversity?
- Hope: Am I giving the student/teacher/parent/administrator the benefit of the doubt? Am I assuming positive intent? Am I acting as though we are all doing the best we can with the tools we have available?
Committing to Values
I continue to be struck by how much direction this simple system gives me. In general, committing to these five values points me to fairly clear and consistent decisions. However, having a clear sense of what to do does not always make doing that simple or popular. Further, not all of the dilemmas that come across my desk are as straightforward as those first-day quandaries were.
I learned a lot on my first day in school administration and have built on those lessons. When our faculty and staff fired that first round of questions at me in rapid succession, I was still finding my administrator sea legs. I took a deep breath and thought about my core values. To my relief, this strategy worked. Further, using my core values as a barometer for decision making gave me the confidence I needed to see myself as an administrator. An hour or so into my day, I took my spot behind the gigantic mahogany desk. Then, on my second day, I worked with our office manager to order a smaller desk to make room in my office for a large collaborative table.
Kathryn Fishman-Weaver, PhD, is a faculty member in the University of Missouri’s College of Education in Columbia, MO, where she serves as the director of academic affairs for Mizzou K–12.
Sidebar: Identifying Core Values of School leaders
Below are some reflective questions school leaders can use to identify their core values:
- When making a tough or ethical decision, what criteria do you use to evaluate your options?
- What values do you want to communicate to your colleagues? What is the mission of your school or district?
- How do you want to contribute to the mission of your school? What is your personal vision for leadership?
- Why did you get into education in the first place?