Jeffery, inducted into National Honor Society as a freshman, is now a junior in the medium-sized school district in New Jersey where Claire is superintendent. He has just been caught cheating on a test, and his National Honor Society status is in jeopardy. But his parents are adamant that he be retained in the organization to enhance his chances to get into the college of his choice. What should Claire do?
Sam, a school custodian for more than a decade in a rural district in Maine where Joe is superintendent, has never been in trouble before. Now he’s been caught on a late-night security videotape sitting at a teacher’s desk, looking through each drawer, taking things out and shuffling things around. What should Joe do?
In a suburban district in British Columbia where Wendy is superintendent, the school board faces a budget crunch. They know it is right to close smaller schools that weigh down the larger school community. But they also know it is right to consider the students in those schools and the education they are due. What should Wendy do?
Different though these true stories are, they exemplify the issues facing today’s superintendents. Some, like Jeffrey’s story, present familiar tensions in an urgent, even angry, environment. Others, like Sam’s tale, feature apparently inexplicable issues coming suddenly from out of nowhere. Still others, like the school board’s dilemma, feature agonizing choices facing good people where no wrongdoing is in sight. But the three scenarios have one thing in common: They all make strong ethical demands on the superintendents facing them.
“It takes more than just being a manager to lead a district these days,” says Claire, who, like others interviewed for this article, is being identified only by a first name. “It used to be if you stayed within your budget and if the buses ran on time, well, that made you a good superintendent.”
Today’s superintendent, she says, must play a critical role in building a district culture of integrity that maximizes students’ ethical development. She knows she must provide an educational environment that clearly supports the broadest aims of public education, which must include strong academic preparation. But it also includes providing students with an internalized, consistent sense of ethics, along with values-based critical thinking tools to tackle complex 21st-century issues.
What Claire faced was a species of ethical challenge best described as “right versus right.” Yes, wrong had been done: Someone had cheated. But how to respond to that wrongdoing placed Claire in a position where she needed to weigh moral arguments on both sides. What started out seeming simple became, on reflection, more complicated than it first appeared.
That’s what Joe discovered, too, as he probed the case of the custodian. He understood that codes of ethics aren’t designed to reduce complexity to simple black and white. Rather, thoughtful leaders approach ethical issues with a set of ethical values, using the code to understand why gray areas arise. They make a conscientious habit of demonstrating the struggles and doubts that can unfold and building trust throughout the system.
“How I work with people and communicate with them,” Joe explains, “sets the stage for developing trust.”
In Sam’s case, nothing was reported stolen. But Sam had clearly violated trust between building staff and teachers. Justice deemed that Joe could fire Sam on the spot. After all, he wasn’t supposed to be there, he wasn’t supposed to be going through somebody else’s belongings, and the evidence was right on the tape.
But in small districts, Joe knew, you learn everybody’s story. “I knew Sam was in his 50s, lived in a trailer and needed this job,” Joe explained. “I brought him in for an interview and asked him, ‘Why would you do such a thing?’”
Joe didn’t expect Sam’s simple explanation. “It was hot,” Joe recalls Sam telling him. “The A/C was down, and I was on a break. I went to sit in the coolest room in the building, and I thought maybe I’d find something to read in the desk. It was a stupid thing to do, I know.’”
Joe recalls asking himself, “Where’s the balance?” He knew this behavior couldn’t be tolerated. But he also knew Sam needed a job and had simply made a mistake.
“I thought ‘Well, if this were me, how would I want to be treated? Whatever I do, a standard’s going to be set. So what can I do that will be fair to him but also [make] a statement to people?’”
In the end, Sam was suspended without pay for two weeks, and Joe made it clear that a repeat offense could cost Sam his job. Joe had taken the time to struggle out loud, to uphold compassion and fairness toward Sam, while maintaining standards for future decisions. Apparently, this struggle with ethical values made an impression on Sam. Despite the loss of two weeks’ pay, Joe recalls with a smile, “He said, ‘Thank you.’”
Joe could have saved himself some intellectual wrestling by simply throwing the book at Sam. In a culture that operates according to a code of ethics, law doesn’t play the only role in superintendents’ decisions. Otherwise, Claire observes jokingly, “You’d only need a computer, you wouldn’t need a superintendent.”
She continues: “People always think you should use a legalistic approach when it comes to the other guy’s issues or complaints. But when it comes to my issue or to my child, then I want you to have a heart, to understand their transgressions and to consider all the circumstances.”
Wendy also made ethics and values-focused conversation a priority as she established trust with her school board. “It’s essential they understand why ethics matter and have a grasp of the language,” she says. Through a communitywide consensus process, Wendy established a code of ethics and trained her board members to unpack the tough dilemmas — instances when core ethical values from their code might come into conflict.
“We learned to operate within an ethical decision-making framework,” Wendy explains. “Without it, lots of ethics issues might not be taken seriously or successfully resolved.”
Most important, Wendy instituted ongoing opportunities to practice this grey-area thinking. “I would bring them together and encourage them to tell their stories,” Wendy recalls. She took deliberate steps to “keep ethics alive,” such as analyzing a dilemma at each monthly meeting and extending the practice to parent groups, faculty meetings and orientations for new hires.
As a result, when the budget crunch came, Wendy and her school board had some tools in place to tackle the problem. “The board had two choices, both of them right,” Wendy explained. “Our board had committed to a right versus right platform. Rich discussions unfolded, and we analyzed the problem from a number of angles.
“It’s never simple,” Wendy recalls, “but we knew how to think this through together.” Wendy’s ethics groundwork eventually meant a creative solution that met the needs of all students without unduly burdening the community’s budget.
But what if ethical issues are systemic rather than personal? Carl became superintendent of a large school district in a community on the West Coast plagued with allegations of corruption and the attention of a highly curious national press. One of his early moves was to invigorate the district’s code of ethics.
“The only way to promulgate this is to make sure everyone knows what the standards are,” Carl explains.
His communications department circulated the one-page code widely, across central offices and among school principals, teachers and their union reps. Notions of fairness, compassion, responsibility, respect and honesty — common operating principles found in different contexts the world over — helped signal the “ethics platform” expected for everybody in the school district.
The code was broad but clear, spelling out the basics, such as “We will treat each other and members of our community with fairness, dignity and respect.” It addressed corrupt practices, too, such as the conflicts of interest and influence peddling that had led to the district’s recent negative press.
Carl understood that any organization can establish a set of ethical operating principles. He also knew that, in a large school district where many constituents never meet a superintendent face to face, actions often speak louder than words. So he set up forums in various schools around the district. Parents and teachers were invited to come and hear from Carl, ask him questions and air complaints. The sessions were an earnest attempt both to get to know the context and to let the community get to know the superintendent.
“There was a lack of confidence in leadership,” Carl remembers. “There were lots of unanswered questions — a climate of lack of transparency.” So he set out to change the tone and message to more closely match the district’s ethical values.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time with the ‘shadow government people,’” Carl recalls, referring to a small group with large influence that seemed to lurk behind the scenes in his school district. He wanted to make it clear he wouldn’t be influenced and could be trusted.
“The message I tried to send is that I’m not running a private corporation with offline arrangements,” he says. His choice of company had to back that up.
Along with establishing a code and deliberately modeling his ethics, Carl implemented a serious training effort. “You have to get into the weeds with training,” he says.
Knowing his schools were burdened with expectations, he deliberately initiated central-office ethics training first, a signal that leadership would learn to “walk the talk” before expecting others to do so. The district customized a fast-paced, user-friendly workshop that featured their ethics code and various applications, including ethical decision making.
The training seemed to hit the mark for Carl’s school district. “After ethics training,” one participant explains, “thinking about ethics is a part of my everyday decision-making process. I can’t separate ethical thinking from decision making.”
For Claire, too, extensive ethics training became a predominant focus. Key to the process was getting the high school principals on board through respectful suggestion rather than a mandate. As a new superintendent, Claire was cautious about jumping into specific processes or frameworks too soon.
“Entering a culture, you have to understand it before you can try to build it,” she explains. “First, I asked, ‘What do people currently value? What do they think their role is?’” She believes if teachers view their job solely as promoting academics rather than helping to “form decent human beings,” it’s the role of the superintendent to model that priority.
“It helps not to impose, but to invite,” Claire explains. “I started by asking questions instead of positioning myself as the font of all decision making. As people began providing answers, I tried to reflect back and earnestly confirm that I’d heard them right. So the first part of my invitation is listening, and the second part is validating the response.”
As Claire got colleagues to express their doubts and challenges, she began framing these as values conflicts. “I’d say, ‘Look, we’re all already struggling with these issues,’ and I’d offer a way of thinking about them.”
To encourage a culture of integrity districtwide, Claire paid particular attention to the principal in each building. “It takes the principal to make sure something happens,” she says.
Claire provided frequent practice in ethical decision making and took advantage of the opportunity to model vulnerability and doubt. By leading with “Hey, I’m really struggling with this decision,” she signaled that ambiguity is OK and that wrestling with tough decisions is an expectation.
Laying such groundwork for trust creates the added benefit in times of disagreement. “There are going to be times when not everyone agrees with a decision made,” she explains. “People can support you without necessarily agreeing with you, as long as they know you’re operating from a set of values.”
In Jeffrey’s case, his parents knew that as Jeffrey began applying to college, National Honor Society membership would help his chances. Because he had no other disciplinary record, his parents suggested he was led astray by other students in the class and that the teacher shouldn’t have allowed this to happen.
Despite his parents’ point of view, Claire couldn’t go along with reinstating Jeffrey in the National Honor Society after cheating. But instead of handing down an edict from on high, she went to the trouble of writing a letter to the parents, explaining that Jeffrey was not a bad person but had simply made a bad mistake in judgment. She analyzed the reinstatement dilemma according to the ethical values established for their school community. She recalls that the parents had a better understanding of the situation as a result.
“They were not happy with the outcome,” Claire recalls, “but they appreciated the time and thought that went into my decision making.”
“Less is more” applies in spades to building a district culture of integrity. Seemingly small leadership choices to advance district ethics can have a powerful, positive effect.
Paula Mirk is director of education with the Institute for Global Ethics in Rockport, Maine. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org