Leading Schools With Moral Literacy

Moral literacy—or leading with ethical sensitivity, decision-making, and motivation—is an essential quality of school leadership that can be learned like any other academic skill.

Topics: Ethical Leadership

School leaders are faced with unprecedented challenges. Changing roles and added responsibilities have redefined school leadership. Once viewed as building managers, disciplinarians, and master schedule builders, school leaders are now called on to be transformative leaders.

Addressing societal inequities, ensuring safety, making budget decisions, choosing programs that support students most in need, innovating learning, and ensuring high levels of learning for all students are but a few of the new roles today’s school leaders take on. School leaders are in greater positions of influence today than at any other time. Many of these new roles and responsibilities have ethical and moral considerations highlighting a need for ethical leadership.

A Growing Field of Study

Ethical leadership in education is a growing field of study. Commonly discussed in business and politics, ethical leadership is brought up in moments of crisis or in ethically challenging situations.

Michael Brown, Linda Treviño, and David Harrison sought to define ethical leadership in education so that it could be measured and studied more easily. Ethical leadership is the demonstration of accepted appropriate conduct through actions and in relationships. The appropriate conduct is communicated, reinforced, and shown in decision-making by school leaders.

Given the increased responsibilities and influence, ethical leadership is an essential quality of school leadership. Stepping back, ethics are the principles of what is good for individuals and society. Ethics includes how we should act. Morals are judgments of justice, rights, and welfare. Another way of thinking about it is morals are the why, and ethics is the how or application.

Understanding Your Own Moral Reasoning

Ethical leadership starts with an understanding of your own ethical and moral reasoning and the role it plays in your decision-making.

A key area for the practice of ethical leadership in education is decision-making. School leaders are faced with dozens of decisions each day. The ethical and moral components of decisions vary. School leaders must be able to identify the ethical and moral demands and make a decision.

Ethics philosopher Nancy Tuana suggested moral literacy is not only needed when leading but is also a skill that can be developed like any other academic skill. Moral literacy covers three areas:

  1. Ethical sensitivity includes identifying the ethical issue, knowing the intensity, and understanding the values and morals beneath the issue. Examples include taking disciplinary action against students who cheated to improve their grades.
  2. Ethical decision-making is a set of abilities including understanding ethical frameworks, an assessment of the ethical issue, identifying stakeholders along with the values of groups or individuals in regard to the ethical issue, and the generation of options for action.
  3. Ethical motivation involves taking action or making the decision. This step requires purpose, courage, and hope.

Key Considerations in Developing Moral Literacy

In your efforts to strengthen your moral literacy muscles, it’s worth considering how you were prepared to be an ethical leader. Did you have specific training through a school or credential program? Were ethical scenarios and topics introduced?

As Tuana noted, moral literacy can be taught and develop like any academic skill. Through the process of exposure and practice all leaders can grow in their ability to lead ethically and make ethical decisions. Reflect on these three questions—and invite your faculty and staff to take part, too.

  1. Do you feel prepared to be an ethical leader? How were you prepared?
  2. In your current position, do you have opportunities to develop as an ethical leader?
  3. In what ways are you continuing to develop your moral literacy?

Decision-making can be one of the most intimidating or challenging parts of school leadership—especially in today’s politically charged environment. The many new roles and expectations of school leaders introduce decisions with far-reaching impact. When faced with decisions, leaders want to build a team to rely on to share ideas and concerns rather than acting in isolation.

Framework for Ethical Decision-Making

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University suggested a framework for ethical decision-making. After identifying the ethical issue, the framework recommends: 

  • Collecting facts that are relevant to the decision-taking time to consider each angle and who is involved;
  • Evaluating alternative actions by considering different options through many lenses and considering what is motivating the action and who will be affected;
  • Choosing an option for action and testing it;
  • Walking through how those around you might respond after considering each way to address the issue;
  • Making the decision and reflecting on the outcome—a key step in developing better ethical decisions; and
  • Receiving feedback on your decision, which will help in understanding impact.

Despite being the leader of the school, you don’t have to make these decisions in a silo. When working through a challenging decision (one with ethical and moral components), apply these lessons in self-reflection and guide your faculty and staff to join you to assess ethical issues, identify stakeholders, consider the values of the group or individuals involved, and develop possible decisions or outcomes.

Jonathan Johnson is an elementary school principal in Folsom-Cordova Unified School District in Folsom, California.