Meet Expectations With Moral Clarity

Operating in the public eye, principals must continually balance their professional ethics with public expectations, experts say in a Principal Q&A.

Topics: Principal Leadership

Ethics are how we justify moral judgments or assess what is morally right or wrong according to our beliefs. And in the school setting, educators need to gird their leadership and decision-making in a firm foundation of professional and personal ethics to ensure that education is delivered justly and equitably in their buildings.

Principal magazine managing editor Ashley Reid sat down at NAESP’s 2023 Pre-K–8 Principals Conference with three educators familiar with educational law and leadership development to find out what it means to lead a school with a strong moral compass. A partial transcript of the roundtable follows.

Ashley Reid: Ethical principal leadership is a broad topic. How does it come up in the work that you do as a school leader or in working in leadership development?

Jayne Ellspermann: I think that one of the most important things that we have to remember as school leaders [is that] we operate in the realm of public trust, because everyone trusts us with their most precious possession—their children—and everything that we do has to be of the highest ethical standard, because people are counting on us to make good decisions to lead those who are directly impacting those precious children.

Scott Borba: The principalship and school leadership is all about servant leadership. It’s about leading from behind. In order to do that effectively, you have to have a really strong moral compass. You have to know who you are as a leader. You have to know what lines you won’t cross, and you have to make sure that you have the integrity to stick to those lines.

Reid: Can you tell me a little bit more about servant leadership or leading from behind?

Borba: Whatever I say I’m going to do, I will do. I’m always putting the needs of others, especially my students and staff, above the needs of myself. Sometimes the adults in my building have a tough time when I put the needs of the kids above them, but they know that that’s where my line is.

Diane Edwards: From the moment you become a leader, you are a role model for the rest of your life. When I train and coach younger principals, I remind them that—as you said, Scott—you have to have a line, but there are things you can’t do because someone is watching you. They sometimes don’t comprehend that 20 years down the road, someone will walk up to you in a mall and say, “I remember when you were my child’s principal.” So, if living your life as a role model is not something that you want to do, you need to get out immediately.

Reid: In the changing landscape a lot of educators are dealing with now and its heightened tensions, what does integrity look like? Is it just doing the right thing? Or has it shifted?

Edwards: I believe there is a slight shift we’re seeing now, and that’s perhaps the result of social media. If a school division member did something that was questionable a few years ago, it wouldn’t make the news. But now we have to be aware that every decision, every move we make, reflects not just on ourselves and our division, but on our profession as a whole.

Borba: You’re a role model when you step into this position, and you’re a role model when you’re not on campus, as well. I think this younger generation of administrators coming in who have grown up in the social media age, they post things that will reflect on their school district or their school, and they’re not as mindful as they should be. Knowing that people are looking at you and you are a role model 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is something that I think we really need to work hard to ingrain in this next generation of leaders. Make sure your activity on social media is professional.

Edwards: Scott, I’m reminded of an experience very early in my career. [I was] attending a conference across the country and getting in the elevator and a gentleman seeing my name tag and saying, “Oh, you’re in Chesapeake, Virginia. My best friend is superintendent there.” I’ve never forgotten that. My ethics and morals are with me all the time, but there can sometimes be the illusion that nobody knows me when I’m off the clock. Somebody knows you, and everybody sees you.

Ellspermann: One of the things I find in mentoring new principals is that you have to tell them to get over themselves. When you accept this position, you really have to make sure that you are selfless. But you also have to understand that everything you do is going to lead somewhere. In this day and age of social media, everyone has access to video sound bites. People will forward your emails.

Reid: Principals need to be multidimensional problem-solvers to balance legal issues, professional standards, cultural responsiveness, and more. What do you think is the area principals struggle with the most?

Borba: In California, we have over 1,000 bills that go to Sacramento every year just in terms of education. And I’m supposed to stay up to date on all of these bills that I’m legally bound to follow. But a lot of these bills don’t connect with our community. And right there, you have this ethical dilemma, right? So, what I’ve tried to teach is that I follow the spirit of the law. The spirit of the law is, again, to put kids first. It’s to protect children.

Ellspermann: So many of the things that are coming up now are very polarizing. And I think that goes back to what Scott and Diane have said about really knowing who you are and why you want to lead. Once you identify that, you can rely on your inner integrity to navigate some of the things that are coming at us.

Edwards: All of our divisions have boards they report to, and they can be highly politicized [and] very polarized. As a new principal, I think sometimes that’s a shock. They need to seek guidance and support from those of us who do that. Where do I draw that line when I get a request or I get a call that may differ with what I know is ethically the right thing to do? In this climate, there are times when those lines are blurred.

Borba: I think new principals and folks coming into the profession, again, need to know who they are. They need to have a strong moral compass and really have to decide if they’re a fit in the district or the school [to which] they’re applying. They have to do the research. They can’t be so eager just to get a job where they might land somewhere where their moral compass doesn’t line up with the moral compass of the district or community, because that’s where they’re going to get into trouble.

Reid: Do you feel that mentorship can “inform” someone and whether or not they align with a school? Or do you feel like a lot of that work needs to be put in before they even take the position?

Borba: I wouldn’t have survived without mentorship as a new principal. I was fortunate enough that my superintendent recognized I needed a mentor. I was 27 years old and was given two schools to lead simultaneously. He put an assistant superintendent at each school. He moved their offices out of the district office and gave them an office at each of my schools just so I had access—just so I could go in there and sit and say, “Here’s what I’m thinking of doing. Am I going to get in trouble?” And so they would guide me.

Reid: From a mentoring perspective, what guiding questions do you use to help principals think through their responses to ethical issues?

Ellspermann: When someone asks me a question, I’ll ask them, “What are your first thoughts?” Because I think we all second-guess ourselves. [Help] them identify how comfortable they feel with their decisions, and then help them follow it all the way through to impact.

Edwards: Part of making decisions and venturing on your journey as a leader is taking risks. And when you take risks, you’re going to make mistakes. So, it’s important that we help people to find that line between what I would call a “fatal” mistake that you can’t come back from, and what is a decision that you made that probably just wasn’t your finest moment.

Ellspermann: I also try to help them identify at what point [they are] going to stop and reflect and look back and see if this was a good decision. Whether you give yourself a week, two weeks, or a quarter, identify what is that stopping point where you’re going to reflect. [Help] them define what that looks like, so that they can communicate it to the people they work with and enable them to be able to provide feedback.

Edwards: The two major pitfalls that any leader can fall into have to do with ego and power. People realize very quickly when they become a principal that you don’t have nearly as much power as you think; in fact, you have none. When you move to the central office, you have even less. But those are the areas that I see that cause people the most difficulty. When you get consumed by ego and power, you don’t make great ethical decisions.

Borba: That’s a humbling lesson to learn as a new administrator. The school will probably function just fine if you’re not there, right? The sooner you learn that, you’ll realize “OK, but the school functions much better if I am there.” You’re there to support the people who support the people who support the people. It’s not about you.

Reid: Despite extensive legal protections afforded to students and teachers, there are still many gray areas in school law that can create a host of ethical dilemmas for educators. Talk about these.

Borba: Every spring, I teach school law to prepare future administrators for the profession. I always ask, “How many of you want to become school principals?” at the beginning of the term. And then I ask the same question at the end, and it drops by about half as a result of my class. They’re terrified. It’s terrifying when you think about school law and the fact that you are the catalyst of implementing the laws and making sure laws are upheld on your campus. You’re going to make decisions based on your moral compass, and everybody might be OK with the decision you made—until somebody isn’t. I tell them: “You should be able to go to bed at night knowing you did the right thing.”

Ellspermann: I think that with young principals, that’s a hard thing to do. The relationship that you have with your superintendent is very, very important. If they trusted you with the school, you need to trust them when an issue comes up, because the last thing you want is for that superintendent to get a call before you have an opportunity to have a conversation with them.

Reid: Can we talk about ethical leadership in the current political climate—where certain things are mandated that cause leaders to have to find a way to lead through them?

Borba: This is one area that it’s critical to have a network. This is where NAESP and my state association have played a tremendous role, having so many people on your phone that you can call when you’re faced with an ethical dilemma—people that are like-minded and also people that might think differently than you, so that you can get another perspective. If you want to become an administrator, you really need to question why you’re doing it, because you’re going to get beat up a lot. And most people aren’t going to like you.

Edwards: Our schools are just a microcosm of society, so if you look at the issues that are hitting the news, of course they’re coming to our schools. The hardest part is what happens when those values don’t line up with your beliefs, including your spiritual beliefs. Where do you draw that line between what in your soul feels is just not right, but is the law?

Borba: If you’re a school administrator, get involved in advocacy for education. Go to your state capital, get to know your local lawmakers, and have conversations with them when a law is coming to be passed. Talk to them about the implications of that law on your school community. They’re there to represent you.

Ellspermann: Get involved in NAESP—be a member of an organization that is there for you to provide support with advocacy. I think that state associations are vital. You have an opportunity within your state association for advocacy and to be able to surround yourself with people who are dealing with those same political issues you may be dealing with.

Edwards: There’s a difference between policy and regulations. The policies are the what, and our local regulations are how we implement the what. And that’s our opportunity to ensure that we’re following the law, but we’re not allowing a law that gives parents rights for one particular topic to supersede the rights of all.

Ellspermann: The pendulum swings back and forth, and every time the pendulum goes beyond midpoint, it begins to impact other people in a different way. And so as leaders, we have to be able to see the entire spectrum of how decisions are impacting everyone, not just a particular group. And that’s where ethical leadership comes in [and] becomes very, very important—because you have to be able to see that and make sure that you’re making a balanced decision when decisions have to be made.

Want to hear more? Listen to the full interview recorded for the NAESP Principal Podcast: