School Climate & Safety Opinion

Are Schools Valuing Ethics and Academics?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 23, 2016 5 min read
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Let’s reclaim the honor and purpose of our profession. We need teachers and leaders who are dedicated to the reality that children are our business and that we have the ability and the obligation to create an environment that can teach them far more than subjects. We have knowledge, training, responsibility and we have experience. Many of these teachers and leaders are in schools right now. The daily urgent administrivia eats into their dedication and focus but cannot be allowed to distract them from the greater purpose of their work. This is a time for attending the important. We see the struggle in our society for civility, integrity, and respect. We each have the opportunity, daily, to influence a small segment of that society, the local one, each school and district.

Trust in our People and our Institutions
One aspect of this problem is the rising frustration with our long established institutions. Washington, DC, the federal government, has become the largest focus of this frustration. Maybe it is true that, as they grow larger, all organizations develop a power, confidence and a sense of immunity that makes their own growth and survival compete with an original purpose. They turn from organizations that are trusted and fill its intended purpose to those that are not trusted and become self-serving. Power is an aphrodisiac for some and creates a choice for all who have it: service or arrogant selfishness. Transparency can be a check on integrity. But leaders know they cannot always be fully transparent. And any of us who aspire ot full transparency know we will always fall short. There will be a personnel decision or a student discipline issues or a private conversation that must be held in confidence. Leaders know this. Think of how we got the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s. A pivotal piece of legislation that resulted in the end of segregation as we knew it, President Johnson used his knowledge of Congress and his relationships with people to push the legislation forward. Here from an excellent article in the Atlantic:

As the former Senate majority leader, he knew his way around Capitol Hill like few other presidents before him--and none since. The best hope of moving the civil-rights bill from the House Rules Committee--whose segregationist chairman, Howard Smith of Virginia, had no intention of relinquishing it--was a procedure called a “discharge petition.” If a majority of House members sign a discharge petition, a bill is taken from the committee, to the chagrin of its chairman. Johnson made the petition his own personal crusade. Even [the NY Times Journalist Clay] Risen credits his zeal, noting that after receiving a list of 22 House members vulnerable to pressure on the petition, the president immediately ordered the White House switchboard to get them on the phone, wherever they could be found. Johnson engaged an army of lieutenants--businessmen, civil-rights leaders, labor officials, journalists, and allies on the Hill--to go out and find votes for the discharge petition. He cut a deal that secured half a dozen votes from the Texas delegation. He showed Martin Luther King Jr. a list of uncommitted Republicans and, as Caro writes, “told King to work on them.” He directed one labor leader to “talk to every human you could,” saying, “if we fail on this, then we fail in everything."(theatlantic.com)

Relationships have always been the root of how any group works. Private conversations sometimes make a difference. And cutting deals, well, sometimes that makes a difference too. Imagine the way we may have felt if some of those conversations had been recorded and made public. Or imagine how the resistance would have maneuvered to block progress. Imagine the stalls and push back he may have suffered. Yet, he was successful in getting the most important social legislation in our lifetime passed.

The trouble arises when the leader and those who work with him or her have less than the highest ethical intentions. Then, transparency is valuable. Yet, we cannot naively expect the light to shine on some actions and not others. So here we are coming to the end of 2016 with the capacity to peer into the relationships, written communications and conversations of our leaders and each other and share our opinions about them without being monitored ourselves. Opinions run the gamut. Facts are challenged. The speaker makes all the difference in what is believed. Truth is becoming gray.

Schools Hold an Answer
So, what does this mean for educators? Schools have the capacity to turn the corner and create and support environments that are society at its best. There is an honor bestowed on educators to create environments in which learners can flourish, no matter the age or subject. We work in service of the children. When talking about service, Robert Coles wrote,

...all service is directly or indirectly ethical activity, a reply to a moral call within, one that answers a moral need in the world (Coles.p. 74).

The work in schools is hard. The daily distractions are not always heart opening ones. They call for quick thinking and reaction to immediate problems. The decisions of the leaders matter. As like the rudder of a ship, the leader can set the ethical tone for the district or the school. We do not control the future but we send into it the graduates of our schools. If we have created an environment for them in which they have seen how ethical people serve and lead, then their choices may be more clear. Maybe then, when they become the leaders of social and corporate institutions, there will be more trust. We will have our students learn much and do well. We will also have them watch as ethical decisions are made and are as transparent as they can be. Then, perhaps, trust in our institutions will grow again.

Coles, R. (1993). The Call of Service. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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