School Climate & Safety Opinion

Leaders’ Integrity Requires Daily Doses of Conscience Examination

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 17, 2016 6 min read
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Integrity is not a trait that can be easily uncovered in an interview. Scenarios can be offered, responses can be listened to carefully, and references can be asked questions that hopefully reveal the candidate’s standing as a person of integrity. But, integrity is proven over time. It is tested behind closed doors and it declares itself in inactions and consequences.

Over time what is revealed can be inspiring or it can be ugly. If it is the later, it is often discovered after damage has been done. Integrity is central to the work of public servants and of educators particularly. If held strongly by leaders and the teachers who work with them, great things can happen for children. Integrity is not only built upon earned trust, but upon an unrelenting focus on the children for whom we work. There are the cynics who argue that everyone “can be bought” or that everyone has a breaking point. We don’t believe that but we do believe it is strengthening to surround ourselves with other people of integrity; it helps us stay on the right path. There are a few among us, however, who are woefully lacking or who have allowed it to be worn down over time. They are doing harm to students and to the schools and districts they attend. These few leave tarnish on our profession.

The Slippery Slope
The tests come in little, subtle decisions and are demonstrated in the presence or absence of fairness and evenhandedness when dealing with schedules, discipline, and support or when determining assignments or conference approvals or budgets. These are all actions that are keenly observed by students, teachers, and parents. Those actions contribute to the reputation of the leader as well as the climate of the school environment.

When a lack of integrity slides into breaking the law, the damage is more public and more widespread. In recent years newscasts showed school leaders being led out in handcuffs for devising ways to change scores on tests; shameful behavior for anyone, but especially those who lead our schools. If we are trustworthy and are seen as persons with integrity, perhaps it is hard to see the lack of it in others, at least in the beginning. Didn’t many of us wince when national news showed Detroit classrooms with mold and rodents a few months back? Didn’t many of us question how this can be tolerated in a nation such as ours?

Detroit and its schools have been and continue to be in crisis. Often in the news, attention has been brought to several aspects of this tragedy in our nation...and Ellen DeGeneres, for one, stepped up. According to the Detroit Free Press she arranged for Spain Elementary-Middle School to receive:

  • A $100 gift card from Lowe’s for each teacher and staff member at the school.
  • $50,000 in technology from Lowe’s.
  • $200,000 worth of materials and labor to go toward a new roof.
  • A $250,000 donation to the school from Lowe’s.
  • Additionally, Justin Bieber announced that $1 from every ticket sold to his April 25 concert at the Palace of Auburn Hills will go to the school.
    Finally, DeGeneres started a GoFundMe page for the school with a $5-million goal.

With consideration for the conditions under which the students were learning and the limitations under which the teachers were working, it was a caring and generous gift.

What happened next is heartbreaking on many levels. The principal of the Spain Elementary-Middle School was one of several Detroit principals arrested for their roles in a kickback scheme involving falsifying invoices for personal gain. He had submitted the invoices to the “Detroit Public School System for goods that were never delivered to Spain Elementary from Norman Shy, an Allstate Sales vendor of school supplies” (New York Post).

Ronald Alexander, 60, principal at Charles L. Spain Elementary, who is charged with pocketing $23,000 in kickbacks from Shy in exchange for using him as a school supply vendor (Detroit Free Press).

This a sad, embarrassing example of a leader’s lack of integrity. Driven by greed and selfishness instead of devotion to the students they served, these leaders failed our neediest children.

Who we are and the decisions we make that spring from our integrity affect the culture and climate of schools. And those within the schools are impacted by the floors and walls, the foundation that embraces all actions and how people feel about themselves, their work, and the children they serve. As the work of the day unfolds, it is important that we not assume we are acting fairly and with the best interest of everyone central to our actions. Leaders need a daily dose of conscience examination. Decisions small and large require truthfulness and integrity. Deciding whether or not to take a kickback, regardless of how many others are doing it, deciding whether to hire the most qualified or the most connected, considering the school rather than the entire organization, the self interest rather than the public interest makes a difference.

Accountability has been used with negative connotation regarding the institution of new standards, the practicality of standardized testing, and the use of student achievement to measure the effectiveness of teachers and leaders. But here we use the word accountability with a hope for a generative shift in thinking. Relationships and skillful supervision are important in helping to maintain an environment characterized by integrity. Honesty is assumed in a leadership position but it doesn’t always happen. The way to assist in keeping ourselves and others honest is an accountability system that prevents invisible behaviors and actions from the dangers of the slippery slope that can result in either an environment in which trust has no home, or the destruction of trust because of something as horrible as an indictment. We also need a support system that calls us to act, as Lincoln said, from the better angles of our nature.

Accountability can be helpful when relationships are valued. Those who supervise, their own supervisors, and their colleagues, can all benefit from open and honest relationships. Even when thinking about what seems to be the simplest of decisions about resolving a dispute, for example, asking the question “How might this effect the rest of the organization?” and caring about the answer is one way to remember that integrity begins and ends with each act.

In his seminal work, Moral Courage, Rushforth M. Kidder reminds us of the importance of core values. He reminds us that those values, if enumerated, may be found in lengthy policy statements. He offered Levi Strauss as a positive model for a single page statement about the core values of the company and for each employee. For Levi Strauss, they were “honesty, promise-keeping, fairness, respect for others, compassion, and integrity” (Kidder. p. 60). Whether Abraham Lincoln actually said this or not remains in question, but the quote tells a truth, no matter its source. “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” School leaders have been given power and the public trust; their character shines a light for us all when they use it with integrity.

Kidder, R.M. (2005). Moral Courage. New York: Harper Collins

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Photo by Vladimir Nenov courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.