The Ethical Educator
A monthly scenario that poses an ethical challenge for school leaders along with four experts’ recommended actions for resolving the dilemma.
Superintendent, Eugene, Ore.
Director of education, Institute for Global Ethics, Camden, Maine
Retired BOCES superintendent, Ithaca, N.Y.
Retired superintendent, Thiensville, Wis., and AASA past president
Backing Off a Public Vow (December 2013)
Scenario: Two girls, one white and one black, have a ferocious fight in a high school hallway. The white girl is severely beaten. The school staff is outraged, as are the victim's parents. The principal suspends the black girl and turns over to the superintendent the question of further consequences, as required by policy. The principal also vows, before the superintendent has ruled, that if the aggressor is returned to school, he will resign. The superintendent, after gathering facts and holding a hearing, believes a suspension of six months is justified. What do you do, however, with the public declaration by an excellent principal that he will resign if the girl returns?
Click on a dilemma title below to read the panelists' recommended actions. Offer your own reactions and dilemmas to the editor (email@example.com) for possible use in a future issue. You can also submit your dilemma by clicking here.
Shelley Berman: This case is troubling on several levels: the differential discipline administered to the two students, the appropriateness of the punishment, the principal’s public pronouncement and the racial overtones of the entire incident.
School fights often involve improper actions on the part of multiple students, with shared culpability. This case raises the question of whether, had it been the white student who severely beat the black student, the investigation would have resulted in a different level of punishment or different determination of culpability. In this case, the black student has been determined to be culpable and the white student innocent. Although that may indeed be the case, there also may be more complex circumstances that need to be explored.
The principal and superintendent should address the particulars of this incident, and the police may become involved if assault charges are pressed against either girl. However, the actions of the principal raise significant questions about the climate at the school and the context in which this fight occurred.
The very fact that a six-month suspension would be considered, given the strong likelihood that it could lead to the student dropping out, reflects an environment that is punitive and potentially prejudicial, rather than one that pursues alternatives to ensure all students’ success. The focus of discipline in this situation needs to be on calming the anger that has emerged and providing counseling, restitution and reconciliation for the students.
In terms of the principal’s statement, the superintendent needs to do more than inform the principal that his words were highly inappropriate and exacerbated the situation. If I were superintendent, I would tell the principal that if he feels that strongly, I’d be glad to accept his resignation now. On the other hand, if he admits to having erred and spoken in the heat of the moment, he needs to diffuse what could easily become a racially divisive situation, accept the student’s return and talk with the faculty and parents about how the school can become a better place that meets all students’ needs and prevents future incidents. He needs to ask himself, his faculty, the student body and the school community what steps can be immediately initiated to create a climate that fosters respect for diversity and positive aspirations for all students.
Finally, the racial issue cannot be ignored. Besides being a serious altercation between two students, this fight may signal an environment that creates or allows alienating or oppressive conditions for black students. In public schools nationwide, black students face harsher discipline than white students—even for the same transgressions — and receive a disproportionate share of suspensions and expulsions. What passes for discipline is in some cases a cloak for unrecognized or unacknowledged institutional and personal prejudices.
If the school climate left this student open to discrimination without recognition and support from administration or teachers, fighting may have been an extreme expression of her anger and frustration. Although this does not excuse her actions, it demonstrates the necessity for students of color to have competent, supportive, and trusted teachers or administrators with whom they can discuss racist incidents and freely express their fear, anger and frustration.
The superintendent and principal also need to examine the school’s discipline data for significant disparities; investigate the background of this incident in terms of both the school’s climate and the relationships between racial and ethnic groups; and assess the faculty’s and administration’s attitudes, perceptions and expectations of students of color. My hunch is that there is more to this situation than simply a matter of discipline. Unaddressed, these underlying factors could lead to other serious incidents in the school, as well as lowered performance by students of color.
Roy Dexheimer: The facts called for a lengthy suspension (and home tutoring). The next conversation is with the principal, to talk quietly about his understandable declaration to the staff. Point out your obligation to make decisions on facts, not tacit pressure from staff or principal.
Give the principal choices: Let him explain to the staff that he felt strongly about the incident, but in calmer moments also felt the consequences were appropriate or offer to go to the staff yourself, take their heat and anger, but make clear that the principal had followed through and you, in turn, had refused to accept his resignation. Bottom line: Both girls deserved a chance to move on after a long cooling off period, and a fine principal deserved to continue his stewardship influencing many other young lives.
Paula Mirk: The school principal made a mistake, no doubt in an emotionally charged state and perhaps under pressure from his constituents. Let’s hope that his remark had nothing to do with the race of the aggressor but was a reaction to the brutality of the beating, which is indicated by the significant length of suspension once the facts were gathered.
Because the two girls involved in this incident are students of his school, the principal will need to find the forgiveness not only to welcome both back but to commit to addressing the issues that have led to this behavior in the first place. By vowing to resign if one of the girls returned, he signaled that for certain students, in certain circumstances, washing one’s hands of a child in need is justified.
Our broadest purpose as educators is to prepare the next generation to be responsible, respectful and compassionate contributors to society, and as adults in a school context we must model and uphold such values. The superintendent now should urge the school principal to make a public apology about his remark, explain why it was irresponsible to do so and describe the steps he plans to take to help both girls on their return to the school.
In the name of networking and building positive relationships with community partners, school district department heads routinely purchase tables at fundraising dinners for other community organizations. These tables are filled mostly by school board members and top-level administrators in the district. Is this expenditure of public funds appropriate?
Shelley Berman: This situation presents a common but uncomfortable challenge for district administrators and boards of education. Districts often are asked to purchase tables for a wide range of events, such as dinners in which an organization awards student scholarships, events honoring local legislators for their contributions to education and events raising funds to support programs for youth. The occasions often serve as public acknowledgement of the important relationship between the community organization and the school district. The events allow the organization’s members to see district leaders participating as a community partner, and they enable district leaders to demonstrate publicly their support for these causes.
In some communities, governmental agencies such as the mayor’s office, county government or public utilities also purchase tables at events, and the citizens view this practice as an appropriate way to demonstrate the partnership between the private non-profit sector and the public sector. At some events, the keynote address or other program component qualifies as professional development for district leaders or board members.
The way these tables are purchased also varies. Some districts purchase tables from district funds to show their support for, partnership with or co-sponsorship of community organizations that assist young people. Other districts may coordinate the purchase of tables on behalf of the board and district leaders, but those who attend actually pay for their seats with personal funds. Still other districts rely on funds raised by local education foundations to purchase tables at important events.
Regardless of the potential benefits that can be derived from supporting community partners by purchasing tables at their events, some districts believe this practice is -- or their community would construe it to be -- a misuse of public tax dollars and so avoid it completely. This perception is even more likely to be the case in difficult economic periods, such as those occasioned by a nationwide recession or the shuttering of a major local employer. In these districts -- indeed, perhaps in many districts -- it is advisable that board members, administrators and other district staff purchase the seats from their own personal funds rather than from district funds and rotate representation among district leaders to preclude anyone from incurring excessive costs.
However, even in those communities where the purchase of tables is accepted as a reasonable way to demonstrate the partnership between the private non-profit sector and the public sector, specific guidelines should be enacted and enforced to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. For example, decisions about purchasing tables should be made through an open process at the district level, not by individual departments. There must be sufficient oversight and a system of checks and balances to prevent the potential misuse of district funds.
Most important of all, if a district chooses to underwrite the cost of tables at organizational events, complete transparency about these transactions is essential. The costs should be limited and clearly identified in the district budget. Participation in any specific activity should also take into consideration whether the goal is simply fundraising or if there is a broader purpose such as recognizing community leaders, honoring students or celebrating important accomplishments. For those events that are selected, it may be appropriate to offer seats to a diverse group that includes teachers, support staff, students or parents who are involved in the partnership or the programs that the organization supports, thereby benefitting a diversity of staff and constituents rather than just district leaders.
Having a consistent and open process not only helps the district make better decisions, but also provides clarity for all those who seek the participation of the board and district leaders at their events. In the end, how a district responds to this ethical question is in large part a reflection of the circumstances peculiar to that community at that point in time. Each district’s leadership and board should determine whether the end (inter-organizational support) justifies the means (use of public dollars) and, above all, should ensure that any public review of the practice of purchasing tables would not distract from or become a detriment to the district’s primary mission of educating students.
Paula Mirk: Strictly speaking, it’s not ethical to do this if the money used to purchase a table is taxpayer money. I understand the importance of networking and of building positive relationships with community partners, but any time taxpayer money is involved, we have to be cautious of slippery slopes. There are many ways to network and build relationships, after all. If a department head truly felt a community organization could advance the learning of students in that department, it might be wiser to organize a way to raise funds for the table.
I also sense a question mark about “school board members and top level administrators” enjoying these events. If the department head wants to serve the students, is the logic for superintendent and school committee participation clear? The “headline test” could come in handy for this purpose. Could it read “students, parents, teachers and leadership all enjoy a community organization event” instead of “top brass once again get to sit at the table?” That would be a factor to consider on many levels, not least of which is this: How are our students best served in this case?
Karl Hertz: It probably would be hard to find a statute in most states that specifically prohibits this situation. Therefore, in analyzing the expenditure, leadership would be wise to consider public perceptions for an answer. While “building positive relationships” is indeed a good thing, it is hard to imagine the average citizen would endorse this practice. In my experience, the school board and administrators felt it was good to be at such events and happily paid for the tickets because it gave us considerable peace of mind.
A candidate for school district communications director with an impressive résumé touting 30 years of public relations experience does not mention a pair of noncriminal state ethics commission violations for a conflict of interest and lobbying incident almost a decade prior. A few days after his hiring, a local newspaper discovers via a Google search the individual had been assessed a $14,000 fine for the earlier acts. He submits his resignation to the superintendent the next day. Should the superintendent promote a statute of limitations on past mistakes?
Shelley Berman: The issue in this case is not whether an individual can overcome past mistakes, but whether it is appropriate and responsible to reveal these past mistakes to a prospective employer so that an appropriate decision can be made prior to the individual’s hiring.
In this case, the candidate took the right action in tendering his resignation immediately. The superintendent would be wise to accept that resignation because the candidate’s lack of candor about the earlier ethics violations compromises the integrity that a school communications director needs to demonstrate to be credible in the eyes of the press, community and general public.
The position of communications director is a very sensitive, highly public position. If the candidate had revealed the violations earlier in the hiring process, the superintendent would have had an opportunity to consider whether they were sufficiently egregious to disqualify the individual simply based on the facts in that situation. Depending on the circumstances of the violations, had the candidate provided some evidence of his integrity in addressing them when they occurred and in his years of experience since, the superintendent could have chosen to make a case that the individual’s impressive record, openness, remorse and length of time since the violations provided sufficient justification for offering the candidate the director position. However, such a stance would present a significant risk to the credibility of the superintendent and the district.
The superintendent needs to have the utmost confidence in the trustworthiness, credibility and competence of the district’s communications director. In this case, the candidate demonstrated poor judgment and insufficient ethical standards in not being straightforward about the earlier violations and thus further compromised his career.
Roy Dexheimer: The ethical lapse here is not in making a mistake and then making restitution. The lapse is the candidate’s failure to be forthcoming in the interviews. It's one thing for the superintendent to be able to say, "We knew about this, and I've decided it's tolerable for a second chance." But it’s quite another to learn about it for the first time in the newspaper following the appointment.
Paula Mirk: More importantly than promoting a statute of limitations, the superintendent should research the situation thoroughly and take this opportunity to talk about forgiveness, if the case warrants it.
Certainly the candidate should have been honest during the interview process, not just because such transgressions do tend to come out nowadays but as an opportunity to demonstrate his evolution in ethics during the decade since the incident. He could have discussed what he learned from these mistakes and how he has done his job differently as a result. Then there would have been time to plan a response to the press. Now the superintendent can only assess the facts of the earlier incident, the regrettable outcomes of this candidate’s earlier decision making and the growth demonstrated since then.
The superintendent should provide informal support to the candidate if that ethical growth has taken place, and when others ask, offer the reminder that all of us make mistakes and often we benefit in learning from those mistakes.
This modeling by the superintendent may be the vital signal and substance needed at the school level to empower forgiveness toward young people and their mistakes. A punitive, inflexible approach to discipline engages rules but often doesn’t engage values such as compassion or respect or even honesty.
The superintendent can’t reinstate the candidate – and a $14,000 fine may suggest serious enough violations not to warrant it. The emphasis can be: “We all make mistakes, and let’s take this opportunity to consider our response when others, especially our young people, are guilty of tripping up.”
Karl Hertz: It is always kind to give a person a second chance. However, in this case, one needs to dig deeper to find out what questions the candidate was asked before he was hired. It is common today to ask if a candidate has legal actions from the past or other matters that may be embarrassing to the school district or the candidate.
In this scenario, the ethics violations of the past have been labeled “noncriminal,” but they certainly are embarrassing both to the candidate and the district. Otherwise, the candidate would not have resigned the next day.
By leaving out this piece of past history, he is going to have to live with the loss of the position. He would be wise to candidly and immediately inform future employers of his problem in the ethics case.
Two K-12 directors responsible for math and literacy curricula in the school district often must work together to get a common project completed. One director is a self-starter and routinely works extra hours to do a job well. The other makes contributions but is a 40-hour-a-week person who is content to let her colleague shoulder most of the load. Should the superintendent continue giving extra assignments to the self-starter in order to get work done and meet timelines? Or will this lead the strong performer to burn out or transfer to another school district in the region?
Granted, it is important and reasonable that district leaders have a balanced life and that the demands on them are manageable. However, in my 20 years as a superintendent, I have yet to meet an effective district leader who simply works a 40-hour schedule and allows others to pick up the extra load. If the superintendent in this scenario is aware of the habitually disproportionate effort and ignores it, he or she is shirking the responsibility to develop professional behavior within the staff.
In this case, the superintendent needs to make expectations clear and assign projects that can be equitably balanced between the directors. If the 40-hour-a-week person still doesn’t step up and meet the expectations for shouldering a fair share of the workload and responsibility, it is time to have a respectful conversation about taking a different position that requires less initiative and a more routine schedule. The 40-hour director need not be made to feel guilty about doing less work than the colleague but must choose among priorities and make a decision that addresses the needs and expectations of the district.
Roy Dexheimer: Fascinating dilemma. The gaps in achievements between self-starters who go extra miles and by-the-job-description employees can be frustrating to everyone (including the employee doing the minimum of what's required and who is made to look bad by a zealous colleague raising the bar).
I think it is questionable for the superintendent to give extra assignments to the harder worker, however tempting that might be. Tasks should be assigned with clear timelines and expectations for outcomes to both employees. That being said, it appears my sainted grandmother was right in still another of her aphorisms: “If you want something done, give it to a busy person."
Paula Mirk: This is a fairness issue, important in many ways, not the least being the tone and signal regarding “group work” that could even trickle down to students and how they work together. By making good choices at the adult level, the superintendent could be influencing the culture of practice around projects and collaboration in classrooms.
The superintendent should find a way to commend and motivate the self-starter while not alienating or in any way discriminating against the person who does an adequate, 40-hour-a-week job.
The phrases “content to let her colleague shoulder most of the load” and “giving extra assignments” seem key here. Colleagues should share their loads if they’re collaborating, but the aggregate shouldn’t exceed what’s possible within the parameters of their job. If the superintendent is giving “extra assignments” that are actually required, then there’s certainly potential for burnout and transfer.
If, on the other hand, the projects are designed with optional extra assignments – components the self-starter can choose to take on – that’s a different story. The choice to do extra work should result in credit or advancement that is communicated to both teachers in advance. Both the choice to go the extra mile and the choice not to should be honored.
It’s not uncommon to hear from students that they loathe group work. Since collaboration is a 21st-century skill all our students need to develop, it’s critical we design processes to make project-driven learning successful for all involved. When the superintendent goes to the trouble of setting up the core requirements and the optional assignments for professionals, a model is being provided that can also help disenchanted students re-engage with group work in their classrooms.
Karl Hertz: Every sizable organization has “40 hours and out” people. The superintendent might well start by deciding whether the curriculum projects needed to be shared. This in itself could give relief to the more dedicated director.
There are many ways to reward the more productive person. They could include pay, recognition and advancement. The key is not to have hard workers feel they are being exploited.
The superintendent may wish to give the shirker a less than glowing evaluation. It is important that people clearly know there is dissatisfaction.
When friction exists, it is often helpful to sit down both individuals with the superintendent, put the leader’s impressions before them and let the dialogue develop. In this circumstance, doing nothing is not fair.
A candidate for a middle school principalship – someone who has taught in a neighboring school system – is passed over for the opening. He contends he has been rejected because he is openly gay. Some parents at the school with the vacancy have voiced concerns about having their children under the daily direction of gay employees. How should the superintendent deal with these complaints – from the parents as well as the gay teacher?
Shelley Berman: Sexual orientation cannot be a factor in the hiring process. Federal law (Title VII) prohibits employment decisions based on gender stereotyping, and about half of the states have laws expressly prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in employment decisions.
Apart from legal considerations, best practices in hiring exclude discussion of any personal issues unrelated to job responsibilities, including a candidate’s racial or familial background, sexual orientation or political beliefs.
Whether or not the applicant files a complaint with the district, the superintendent has an obligation to investigate and determine if the process was biased. If it is found there were comments or discussion about the candidate’s sexual orientation that influenced members of the hiring committee, the superintendent should void the decision of the committee and restart the entire process. If a complaint is filed with the EEOC or the state counterpart of the EEOC, that agency will initiate a formal investigation and the process will assuredly become a lengthier one. This fact underscores the need for the district to conduct its own investigation promptly and — if it uncovers evidence that the hiring decision was based on unlawful considerations — to immediately correct its process.
Although societal values have changed dramatically in the last decades around the issue of openly gay individuals, some parents are still concerned when gay teachers and administrators are in a position of authority relative to their children. The superintendent should see this situation as an opportunity to engage with these parents and listen carefully to their concerns. It is only through school leaders’ listening and responding appropriately that parents can become more at ease with the inclusion of all types of diversity.
After spending time listening, the superintendent can respond to parents’ concerns by emphasizing it is inappropriate for any staff member to advocate for a particular sexual orientation and that sexual orientation has no bearing on one’s professional abilities. Any staff member hired by the district is expected to hold high moral standards, and it is anticipated that someone who is openly gay will hold those same standards. If, in the judgment of the hiring committee, an individual is found to have professional assets that will serve the district better than those of other candidates, the district should take advantage of the opportunity to have that person join the district. Sexual orientation has no role in the decision.
Some parents may still find this stance personally difficult. The superintendent needs to grasp this situation as a teachable moment that may broaden the perspective and understanding of these parents and enable them to become more open and appreciative of the opportunity to be inclusive. At the same time, the superintendent must take a firm and positive position on professional, moral and legal grounds.
Paula Mirk: Documentation, as the data for decision making, is so important just for cases like these. The superintendent should have a clear picture of the process for choice of principal and, even if the details are confidential, the factors or criteria for selection shouldn’t be. The process should reaffirm the laws of the land by being “blind” to gender, race or sexual orientation.
Meanwhile, the superintendent also needs a process to help parents understand these inalienable rights. The process should underscore the district’s commitment to fairness and respect, and should perhaps include an element about parental responsibility in a public school environment.
All of us should be committed to schools that do not discriminate, particularly in a public school context. If parents are raising “gay employees” as an issue, they’re undermining the district’s and their own children’s ability to operate according to a basic philosophy of our nation, which public schools represent.
Roy Dexheimer: Assuming that the candidate wasn't passed over for this reason, I think both the candidate and the parents ought to be reassured that a selection was based upon merit and experiences, that the school district fully recognizes its obligations under the appropriate statutes and that no evidence has emerged to support the allegation of sexual orientation as a factor in the decision.
The parents, in particular, need to be firmly assured that the district did not in this instance, nor will it in future instances, discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Karl Hertz: There are clearly two key parts to this administrative challenge: the assertion by the candidate that being gay was a consideration in not getting the position and the parents’ expression of concern with the children being under the direction of a gay person.
Ethically and legally the school district must make it clear what its policies regarding the topic are. Hopefully, they have past practices that they may cite to demonstrate they have taken the appropriate path over a period of time. This in itself may help the candidate understand that his sexual orientation is not the reason for the district’s decision.
The parents, too, may need to see the policies and decisions of the past as a basis for the current actions. It is likely that explanation of nondiscrimination laws will have considerable impact on the parents.
My analysis is based on the assumption the district did act appropriately, legally, ethically, within policies and without prejudice.
A couple with two children in the school district donate time and money to computerize a successful remedial math program started by one of their children’s middle school teachers. Several educators, including a private school administrator, have come to observe the program in action and are interested in using it in their classrooms. The teacher would be pleased to sell the program to them and other math teachers. May the public school classroom serve as a showroom for interested visitors and should the teacher be allowed to profit off her idea?
Shelley Berman: The teacher deserves credit and acknowledgement for creating a successful remedial math program, as do the donors for supporting its development. The ethics question at the heart of this case is the issue of conflict of interest. Marketing one’s own materials in the course of one’s employment as a teacher has the potential for undermining public trust in the independence of teacher/administrator judgment in the selection of programs and materials.
Given that the teacher developed and tested the math program as an outgrowth of her employment, the product is not legitimately a private product that she can market or sell. If the program was developed in the scope of her teaching duties or during school time, even though it was funded by donations, she does not “own” the program unless there is a district policy specifically allowing it. This precludes using her classroom as a showroom to advertise a program from which she -- or relatives or friends -- may profit because she would be using her position and district facilities for personal gain.
In most states, statutes and guidelines for public employees make it unlawful and/or unethical for this teacher to use her position to obtain financial benefit for herself or for a private business to which she has a connection. A teacher may operate a private business while employed by a district, but should not use public time or facilities to promote or profit from that business.
As for the profits from the successful program, I am nervous about that — especially since it was funded initially by those parents. Perhaps one option is for the school or the math program to share the profits. (I think this might often be the protocol of research universities.) But a case can be made that teachers who develop unique programs for their classes are free to market them if they can find a buyer. Most textbooks are initiated that way.
To help find a resolution, I'd engage the school district attorney.
Paula Mirk: Mixing classrooms and commercialism is a slippery slope because it risks an impact on the primary purpose of classrooms and schools. If the computerization of this program adds value to the product, it’s even more slippery because the intellectual property rights must be worked out with the parents supporting the venture as well.
To keep the situation squarely focused on learning and serving students, any aspect of sales and production should happen off-site and through off-hours channels such as publishing companies. Meanwhile, making the classroom a place where learning is shared beyond the walls can be stimulating and gratifying to students and their teacher.
An orderly, nondisruptive process to acquaint educators with an effective approach, practice or teaching tool could be justified if observation were required. But the focus should be on shared learning and should not involve commercializing or using student experiences toward sales.
When the ingredients are interwoven, this mingling brings on the potential unethical pitfalls. Should the parents share in the profits of the teacher’s intellectual property? Should the public school classroom become a showcase for promoting a profit-making scheme? Should the school system share in the profits? Are school policies being violated? Who would realize any profits from this? One can easily see work for lawyers in this scenario.
This is a complicated ethical question when we join the four major variables. The parties to this case might be wise to put aside the profit feature of this dilemma.
A board member has a 12-year-old nephew in another state who commits suicide in response to persistent bullying. The board member insists the district should require every student in grades K-8 to participate in an anti-bullying curriculum for 30 minutes a week. He contends student safety is the one priority that trumps academic achievement. At a public meeting, he says the superintendent would be “ethically remiss” for not tackling this problem — even if it means cutting out time from academics. How should the superintendent respond?
Shelley Berman: The board member’s emotional response to his nephew’s suicide is understandable, as is his desire to take whatever measures are necessary to prevent bullying. Suicide produces significant trauma in families, and its causes are complex. As in this case, bullying can be a contributing factor, often in conjunction with other circumstances.
Schools can and should take an active role in helping to prevent bullying. It is important for all students to understand the dynamics of bullying and how to best intervene and seek adult assistance. However, an anti-bullying curriculum offered thirty minutes each week is likely to have limited impact because it does not deeply penetrate the students’ environments — the environments where bullying takes place. The most powerful preventive program for bullying is a strong, school-wide, social-emotional learning program that teaches students positive social skills, creates a caring community in the classroom and school, and supports the development of social responsibility among students.
To create such a program, administrators and teachers need to be as thoughtful in structuring the social environment as they are in implementing the academic program. Through such strategies as class meetings, community-building activities, peer mentoring, service learning, parent involvement, and discipline that emphasizes social development over rewards and punishment, schools can foster students’ social development, along with conflict resolution and collaboration skills. The social curriculum can create the scaffolding for students to feel safe while learning and to carry those skills into environments beyond the school. Classrooms where respect, tolerance and social support are the norm create a foundation of social-emotional safety that both prevents bullying and supports academic progress. Integrated into this larger context, curricular discussions of bullying can present helpful case studies of how to identify and address demeaning verbal, physical and cyber acts of aggression.
In response to this grieving board member, and to help him understand how a comprehensive approach can be more effective than a narrow curriculum, I would share the research collected by such organizations as the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and the Developmental Studies Center. I would also ask him to attend conferences and seminars on the subject so that he could help provide the necessary leadership to encourage the board to take a more comprehensive approach. His passion and understanding could help the district create a more positive social and academic climate, while addressing his desire to prevent bullying that may contribute to youth suicide.
With this approach, curricular time constraints do not need to pit anti-bullying against instruction in core subject areas. Social-emotional learning enables an anti-bullying climate to permeate the students’ entire academic and extra-curricular day — an approach more likely to have a significant impact on the lifelong interactions of impressionable youth.
Roy Dexheimer: The superintendent must respond diplomatically, and not in public. Does the school district already have a policy in place? Can the bereaved uncle be reminded by the board president that policies come from the full board, not an individual member (and resist the temptation to point out the tragedy occurred in another district, and perhaps they are the ones in need of a policy)?
The superintendent also should gently point out that bullying is only one cause of youth suicide, and the district ought to look at the broader picture, not just bullying. In any case, if the district does not have these policies, it's time to form an inclusive task force to debate and formulate them, in a timely way.
And it would be a nice gesture if the superintendent sent a note of condolence to the neighboring district.
Paula Mirk: The school board member is right: it would be “ethically remiss” to provide only academics in any of our schools, given that the broadest purpose of our public education system is to contribute to a better society through our students as future leaders and participants.
But the superintendent knows this is not an either/or issue. It’s possible, and preferable, to integrate an ethical lens into all activity of a school by building a culture based on integrity. Schools that use questions about “what’s right” to undergird programming, discipline approaches and communication and as a vital dimension to curriculum create meaningful learning environments with a better chance of meeting the needs of all students on a variety of levels — not just academic.
Also, there is no reason to limit this focus to K-8. Adolescence is a formative, impactful opportunity for ethical development. Infusing the life of high schools with substantive, relevant questions about “who we are” stimulates learning while contributing to emotional and societal well-being.
Karl Hertz: “Ethically remiss” is a significant potential culpability with which to threaten a caring educator. Who would want to feel responsible in the unhappy eventuality that a bullying tragedy happened? In fact, the school board member may be subconsciously passing his own potential moral role to the superintendent should something untoward happen to a child.
If we think about this situation, the same sort of potential blame could be threatened if a superintendent did not put an armed guard at each door of every schoolhouse. Ethically, the administrator must weigh all the obligations of teaching the children and keeping them safe.
Society calls upon educators for ever more responsibilities. We are called upon to keep our youngsters from taking drugs, to teach them not to smoke, to impart economic education, to encourage and demonstrate the acquisition of information through technology, to impart a non-offensive human growth curriculum, to honor people of all races, religions, ethnic groups and nationalities and to teach math, science, reading, language and history in more depth than ever. Oh, and we are not to neglect the arts, music and physical education.
The ethical thing to do is to blend the topic of bullying into the curriculum with all the energy that is extended to the other important topics.
A long-term support staff employee in the school district has two years remaining before he’s eligible for full retirement. He has been a valued employee. In recent months, he frequently has been late to work and no longer performs work to standards. Others in the department are tired of carrying this person's load and want him fired or transferred to another department. How should you proceed?
Shelley Berman: The first step is for the department head to meet with the employee and have an honest conversation about the changes that people perceive. The tardiness and other behaviors that are affecting his work could have many causes.
It is important to understand the employee’s personal situation and to determine whether specific factors might be addressed. For example, there may be a health- or family-related explanation that could be acknowledged and temporarily accommodated. Alternatively, the district may have a suitable vacancy in another position that would re-kindle the employee’s career interest and enable him to work until his full retirement date. On the other hand, the individual may actually be ready to retire. A conversation with his department head could help clarify his interest in an earlier retirement.
As a valued, long-term employee, he should be treated with respect, dignity and honesty so that he can understand the impact his work-related actions are having on others. Correspondingly, and in fairness to the district and his co-workers, he is responsible for cooperating with his department head to devise a plan that ensures he either meets the expectations of his assigned position or sets an imminent date to retire.
It isn't ethical to leave someone in a position he or she cannot perform, which burdens other staff and deprives students of the teaching effort they deserve. But it's also unethical, in my judgment, to ignore an entire career of distinguished service. Find a solution that is right for both the district this employee.
Immediate communication with the teacher is in order. Why is he burning out and what can take place to help him? The teacher must be made aware of the impact of his behavior on others (while not spelling out their wish to fire or transfer him), and specific, reasonable goals must be established within a satisfactory timetable.
If the individual promises to do better, he should be given the opportunity. Or the employee might bring forth conflicts in the work environment that makes him unmotivated to attend to duties. I had an employee with such a problem, and we found a position for him as a delivery person who worked alone and returned to excellent work habits.
It is not ethical to do less than a person’s best, but long effective service deserves the chance to improve. However, the institution and the effective education of children come first, and a person must realize the reality that he may be yielding his position if a return to good performance is not realized.
Central-office administrators and principals in a school district routinely use their funds, which come from tax dollars, to provide beverages, snack foods and cookies at after-school meetings and at work sessions during the workday. A director of homeless shelters in the community privately questions the superintendent about whether this practice is appropriate and should be condoned.
Shelley Berman: I find the question raised by the director to be both ethically and logically problematic in that it redirects attention away from the real issue and presents a false choice between snacks for public school educators and meals for the homeless. The question frames the problem as one of appropriate expenditure of limited public resources when the real ethical dilemma is the failure of our society to adequately fund two societal obligations — high-quality education and the eradication of homelessness.
The fact that the wealthiest society in the world neglects to provide a safety net of social supports and economic policies to address poverty and eliminate homelessness is, in itself, a serious ethical issue. Regrettably, the rise of selfishness as a justifiable ethical position and its expression in “no tax” policies have served to escalate rather than address homelessness, as well as to wrongly pit valuable social programs against one another.
In addition, the question raised by the director suggests that public servants who are doing their best to educate the vast majority of the country’s poor children should somehow bear more responsibility than other groups for addressing homelessness. Would the shelter director equally indicate to the Chamber of Commerce, other business associations or private schools — all of which provide refreshments at meetings as standard practice — that such snacks are ethically problematic and that those funds should be donated to the homeless shelter instead? In addition to this potential double standard, the director’s question implies a false choice since any decision to not expend resources on snacks would have no direct impact on funding for homelessness.
The question of whether the provision of refreshments at meetings is a justifiable expenditure of public funds can be a sincere one. School districts offer refreshments — if they can afford even a minimal level of such hospitality — because the meeting or workshop asks staff to go beyond their normal classroom duties and to participate in after-school activities. Teachers and administrators work an exhausting daily schedule. If a modest beverage or snack enables people to participate more fully and enhances their productivity, then the small investment of resources is well worth it and is entirely ethical.
However, to focus on schools’ provision of simple snacks, rather than on the root policies that allow homelessness to continue, misdirects our attention away from the real issue and supports an attitude of disrespect for public educators. Maybe the shelter director should raise the larger ethical issues surrounding homelessness — and raise them with an audience of community leaders that extends beyond the school superintendent who is dedicated to serving much of the same clientele. Rather than quibbling over the disposition of limited public funds, the superintendent and shelter director could instead join forces to advocate for a full array of social services including what is needed in schools, particularly for social supports for homeless children, and for jobs, food and shelter for the homeless of all ages.
Roy Dexheimer: Wrong dilemma. The school is not responsible for poverty in Haiti or hunger in the Congo. The more relevant dilemma, I have the temerity to suggest, is to justify the cost of these goodies (which can be surprisingly high over a year) if the school district has cut art supplies for students or musical instruments or library books. Then, despite the goodwill and friendly tone refreshments bring to a meeting or a workshop, it isn't right.
It’s a tough culture to change. I know I tried many times!
Paula Mirk: Within reason, taking care of employees should be a standard practice related to the core ethical values of fairness, compassion, responsibility and respect. But funding for this should be reasonable and budgeted in the public record.
If such a practice got the attention of the director of the homeless shelter, it may mean the spending outlay was excessive enough to attract attention and scrutiny. There may be an opportunity here to engage faculty in connecting to the needs of the homeless shelter, to invite the director to visit school and talk about needs and challenges there and to build faculty awareness about what others don’t have that they may take for granted. This could lead to positive learning for faculty and eventually students.
Karl Hertz: This scenario brings to mind what is described as “unintended consequences.” When school people use tax dollars for refreshments at meetings after the students’ school day, it is likely they hope to build morale. There is no devious intention.
However, the tax money that is sent to the schools may not be seen by the average taxpayer as being used for refreshments for the staff. Now, here come the unintended consequences. School people doing their best to have a creative motivated atmosphere may find themselves defending a no-win situation.
In some districts, money realized from vending machine profits are used for motivational purposes, which also may be questioned, but hopefully such an approach protects the schools from ethical questions.
The bookkeeper at the school district’s high school is found to be pilfering small amounts of money, now totaling about $500, from the student activity fund. The fund consists of money collected by various student organizations and contributions from parents. It does not include public tax dollars. The bookkeeper is a single parent with a good work record over seven years and no criminal history. In the past year, her preschool-age daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer and needs expensive treatment and medical travel not covered by her health insurance policy. Should the school district press charges?
Shelley Berman: Although the bookkeeper has a good work history, her recent acts of theft betrayed the trust that parents, staff and the district placed in her. Granted, she faces challenging family circumstances and may have made a poor decision out of a sense of desperation. However, an employee’s personal situation does not justify the appropriation of even small amounts of funds that were intended to benefit students.
Indeed, had she asked colleagues and others for support during this difficult time in her life, it is likely many would have offered assistance. The fact money was stolen on multiple occasions points to an unacceptable pattern of behavior. While one cannot help but feel compassion for the daughter’s medical condition, at this point a simple expression of remorse by the bookkeeper would be an insufficient response. The public trust has been violated, and it is neither just nor appropriate that the bookkeeper remain in her position. The district has an obligation to press charges that will likely result in a misdemeanor offense and, potentially, restitution of the funds.
Paula Mirk: Since public dollars were not pilfered, the district has some discretion about what to do here and pressing charges is one of many ways to respond, but perhaps not the most instructive.
Just as with student discipline, the hope in this case would be that learning takes place and the stealing is never repeated. Seven years of good work should count for something, and we all can feel compassion toward someone with the difficult financial and personal situation this bookkeeper faces.
It would be irresponsible to do nothing, and this is an opportunity for modeling core ethical values for our students. The bookkeeper should be warned, should be strictly supervised for a specified period of time but should also be required to meet with those student groups affected, to discuss with them the temptations presented and the error of her ways, and to express her regret directly.
Roy Dexheimer: This one is tricky. On the one hand, you’re looking at the established record of a valued employee over the years and the poignant story of family illness. On the other hand, you face the danger of precedent. Following the lead of our beloved Supreme Court, I'm likely to take my chances with challenging precedents.
My recommendation would be to meet with the employee, set up a program of minimal repayments (e.g., $ 10 a month), put a record of the incident in her personnel file, pledge to remove the record from her file when the debt is repaid and there are no further problems, and put better accounting procedures in place for the non-taxpayer funds in the district.
Keeping a deserving and maybe desperate life intact seems more ethical to me than pressing charges and adding to her misery.
Karl Hertz: When weighing the ethical question in this case and discerning the greater good, one is confronted with a relatively minor offense being compared with the consequences of the woman losing the position. If we assume the offense is not public knowledge, then the secondary effects of this decision about pressing criminal charges become relatively insignificant and a simple relocation to a position where the person does not handle money could occur quietly.
If on the other hand there is public knowledge of the offense, then concern over secondary effects becomes a factor. For instance, if children know about what has happened and are given the notion that stealing will be forgiven the first time, another variable comes into play. In such a scenario, there would have to be ramifications of the pilfering, even if they were not formal charges.
Community members have responded to their town’s worsening budget situation by volunteering at the libraries in each of the school district’s six schools. They commit so many hours that the district has laid off a couple of long-term full-time employees. Having fewer employees means a slight reduction in property taxes, but it harms those left jobless. Should the school district’s leadership reconsider the extent to which it relies on volunteers?
Shelley Berman: Communities want quality schools. In their compassion for children, community members often step forward to fill gaps emerging from schools’ financial difficulties. Bringing volunteers into the school in support roles builds on individuals’ generosity in a way that clearly benefits students and staff. It also educates citizens about the challenges teachers, schools and the district face in hard economic times.
Faced with declining revenues, many schools reluctantly reduce or eliminate media specialists and other special area staff. Class sizes increase and support services to children decline. Using volunteers as a stopgap measure is an acceptable response until conditions improve. However, volunteers should not be used to intentionally replace employees in order to reduce taxes. If labor reductions are necessary, they should be made thoughtfully, systemically and ethically, not opportunistically.
Taking advantage of volunteers’ generosity in order to replace employees compromises the community’s well-being and quality of life and its sense of fairness to individuals who serve the common good. It replaces professionals qualified to offer exemplary services with well-meaning but untrained individuals who cannot provide students with a comparable level of service and reliability.
Taxes sustain our common commitments and the common good. The district’s role is to maximize opportunities to improve the success of children and to present the community with a realistic request for funding that best meets students’ needs. When the community’s economics seriously compromise its ability to raise sufficient revenues, schools have to adjust, but these decisions should be based upon students’ best interests. The district should not replace employees with volunteers simply as an expedient way to reduce taxes.
Nevertheless, this district should seize the opportunity to welcome and encourage volunteers. Volunteers can supplement, rather than supplant, the support provided to students through alternative uses of their time and energy that do not entail taking employees’ jobs. The district has an opportunity to provide added support to children, while educating the community about the importance of adequately funding schools so that students have the learning experiences necessary for success.
Long-term, full-time employees can represent value-added for the district or not, depending on how much expertise they’ve developed in their role or through professional development. It’s hard to believe this would be an “all things being equal” dilemma because volunteers may or may not have skill sets equal to or better than long-term, permanent employees. Rather than using tax dollars or joblessness as the measure, the district must carefully consider which people are doing the best job for the students – probably case-by-case.
Roy Dexheimer: Volunteers are wonderful. They often perform tasks others don't have time to do, and they can be great ambassadors for school support in the community (or the opposite, now and again).
However, they are not necessarily dependable or even knowledgeable about protocols in some instances. There is skill required in managing a library, and while extra hands are welcomed, sometimes you need more, not less, professional time to oversee volunteers’ efforts. Volunteers are not replacements.
This isn't so much a matter of ethical behavior as much as it just isn't smart management. Would we lay off police officers or firefighters and replace them with eager but untrained volunteers? Not likely.
Karl Hertz: The situation posed is whether property taxes or staff members being left jobless should take precedence. To answer this dilemma, one should first answer the pressing question of how this may or may not be affecting the children. It may be in the children that we find the “greater good” that is so important in ethical cases.
For instance, if the volunteers are willing folks but not providing for the needs of the students, such as not having technology skills, the school district’s leadership may have the ingredient that tips the scales in favor of rehiring the employees. On the other hand, if the large number of volunteers is doing as well or better than the staff had done, the scales may tip in favor of moving forward with the volunteers.
By going to the heart of the matter, namely assessing what is best for kids, a choice between two potentially beneficial situations may be answered.
During player tryouts for the freshman baseball team at the district’s high school, the coach is asked to give special consideration to a boy whose father recently died of cancer. The boy is not very good at baseball, unlikely to be among the 15 who earn roster spots. The community is pressuring the coach to “do the right thing” for the boy and a family coping with tragedy. They say some things transcend baseball skill. But what about the better player whose spot he would be taking? What is the right action? The coach comes to you for advice.
Shelley Berman: The community’s concern and desire to support the student is an important expression of compassion. It should be acted upon in a meaningful way. However, given the cut policy for making the team, placing him on the roster of 15 would not be beneficial or equitable for that student or for other students. It could even lead to some resentment from non-selected players and their families and friends.
An unearned selection is not the kind of expression of care and support that would help him recover from this loss. If the student is interested, the coach might consider involving him in another capacity, such as equipment manager, scheduling assistant or data recorder during practices.
There is a larger ethical issue related to roster-cut policies. Athletics in high school and below should be about learning, development and teamwork, particularly at levels lower than varsity. I’m a strong believer in a no-cut policy that provides opportunity for all students, even those with physical disabilities, to participate. Schools can support expanded rosters or multiple teams at various levels and schedule appropriately competitive games that provide all students with the opportunity to develop and enjoy being part of an athletic team.
If the school had a no-cut policy in place, the student’s participation would have been a question of choice, not exception.
Joan McRobbie: This is a very tough dilemma for a coach. Fairness to other players seems to dictate sticking strictly to merit, choosing only those players who earn selection during tryouts. Yet cutting this boy seems heartless under the circumstances. And despite pressures from community members sympathetic to this boy, there will be pushback from others if they feel better qualified players were denied.
Rather than box himself into just these two choices, the coach may want to consider alternative courses of action. One is to expand the number of players on the roster. The size of the roster was likely based on multiple factors, including resources. But the number is also fairly arbitrary. Expanding to 16 may look too obviously like an accommodation for this boy, but is that a bad thing?
Even if the roster stays at 15, the coach will surely consider this is a freshman team. Players this young are still growing and developing and can improve in all sorts of ways over the coming months and years. This boy may practice intensively, improve markedly and have a very good season.
Moreover, it is the case that school sports are about more than winning — or should be. A good coach takes many factors other than baseball talent into account when deciding who will make the team. Among those are human concerns, such as how much the chance to play can mean for a boy trying to cope with the loss of his dad.
Coaches are important teachers of caring and citizenship. This is a chance to demonstrate for the players and community that being a team means more than going for trophies, that competitiveness without compassion is hollow.
Might some players or parents be unhappy? Of course; that’s a coach’s lot. But the community will win no matter what happens on the scoreboard.
Paula Mirk: The more I’ve worked with these kinds of dilemmas, the more I’ve learned that we adults actually have a tendency to underestimate or misplace the needs of our students.
By freshman year of high school, this boy is likely to know his own abilities and limitations as well as anyone else. He may need all sorts of help to meet his needs in such a tragedy, but putting him on the baseball team is risky. It sets him up as in some ways unable to cope and in need of special favors, and he will know he didn’t earn the spot. Thinking creatively about other ways for the boy to feel the warmth and strength and support of his community may be a more respectful way to go.
Being part of some kind of group or team would surely be a healthy next step for him, so perhaps a conversation during or after tryouts is in order. The coach could simply ask: “if you don’t make the baseball team, what other kinds of contributions would you like to make at your school? What other ways would you like to be involved?” I have been surprised frequently at the candid, practical way students assess themselves, read the terrain and understand their own best fit.
Roy Dexheimer: Unless there is a league rule limiting the number of players to 15, make this lad No. 16. If a rule exists and he really is not better than a single player on the roster, make the student a manager and let him play during intra-squad scrimmages. But get him involved. Some moments call for common sense, not rigid ethical hair splitting. This is especially true in small, rural communities.
Early in the semester, the school’s Advanced Placement’s English teacher tells her students they must attend an opera in the spring being performed about 50 miles away. Each student is expected to purchase a $65 ticket, though the school is providing transportation. The teacher asks each student to sign a "contract." Five girls on the lacrosse team discover a schedule conflict. They are told they will need to find their own transportation to the opera. Failure to attend will mean loss of the full year's credit. Parents are livid. How might you resolve this?
Shelley Berman: Attending an opera is a wonderful cultural experience that provides enrichment for students. However, it is unreasonable for a teacher to require all students to spend $65 and attend an opera 50 miles away, even if transportation is provided. It is also unjustified for the teacher to make full credit in the course contingent on attendance at the opera.
Any course encompasses an accumulation of knowledge and skills and is not dependent on one event. In addition, a student’s high school experience is multi-faceted; scheduling conflicts such as this one will inevitably emerge and need to be resolved with respect for the student’s commitments and evolving skill in decision making.
Faced with this situation, I would insist that the teacher ensure adequate scholarship resources for economically disadvantaged students and offer an alternative assignment for those unable to attend, regardless of reason, with no academic penalty attached for choosing the alternative.
The policy might require anyone to get approval from administration before expecting students to come up with cash for any purpose. It might also require that any extra costs be delineated before a student chooses to take a course. Some parents in this AP class already may have had to scramble to find the cash to pay for the typical AP costs that land on students. The opera ticket could feel like adding insult to injury.
There’s a second layer to this story that is also an ethical concern. The English teacher needs to be aware of the possible conflicts – besides the monetary ones – her plan poses. Somehow, the school needs a system for making sure everybody is aware of students’ co-curricular commitments, so that no student is forced to choose between a sports obligation and an academic obligation. The AP teacher should be aware that some of her students are involved in lacrosse and should be scheduling with consideration or working with the lacrosse coach so they don’t trip over each other. Expecting the students to find their own transportation is bad enough, but threatening “loss of the full year’s credit” is totally unreasonable.
Examination of communication systems is in order at this school on a number of fronts. The superintendent needs to take action to make sure faculty members model the respect and responsibility expected of the students. Using the language of “right vs. right decision making” may help this teacher’s thinking and development in ethics. While it is certainly right to provide interesting learning opportunities for AP English students, such as a night at the opera, it’s also right to keep in mind family financial strains and conflicting student obligations.
Roy Dexheimer: I hated when teachers put youngsters in these dilemmas. My guideline was the first standard in our AASA Code of Ethics: "… makes the education and well-being of students the fundamental value of all decision making.”
Aside from the conflict with lacrosse, if a family cannot afford the $65 for a ticket, the whole AP year is a failure? And should we bind kids to "contracts" made in the fall when the year's events are not fully known (e.g., the team unexpectedly qualifying for a lacrosse playoff).
I would direct the teacher to enforce that "contract" with a more creative and realistic solution for the conflicted students, such as renting a PBS video of the opera and writing an assigned essay. Or, if they choose, accept a failing grade for the opera attendance but not failure for the whole year. Use some common sense, for heaven's sake!
Joan McRobbie: The conflict
with lacrosse has to do with the time of departure of the bus taking
students to the opera. If the lacrosse players are being told to find
their own transportation, we can assume there may be time to drive the
50 miles after the game and still get to the opera in time. So the
parents believe the bus should not leave until the game ends. And the
teacher likely feels this would be calling it too close for a theater
arrival of a busload of students.
If this is the case, it’s
reasonable for the teacher, who planned way in advance, to insist on a
departure time that ensures sufficient leeway to get a large group of
students seated before curtain time. The contract she insisted on
indicates that she has run into this kind of problem before.
would tell the parents that I understand their concern but that the
opera commitment must be honored, including the need for the bus to
leave at the pre-planned hour. Athletics are important, but when sports
schedules conflict with academics, academics come first. The parents
need to work out alternative transportation. And I would also talk with
the lacrosse coach and the athletic director to ensure they are
reinforcing appropriate messages.
Beyond that, I would
consider this a tip-off that we may need a culture check. I would call
an informal meeting with faculty leaders, the athletic director and
student and parent representatives to review how prevalent conflicts of
this sort may be. The real agenda would be discussion of community
values and school policies. Are we in agreement about priorities? What
written, verbal and symbolic messages are we sending about how we
balance academics and athletics?
For a course in a doctoral program in educational administration, students (most of whom are superintendents or assistant superintendents) have been studying underserved and marginalized groups that comprise a large part of the area’s student population. For one project, the professor requires each student to spend an afternoon walking in the shoes of a member of such a group — for instance, a homeless person requesting money, an overweight person shopping for clothes, a same-sex couple visiting a wedding store. Jeremy, an Ed.D. student working as an assistant superintendent, tells you he’s unsettled by this assignment, wondering about using deception as a learning tool and whether he should raise a question of integrity? What might you advise?
Shelley Berman: It is reasonable for a professor to require that students more deeply understand the lives of underserved and marginalized groups. John Howard Griffin’s experience, recounted in the 1961 classic Black Like Me revealed both the overt and subtle ways black people were disparaged and how the majority culture accepted this treatment as the norm. Although society is now more aware — and hopefully more compassionate — regarding the everyday challenges faced by marginalized groups, a simulated experience is clearly a way to deepen our understanding.
However, Jeremy’s concern about using deception as a learning tool is a viable one. The TV series Candid Camera justified its decades-long premise of deception as a harmless way to make us more thoughtful about our behavior patterns. Similarly, the Milgram experiment, involving the supposed infliction of pain on another person, yielded startling insights into human responses to authoritarian direction. However, such experiments now are considered unethical because of the psychological harm they caused to unwitting participants.
Today’s mega-doses of “reality” TV have further blurred the lines between fact and fiction, perhaps contributing to our confusion about ethical propriety. With the possible exception of carefully designed and controlled scientific experiments, to intentionally misrepresent oneself or a situation is ethically problematic and dishonest and has no place in a program for developing educational leaders.
Jeremy should be encouraged to suggest to the professor some alternative, non-deceptive strategies for increasing empathy with members of underserved and minority groups. One approach could be to accompany a gay friend or colleague to a wedding store to discuss plans for an engagement ceremony. Another tactic could involve spending time with an individual from one of these groups, shadowing him or her through the daily routine. Volunteering in a homeless shelter, mental hospital or nursing home for the indigent or attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous would provide alternative opportunities to listen to and interact with marginalized individuals and to develop understanding without resorting to a ruse.
Paula Mirk: I would counsel Jeremy to raise the question of integrity. When we think through ethical issues, “intuition” often plays as strong a role as “rational thought.” Jeremy’s intuition is telling him to speak up, and my tendency is to validate that. We live in a time when rational thought trumps most everything. There is some evidence we’re increasingly trained away from listening to our intuition, and leaders need all the resources they can muster when making important decisions. Intuition is an important decision-making resource.
That said, my own point of view about the professor’s assignment is different from Jeremy’s. I’m not sure how one would stage “an overweight person shopping for clothes.” But in the other two examples — homelessness or same-sex couples — the professor isn’t requiring you to lie and claim publically to be what you’re not. People may assume you are homeless if you wear scruffy attire and a sign that says “please help me.” People may assume you are in a same-sex relationship if you shop at a wedding store with a partner of the same sex. But that’s part of the point, isn’t it? The benefits to Jeremy experiencing firsthand what it’s like to be a victim of assumptions and unfair attitudes would seem to outweigh the possible sense of deception someone might feel if their own assumptions led them to discriminate or act with prejudice.
While I would counsel Jeremy to speak up about his integrity concern, I would hope the professor could show Jeremy that part of this learning experience has to do with attitudes and perceptions, not just the literal truth.
Joan McRobbie: This professor, apparently aiming to teach empathy, perhaps is an admirer of journalistic classics like John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961) or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed (2001). But those writers chose their assignments and immersed themselves in long-term efforts to live another’s life, then share the experience broadly through their books. Empathy was the driver, not the goal.
It’s harder to see the value of an afternoon’s random act of pretense. This “requirement” also feels insulting to mid-career adults in a doctoral program who should have a say in shaping their own assignments in keeping with the goals of the course. And it would seem the professor could anticipate responses like Jeremy’s. Many individuals would object to misrepresenting themselves and deceiving others. Minimally, the class should have the chance to discuss the assignment, express their qualms and suggest other options, such as interviews, that would be experiential without violating anyone’s integrity.
Perhaps Jeremy saw the Fox News segment where John Stossel scruffed himself up and sat outside a New York subway station one afternoon, panhandling. He didn’t try to make ends meet for a year on $7 an hour, as Barbara Ehrenreich did, to experience the reality of the working poor. Instead he let people give him money for a couple of hours as part of an effort to demonstrate his contention that we’re becoming a nation of freeloaders. He later gave the money back. But it was enough to make any viewer queasy about the idea there may be a trend toward briefly masquerading as someone from a marginalized group.
I would advise Jeremy to show his leadership by gathering his like-minded classmates and jointly taking this up with the professor. The professor may not have thought this through from all perspectives and may well appreciate the insights and be open to change.
On the other hand, we are ethically bound to respect the well-being of our students. While continuing the assignment for the majority of the class, as the professor overseeing the assignment I'd look for an alternative for a genuine conscientious objector. (Maybe have Jeremy re-read Oliver Twist.) Our role as teachers is to push the limits for our students, but not to the point of violating those limits.
ScenarioHigh school athletes today commonly sign a commitment saying they won't use alcohol and won't appear any place where alcohol is being consumed. The principal discovers on his desk that someone anonymously has left several photos of students, taken at a Saturday night party. The principal uses her Facebook account to search for other images and finds one where two beer bottles appear on a table adjacent to six members of the boys and girls lacrosse teams, all seniors who are college-bound. The principal threatens to suspend the students from their teams for two weeks. Parents approach you in protest. Some feel the principal is too lenient, and some believe she is overreacting. How do you respond?
Shelley Berman: Letters of commitment by high school athletes and their families have become common. When the investigation of a violation reveals a breach of this commitment, schools have typically pursued this kind of suspension consequence.
There are two ethical questions related to this scenario. The first is whether it is ethically appropriate for a school to take away a student’s privilege of participating in athletic activities as a result of off-campus conduct. In circumstances where students violated the law, as in underage possession or consumption of alcohol or drugs and where there are clear policy and practice on the part of the school, the district has a responsibility and an ethical obligation to respond in a manner consistent with its disciplinary policies.
In this case, when student-athletes and parents sign a letter of commitment, they are acknowledging that behavior beyond the schoolhouse doors can result in consequences. Participation in athletics and other extracurricular activities is considered a matter of privilege, not a right — and the loss or suspension of that privilege does not implicate the student’s federal constitutional rights to a public education. However, the clarity and scope of the policy itself are important. It may be clear that a student party where students were drinking is a violation. However, is being in a room where a parent is drinking a beer also a violation? Assuming that being in a room where a parent is drinking alcohol is not a violation, what was the situation in this scenario?
The second issue is whether it is ethically appropriate for an administrator to base disciplinary decisions on, or even pursue, evidence posted on the Internet. When informed of a potential violation of school policy, an administrator has an ethical obligation to perform a thorough investigation. This search could include evidence accessed from what students post, but must include interviews with students and parents. Because photographs can be easily altered, the principal should seek corroborating evidence that students were present at a party where alcohol was consumed.
In this case, being given photographs of the party anonymously is troubling, but provides a rationale for searching for other evidence that might confirm that these snapshots were accurate. The follow-up investigation with students and parents, however, is critical in determining what actually happened.
Therefore, if the investigation was a thorough one that revealed sufficient evidence to pursue consequences and if, in the judgment of the administrator, a two-week suspension from participating on an athletic team was determined to be an appropriate consequence consistent with other similar incidents, I would support the principal’s decision.
Paula Mirk: This school leadership dilemma determines the Kantians, the Consequentialists and the Confucians in a room!
In the Institute for Global Ethics’ conceptual framework for resolving tough ethical dilemmas, we explore these three camps — loosely based on their philosophical traditions. These are the three most common ways folks around the world will approach this kind of difficult gray area. Confucius was first credited with what we call the “Care-Based” approach to resolving dilemmas.
In the case of these high school athletes, he might consider being on the other end of this dilemma: “As a high school student photographed unknowingly, would I feel unfairly treated?” Immanuel Kant represents our “rule-based” approach. Kant wasn’t interested in the literal rule, but in the more abstract standards or guiding principles from which rules develop. The Rule-Based thinker might take a stand that supports parents concerned about a slippery slope: “Where are our standards for privacy in the world today? If a principal can invade Facebook space and then retaliate, where will we ever draw the line — could we also justify surveillance equipment in students’ school-provided laptops?”
However the Consequentialists, or “ends-based” thinkers, might side with a hard line against the offending students by quantifying the greatest good for the greatest number in this case. Surely all the scholar athletes obeying the rules and staying away from alcohol will thank the principal for holding the bad apples accountable. Future athletes staying away from alcohol because of the principal’s strong stand will be better off as will the wider community safe from drunk drivers.
The fact that seniors are involved is important. A mark on their record can make a difference to the college-bound. Fine details can become defining: Are adjacent empty beer bottles grounds for assuming someone is consuming alcohol? It will be important for the principal to have a clear, well-developed and well-reasoned case for her decision.
Joan McRobbie: First, I would assure the parents that the issue of athletes and alcohol is taken very seriously, as are these parents’ concerns about the appropriate way to deal with the episode at hand. Then I would meet with the principal and the district’s athletic director to clarify exactly what’s going on.
This incident is a site-based issue, but athletic behavior codes are generally district-level, board-approved policies. “No alcohol” pledges are responses to the high priority communities place on prevention of teen drug and alcohol use, especially recognizing the influence of athletics in adolescents’ social norms and culture.
Given that, it’s critical that such policies be clear about expectations for athletes’ behavior and about consequences for breaking the pledge. The fact that the principal is “threatening” to temporarily suspend students from playing suggests either that the penalties are not clear or that the principal sees reason in this case to consider not enforcing the policy. Either way, there is now also a communication problem involving hot button issues of sports season records and college admissions status.
Let’s assume the policy is clear. But the principal tells me and the athletic director that she’s conflicted because the lacrosse students involved are so close to graduation and have otherwise good records. There is even some question whether any alcohol was consumed at the party.
Before threatening suspension, the principal should have consulted the athletic director, whose job it is to provide guidance on athletic policies and decisions. At this point, I would have the principal and athletic director together convene the parents, the students and the school’s lacrosse coaches to calm everyone down. They need to determine the facts and work out a resolution that honors the pledge and is fair.
With the future in mind, the principal then needs to communicate the decision and its rationale to the school community. Her message should emphasize student health and safety, personal responsibility and the partnership of educators and parents. Follow-up action should renew a focus on the school’s drug and alcohol education program and revitalize dialogue on these issues among coaches and athletes.
Roy Dexheimer: Seems clearcut, but in this age of digital photo alteration, can you trust anonymous snapshots? Can you prove these kids were drinking? If the policy says they can't be in a place where alcohol is consumed, what about the home where parents may have a beer now and again? Can you prove the photo depicts a situation of beer "being consumed"?
Despite these doubts, the suspension probably should go forward on circumstantial evidence, thus prompting a warning to potential violators and potential false witnesses. There are consequences, even for circumstantial evidence.
In regards to the students being college bound, I would not notify those colleges of this instance, but I'd surely caution everyone to expect that consequence for a repetition.
The inner-city headquarters of the school district has a limited number of adjacent parking spaces for staff members. An administrative support staffer who arrives early many days finds the only spots available are reserved for the later-arriving administrators and department heads, forcing her to park her car much further away. Is it ethical for the others to receive preferred parking spaces based on their professional standing in the school system?
Shelley Berman: What the staffer views as an ethical issue is actually a matter of efficiency and communication. Many district-level administrators and department heads regularly have meetings either at schools or in the community. Sometimes these administrators are in and out of the central office several times a day. In addition, these administrators often are running on tight schedules between meetings. Providing them with reserved spaces close to the central office enables them to save valuable time that would otherwise be spent looking for parking spaces at some distance from the office, thereby reducing time spent in productive work.
Organizationally, reserved parking spaces are a matter of efficiency. Most of the administrative support staff remain in their offices from the beginning to the end of the day and therefore do not need to either be close to the building or to worry about finding a parking space during the day when the limited spaces are already occupied.
To prevent or quell resentment among other staff over what appears to be preferential treatment, it would be appropriate for the superintendent to communicate the rationale for allocating reserved spaces. It also would be helpful if other staff members who consistently use their vehicles on district business during work hours could be given the option to request reserved spaces or to access the existing reserved spaces whenever the designated administrators/department heads would not be using them for the day.
Joan McRobbie: Parking turns into a difficult problem in school districts where the central office has many more employees than convenient parking spaces. It doesn’t seem fair that a hard-working employee who must arrive early has to park far away when high-ranking officials later slip into convenient spaces.
On the other hand, many people with high-level roles are required to dash in and out throughout the day to attend meetings and events in far reaches of the school district and community. Given their jobs’ intense demands and tight scheduling, it can be imperative that people with these responsibilities have parking that makes it logistically possible to meet the demands.
Parking dissatisfaction is widespread, not just at urban school district headquarters but at many other workplaces as well. At a minimum, policies for assignment of spaces should be clear and consistently applied. They should also be periodically reviewed by a committee convened for this purpose, with recommendations sought from the range of stakeholders. Solutions should include incentives that lower the parking need (e.g., spaces reserved for carpool vehicles; covered and secure bicycle parking; and/or pre-tax commuter accounts to pay for public transit).
Paula Mirk: At first, this might seem like a trivial issue, but it means a lot to anyone facing a parking shortage day after day. And if the ethics of this parking tradition never have been explained, the preferential structure could easily build resentment among the ranks.
It could seem unfair to the staffer who needs a place to park as much as administrators and department heads do. These small things matter, especially if they’re disrupting your schedule day after day. If respect and fairness are core ethical values, who gets to park where becomes a way to demonstrate them. It can come down to an educational philosophy about inclusiveness and the goal of our moral perimeters.
Are we teaching extension and application of core ethical values as widely as possible? Then re-examining the basis and traditions of parking might be in order. Was there an ethical basis for it in the first place? Perhaps the superintendent is out visiting schools and therefore arrives late but needs to be able to use time efficiently since taxpayers are paying that high salary. This could be a valid reason for maintaining the status quo and understanding this could help to calm the person left searching for a spot each day. Usually, explaining the ethics behind a tradition goes a long way in diffusing resentment or preventing it from building.
If this isn’t a convincing rationale, perhaps revisiting the parking structure is justified, and a case can be made for treating each job in the system equally when it comes to time or to hardship. When we talk to faculty and staff about the “hidden curriculum” in schools, often the parking space routine comes up. Just taking a moment to unpack the issue and underlying ethical values can go a long way toward mending fences.
Roy Dexheimer: Is it ethical? Probably. Is it a good practice? Probably not, in terms of support staff morale.
Reserved parking is a common perk for administrative staff. If it is to be changed, first check to see if there is a written policy and/or contractual obligation. Lacking those, the options are fun to ponder. A lottery? Alphabetical by last name? Employee of the month? A doctor's medical excuse? Function (e.g., a nurse who needs to be out and about)?
This one is a loser for whoever is responsible for making a change in practice. Move on to more significant issues.
After a new high school biology teacher assigned final semester grades, two students asked him to reconsider the C’s he gave them. One got just what his test scores indicated. The other was close to a B-minus, and while he did poorly early on, he worked hard, sought help and improved significantly. The teacher raised his grade to a B-minus but did not alter the other student’s. Nowhere in the course description or the district’s grading guidelines does it state that improvement can be a factor in grading. The parents of the child with the C have come straight to the superintendent to complain. What position would you take on this issue, and how would you explain your position?
Shelley Berman: The first issue to be addressed is one of process. Grading is the prerogative of the classroom teacher, who is in the best position to make a judgment about student learning based on the student’s performance. In some districts, board policies and teacher association contracts actually specify the teacher’s ultimate authority in grading. Therefore, I would not take an immediate position on this case but would ask the parents to speak directly with the teacher. If the issue were not resolved to the parents’ satisfaction, they would then be referred to the principal. Only at that point could the principal’s decision be appealed to the superintendent.
The second issue is whether the teacher was justified in changing the grade of one student but not the other. Unless a school has developed a consistent set of grading standards for teachers to use, different teachers will use different standards. Some will average the scores of assignments and tests, others will integrate multiple aspects of learning that could include effective participation in class, while still others will use proficiency-based practices designed to assess the degree to which students met the learning targets by the end of the term. When it comes to grading, fairness, consistency and transparency are essential so that students and parents understand how a student’s work is evaluated. By engaging teachers in determining the grading standards they will use, a school or district engenders greater consistency across classrooms and generally prevents situations such as this one from arising.
In this case, the teacher may not have been as proactive in preparing and sharing his syllabus as he could have been, thereby opening his grading to questions of fairness. It also might have been prudent for him to first consult with a more senior teacher, the department head or the principal for guidance on how to handle a student’s appeal. It is fair for students to request reconsideration of a grade if they believe that there was some factor not considered or an error inadvertently made by the teacher. Although I would hope that this happens infrequently, it is reasonable for a teacher to change a grade if the justification is sufficient.
What appears to have been a factor in this teacher’s decision to change the grade was the degree to which the student met the learning targets by the end of the term. Although I would be reluctant to interfere with teacher grading unless there was an egregious problem, if proficiency were the basis for the teacher’s decision, I would support the teacher. However, I would be concerned that the teacher’s decision was consistently applied to all the students in the class. I would recommend that the principal meet with the teacher and ask to what degree this proficiency standard had been applied and whether it had been applied equitably so that no student gained an unfair advantage. The principal should encourage the teacher to make the best decision possible that could be upheld as fair and consistent across all students in the class.
Given that this is a new teacher who may not have a great deal of experience in grading, it would be important for the principal to work with him to refine the standards by which students are graded, and the delineation of those standards in the syllabus for the course, so that this circumstance is prevented in the future. More important, at the beginning of each term, each teacher should provide his or her supervisor and all students with a copy of the grading procedures and criteria for each course. To the extent possible, this information should also be shared with parents via open houses, parent-teacher conferences, on-line, and other means.
Joan McRobbie: As superintendent, my position would be that this needs to be addressed at the school. I would explain to the parents that we take their concern seriously, and that they need to talk directly with the teacher and principal. My office would help set that up, and I would follow up to ensure that the matter had a satisfactory resolution.
That said, I would talk with that principal and also take steps to reinforce the awareness of all principals and teachers of the need for transparency and fairness in grading. It’s a matter of principle as well as a fundamental school responsibility. In today’s high stakes climate, it’s also increasingly a matter of public urgency.
Principals should ensure that every teacher not only has clear, written grading policies aligned with those of the school and district. Those policies need to objectively reflect student academic achievement, not subjective judgments of attitude or effort. Such traits are important and should be acknowledged, but separately. Grades are about providing students with feedback on what they know and can do as distinct from how hard they tried.
New teachers need guidance to ensure that grading policies are tied to clear academic goals and that the evidence and measures to be used are specifically delineated. They also need an awareness that the grading process must be the same for all students and clearly communicated to students and parents.
In this example, the principal needs to work with this new teacher and the complaining parents to resolve the problem, which arose because an inexperienced teacher with good intentions lacked support for thinking through grading policies and actions. The principal can use this experience as a prompt for strengthening and communicating fair grading practices school-wide, thereby building community trust in the values that drive the school—an invaluable asset when difficulties arise.
Paula Mirk: A new teacher sometimes learns the hard way that it’s important to set standards and guidelines early in the semester so that students and parents understand the basis for grading. One way we demonstrate core values like responsibility and fairness in our schools is to deliberately link such ethical values through our grading systems. It’s appropriate for a student who worked hard, and who is “erring” toward a B-minus, to receive some signal that taking responsibility for learning has been worth it. The other student does not seem to be able to demonstrate the same work ethic profile.
As superintendent, I would point this out in a meeting with both the concerned parents and the teacher present. Then in a separate conversation, I would encourage the teacher to provide information about his grading basis each school year, to both students and their parents. I would stipulate that grades should not be connected strictly to test scores, but to the other kinds of expectations we have for students, such as the hard work and consistency defined by values like responsibility and fairness. This situation opens up the opportunity for a faculty-wide discussion about grading and the hidden curriculum. Are our grading systems sending the message that only test scores “count”, or are we also signaling that ethical values are an equally important preparation for our students’ future?
Meanwhile, in a separate conversation with the parents, I would also encourage upholding another core ethical value in future: out of “respect” for the teacher, his classroom should be their first stop, not the superintendent’s office. This is also a great topic for a school wide parent forum:. “Our expectations, your expectations” could be the title!
Roy Dexheimer: If the teacher had already factored improvement into the grade or if the teacher had not made it clear to the students that an improving trend line would be a factor in final grades, no change is appropriate.
Our teachers have reasonable latitude in grading, taking into account effort and improvements, but those boundaries must be established in advance to create a culture of fairness.
Didn't seem they were in this case.
The superintendent discovers a female teacher may be having an affair with an 11th-grade female student. The initial confrontation with the teacher elicits a denial. After a weekend of thinking about the consequences, the teacher confesses. The superintendent’s first inclination is to fire the teacher on the spot. But only four more weeks remain in the school year, including exam preparation. Would it be a better, less disruptive plan to insist the teacher leave the profession when the school year ends in another month, forbid the teacher to have any contact whatsoever with the student and begin a quiet counseling process with the student?
Shelley Berman: A teacher who is having a sexual relationship with a student — be it physical or via telephone, Internet, or social media — presents a very serious ethical and legal problem. The teacher has abused her authority, misused her position and, depending upon the state, may have committed a crime. A superintendent faced with this kind of information must first ascertain that the information is credible. If it is, the superintendent’s response should be neither to confront the teacher nor to contemplate “low keying” the situation until the end of the year.
The appropriate legal and ethical response is to place the teacher on administrative leave while an investigation is conducted, notify the student’s parents of the information that the superintendent received, and contact the appropriate legal authorities so they can pursue an investigation.Each state has laws about reporting sexual misconduct. Although these laws may differ in detail, they generally require immediate reporting to law enforcement and child protection agencies whenever a mandatory reporter has reasonable cause to believe that a sexual crime has been committed against a child.
There is little question about what latitude a superintendent has in this kind of situation. As disruptive and as painful as it may be, the superintendent and the district have an obligation to act immediately and allow the legal system, with its higher standards of due process, to take its course. It is very disturbing when a teacher violates the basic trust invested in her or him by parents and the public, and the district bears direct responsibility for responding promptly and decisively. Also, in many states, when the superintendent reasonably believes that a teacher has engaged in acts of gross neglect of duty, including any sexual conduct with a student, the superintendent must report it to the teacher licensing board promptly in order to permit the licensing board to consider disciplinary sanctions against the teacher.
Once these initial actions have been taken, the superintendent can then focus on working with the student and her parents to determine how the district can best support them. The superintendent also needs to ensure that an effective substitute teacher is in place as quickly as possible and that staff members are prepared to handle student/community reaction if the news becomes public. Should it eventually be determined that no laws were broken and that the justice system has no penalty to impose upon the teacher, it then falls to the district to follow its own policies, which will almost certainly result in the teacher’s resignation or termination.
Because such incidents have the potential to significantly disrupt a school’s educational process, it is essential to thoughtfully and pre-emptively manage the situation. A strong and immediate response assures students and the community that the district will not tolerate abuse of students and helps restore the school’s focus on its academic mission.
Joan McRobbie: The superintendent needs to let the teacher go. Immediate action sends a strong message that the teacher’s behavior is a major ethical breach and will not be tolerated. The student should go into counseling, and the superintendent should work with the principal and faculty to create ways to help all affected students deal with the issue as well as overcome this huge distraction and prepare for exams.
The alternative plan of waiting a month not only hedges about the seriousness of the teacher’s actions but is unlikely to curb disruption. The teacher’s continuing presence would create an environment of extended speculation among students, staff, and parents about what happened. As a news story, it could take on a life of its own, with reporters and cameras showing up daily. An already bad situation for the student in question could become considerably worse.
Removing the teacher deflates the sense of ongoing drama. But in the aftermath, people will want the superintendent to address their concerns, which may range from “Are our children safe?” to “The district discriminated unfairly against a wonderful teacher because she’s gay.”
Internally, the superintendent needs to ask, is this an isolated incident or a culture problem? Assuming the former, there nonetheless needs to be facultywide discussion. Externally, personnel policies constrain district leaders from discussing the particulars, but the superintendent can convene parent/community meetings to discuss policies, school values, and the safeguarding of students.
Particularly important is ensuring that students have ways to air their reactions face-to-face with key teachers or counselors who can facilitate dialogue about teacher-student relations, sexual preferences, and “how we treat each other in this school community.” Especially for the sake of the student victim, it’s critical to address social media and seek and support student leadership in averting its potential for destructive consequences.
Paula Mirk: This would be a complicated situation indeed if the superintendent didn’t have a confession directly from the teacher. It might be less disruptive to exam schedules and prep to keep the teacher on, but I’m more concerned about a potential disruption in students’ lives for years as a result of this serious breach of trust on the part of their teacher.
Taxpayers, parents, school leaders and young people themselves trust our teachers to honor their responsibility in students’ lives. We trust them to respect the enormous power differential between teachers and students based both on role and on age.
I would fire the teacher on the spot. I would not want to risk any ambiguity about the basic responsibilities of teachers and the basic right to respect of each young person in their care. I would certainly seek a counseling process for the student involved, but would also open up a dialogue with all students and teachers about trust as the lynchpin to a functional, comfortable learning environment. There is no way of knowing which other students may have been affected by observing this situation in their midst, so opening communication pathways is very important. The concern here is not a concern about sexual mores per se, but the broader abuse of power implied by this situation. Furthermore, the gender of the student is immaterial. Any student must feel confident that he or she can interact with teachers in a respectful dynamic centered on his/her best interests as a learner.
Roy Dexheimer: Right decision, wrong reason. Exam prep isn't a factor. However, after establishing consensual and non-predatory circumstances, extricating two people from their inappropriate relationship with enough dignity to have a future is part of our role in giving second chances. Get the teacher's resignation (in writing!) as of the year's end, insist that teaching will not be a part of her future, require no further contact with the student, counsel with the student to be sure she is coping, and give her a deadline to tell her parents, or you will.
As a matter of full disclosure, I encountered exactly this situation as a superintendent. An otherwise excellent teacher moved on to another career and a productive life. The student was an honor graduate, a Rotary Exchange Student, a scholarly graduate of a fine liberal arts college, a wife and mom for two sons, and a great community member.
Second changes are worth us taking risks now and then.This was the only instance where I thought the participants would move on successfully (and, interestingly, it was the student, not the teacher, who was the aggressive partner!). In all other instances, I fired the intrusive teachers immediately, including one of our best teachers (health, of all things) who impregnated a 10th-grade girl. Then he had the audacity to ask me for a reference!
A long-term substitute at your high school notices a lot of partisan propaganda taped to the outside of a colleague’s classroom door. He teaches wood shop and world history, and this material is unrelated to both. It included a Jokeresque image of President Obama with the word “socialist” underneath. With students a captive audience, has the teacher crossed the line of appropriate behavior by sharing his political or religious views in the classroom? The long-term sub thinks so and has brought the issue to you. How will you handle it?
In this case, the teacher appears to have stepped well beyond what is germane to quality instruction or the district’s curriculum. In posting the derisive image of the President, disparagingly labeled, the teacher might possibly have intended to engage students in a profound discussion of the strategies implicit in propaganda. However, given the materials’ hallway placement and the subject area assignment of the teacher, the action more likely reflects the teacher’s political beliefs and is an effort to enlist students in those beliefs. Such behavior is not an ethical or legally authorized practice within the schoolhouse doors. Recent court decisions affirm the authority of a school district to restrict teachers from stating viewpoints or covering topics that do not mirror the district’s curriculum, particularly when the teacher’s statements or actions present information that is self-serving, deliberately false or intentionally defamatory.
However, this situation is not simply a legal issue but an ethical one — and one that goes to the very core of an educator’s responsibility. As an administrator, I would request that the teacher remove the poster — or if the teacher were still absent, I would personally remove the poster. I would specifically not ask the substitute teacher to take any action, by word or deed. I would then meet with the teacher to discuss the rationale for posting the materials and determine if they were being used in an appropriate instructional manner in the context of the district’s curriculum. If they were not and instead were simply a way for the teacher to express a private political viewpoint, I would issue a directive to the teacher to refrain from such actions and, depending on the teacher’s response, would potentially take other disciplinary action.
Joan McRobbie: School and school district grounds are politically neutral. It should be clear to all employees that they cannot conduct political activities during on-the-job hours. Those activities include use of email or copy machines for political advocacy, circulating political petitions, wearing a campaign button during the school day — and posting materials that advocate political positions or intend to influence the support or opposition among students or others. So, yes, this teacher has crossed the line of appropriate behavior.
It is, of course, appropriate for a teacher of world history to engage students instructionally on issues related to political systems and parties, including discussion or assignments related to political campaigns. But as teachers promote knowledge of democracy and critical thinking about complex issues, they need to avoid partisanship or advocacy. Teachers often find themselves walking a difficult line when the class addresses controversial issues. But a derogatory image of the president on a classroom door is a straightforward violation. It not only violates a school district’s ethics code but sets a poor example for students in terms of civic dialogue.
I would send this teacher an email with a friendly reminder of the school district’s policy, including a link to the policy, which should be available to all employees online. And I would follow up (without involving the sub) to ensure that the image is removed. If it appears that similar activities are occurring elsewhere in the school, I would issue a reminder in the regular staff bulletin as well as review and discuss this aspect of the ethics code at a faculty meeting.
Paula Mirk: It feels like this is really a building principal’s issue, and the fact that it has reached the superintendent tells me there’s a leadership gap where leadership is needed. There’s no formula for a lot of ethics questions, and this case is no exception.
But such gray areas are wonderful teachable moments and professional development opportunities. I think the opportunity here is for that school’s leadership, faculty and staff to get clear on what their core values look like in practice. I think such a discussion would produce broad agreement that “Jokeresque images” and labels like “socialist” do not teach the political discourse skills we need our students to learn toward a healthy democracy. It’s an approach to politics that is lacking in the core value of “respect.”
It would be better for this to be a conclusion reached rather than a top-down decision made, because clearly some learning and thinking about this topic needs to take place at the faculty level (not only the woodshop teacher, but those other teachers who believe in respectful discourse but took no action) and on the leadership level (the principal, for example, who didn’t have the awareness or the skills to address the issue) of the school.
Roy Dexheimer: A smart first step is to review the District's policy manual to seek guidance. (And if there is no policy, start writing one for the future!).
Also, make sure the board of education is made aware of the issue and the ramifications, immediately. Long-term subs usually live in the district, and are counted on for current gossip. Better the board hears from you first. Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the AASA Code of Ethics would support these actions.
Public school teachers have every right to hold political opinions. They do NOT have the right to promote those opinions to their students, exclusive of all others. If they do express those opinions, it must be with clear indication of the bias and within the context of defensible lessons.
There needs to be a conversation with the teacher to see if there is any teaching moment in these postings. For example, a unit on the power of political cartoons and how to read them. However, that ought to be kept in the classroom. Students and staff passing by won't know the context, if there is one. So, the posted materials outside the classroom come down. We can teach and talk and debate about conflicting points of view, but not indoctrinate nor display materials carelessly.
As a matter of courtesy, thank the substitute teacher for bringing this to your attention (which, by the way, you should have discovered yourself by walking around!), and note that you are giving the matter attention. Then tell your school attorney to gather materials for when the local teacher union and ACLU come at the district for restricting freedom of speech.
After a lengthy search for a deputy superintendent with both budget experience and knowledge of curriculum and instruction, you find a “perfect” candidate who appears ready to relocate. At the final negotiation, the candidate indicates that because the spouse would be quitting her teaching job to relocate with him, that his acceptance is contingent on giving his wife first consideration for a position somewhere in the school district. The human resources director balks at the request, but you are reluctant to lose this candidate after such an extended search. What’s the right thing to do?
Shelley Berman:In today’s highly competitive job market, the employer is prone to think only about how well the applicant meets the demands of the position. Family issues are often irrelevant, especially when the candidate is local and the spouse is already managing his or her own career and personal interests.From this perspective, we live in a highly autonomous world where the individual and the organization look out for their own interests.However, that approach may not be the best one in all employment situations, particularly when the organization is interested in hiring someone who would have to relocate.Although one could say that the individual chooses to move and must accept the consequences of that choice for spouse and family, I believe there is a better, more humane point of view that serves the organization as well as the individual and his or her family.That approach is to provide support, within bounds, to assist the spouse and the family in relocating.
From this perspective, it is reasonable for a prospective employee to request assistance and for the organization to provide some level of support for the spouse’s search.There is no obligation on the part of an organization to employ the spouse, and there are limits on the extent to which an organization should help in the job search of a spouse.It is also reasonable for the prospective employee to indicate that his or her acceptance of the position is contingent upon the spouse obtaining a suitable position in the same locale, even though that stipulation may eliminate the individual from consideration for the position.
In this case, the Human Resources director and the superintendent should have had the foresight to consider family-related issues early in the candidate review process, thus preparing themselves to address these contingencies during negotiations. Assuming the district wants the new deputy superintendent to be a stable and long-term employee of the system, Human Resources should make an effort to accommodate the interests of both working members of the family, while adhering closely to legal and ethical standards opposing preferential treatment.Given that financial demands often require that both spouses work, and given that both may have serious professional interests, school districts need to respect the value of finding solutions that strengthen the ties of the family to the district and the community.Having the foresight to address this as an integral part of the hiring process avoids its becoming an issue raised by the candidate in the final stage of the negotiations.
In the case at hand, depending on the size of the district, district policies, and reporting relationships within the district, it may not be appropriate for the wife to be offered a teaching position within the district. If it is accepted practice that spouses of district-level administrators may work in the district, the spouse should be given the option to interview for an open position within the district. However, it would not be appropriate to guarantee selection for such a position, nor to create a position for the spouse in order to close the deal. Such a step would be tantamount to increasing the compensation package for the advertised executive-level position—at the taxpayers’ expense. It would certainly be appropriate for the district to alert the spouse to potential classroom openings in surrounding districts, as well as non-teaching positions in other companies or non-profits that might match the spouse’s interests—especially given that such positions in the business world are not always advertised, but instead are filled through organizational networking.The district is not obligated to employ the spouse or to find a position for the spouse, but has an organizational interest in providing assistance in the spouse’s search for employment.
In today’s corporate world, it is commonly understood that when you recruit someone for an important position, you are extending an offer that impacts the entire family. If an organization is requiring an individual to relocate, it is viewed as appropriate to think about a suitable position for the spouse and educational arrangements for children. However, in the field of education, many superintendents and board members have not yet embraced this approach to recruitment.
Public school leadership is a demanding field at both the local school and district levels, and strong, qualified candidates are in short supply. It is naïve to think that top-tier candidates can be identified and hired within a short timeframe with no consideration given to the welfare of the applicants’ families. We in education espouse the concept of the total child thriving as a result of the support given by the entire family-school partnership. Applying this same philosophy of support to our employees is a logical extension that entails understanding and creativity, but should not and must not cross the boundary of professional ethics.
Joan McRobbie: Much as I may want to hire this candidate, he appears slightly less than perfect now that he has stated a condition that essentially asks me to act unethically to ensure that he takes the job. The HR director is right to balk. Even in more-normal economic times, the candidate’s wife would need to apply for open positions and go through the same hiring process as other candidates. But in today’s adverse fiscal environment, with many positions being cut and the rate of new hiring much slowed, I would see it as an even more surprising lapse in judgment for this candidate to suggest that we give his spouse preferential treatment.
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, however, I would likely remind him that ethical practice in a public service environment means avoiding nepotism and even the appearance of impropriety. That said, I would let him know that his wife is, of course, welcome to apply for any open positions she qualifies for. I might offer to connect his wife with someone in HR who could help her identify job openings. I might also connect him with other people or resources in the community as a means of helping his wife identify positions in other entities that she might explore.
I would hope his response would be to back away from the initial demand, expressing regret that he overstepped in his eagerness to ensure that his move does not negatively affect his family. If he instead holds firm and calls this a dealbreaker, then we will likely be better off not having him join our team.
Paula Mirk: Leadership
is a crucible — “a big test of your beliefs,” mostly because everybody’s watching. If you decide to make an exception in this case, there’s likely to be a deluge of requests from others or complaints from those who were turned down in similar instances. Sure, it would be great for a spouse to get the job s/he needs or for your school system to offer “package deals” for employment, but unless you offer the same opportunities to all new hires it’s going to look like favoritism…because it is.
What’s wrong with that in the long run? Besides ignoring the core ethical value of fairness, it leads you down the slippery slope of corruption or at the very least the appearance of such from the outside, which destroys people’s ability to trust you, which destroys the functional culture you are charged with building and sustaining as superintendent.
Roy Dexheimer: The AASA Code of Ethics echoes the do no harm guideline of physicians. It says: “make the well-being of students the fundamental value of all decision-making and actions.”
Therefore, I view the request of a "perfect candidate" for a critical position in the district, who will affect the lives of students and staff and community, to be perfectly reasonable. In my experiences as a superintendent over four decades, the challenge of a trailing spouse came up often, and I tried to find a position for that spouse in our district or a neighboring district, or in other jobs which matched the career of that spouse. When you ask an exemplary candidate to give up a job and move a family, plus spousal employment, this effort seems appropriate.
There are, of course, ethical dimensions to the process. No current local teacher may be displaced for the spouse, either by release from a job or forced reassignment. All collectively bargained contractual obligations must be met in good faith, including an interview and reference checking. Salary placement must conform to the usual protocols for teaching staff. And by all means, the superintendent has an ethical obligation to keep his or her Board of Education fully informed.
Finding strong "perfect candidates" with experience and knowledge of instructional strategies is crucial to the District's success. If you can add what is likely to be an effective teacher to the staff or the region, so much the better. It is a win/win for everyone…except perhaps the grumpy human resources person. Time for some serious feather petting!
Your district’s athletic director is recommending you fire the popular coach of the girls’ tennis team at one of your high schools, two months into the season. The AD contends the coach did not include on her resume the fact she lost her coaching position previously at a college in another community. The coach says she left it off because “I did not feel it represented my performance.” What should you, the superintendent, recommend?
Shelley Berman: The practice of offering bonus points on graded exercises and final averages may seem like a harmless vehicle for encouraging service to others, but the parents who are objecting are making a legitimate point. The issue, however, is a bit more complex than that simple framing.
One of the most important roles educators play is fostering the development of the skills, attitudes and values of responsible citizenship. Central to responsible citizenship are an appreciation of the common good and a commitment to helping those in need. It is a responsible act for teachers to highlight issues within the community for which students can provide the kind of assistance that both helps address the need and encourages the development of an ethic of service. Therefore, the issue here isn’t about whether the act of service is a viable one for educators to encourage but whether those acts should be rewarded through the grading system.
In order to address that point, it is important to understand that there is an essential difference between community service and service learning. Community service involves acts of service such as food and clothing drives or fund-raising for victims of natural or human disasters that are independent of the curriculum but are positive acts to engage students in support of the common good.
Service-learning activities, on the other hand, are acts of service deeply tied to the curriculum in which students study an issue and engage in service as an authentic avenue for demonstrating both their understanding of the issue and of ways that individuals can make a difference on that issue. Clearly, students can and should be graded when the acts of service are part of the curriculum and thus linked to learning.
Acts of community service are best encouraged when they aren’t tied to a grade but instead tied to the achievement of some larger community goal, such as the number of grocery bags of food or a target dollar amount that students desire to raise for a cause. Therefore, it may be best to suggest to teachers that they not provide incentives within the grading system for acts of community service but that it is fine to integrate service learning into the student accountability system.
The teachers who are providing the bonus points could make a viable counterargument that grades themselves represent extrinsic rewards and that we consistently use these extrinsic rewards to encourage participation in learning. Therefore, using extrinsic rewards for service through bonus points is not very different.
This raises a much deeper and more difficult issue about the meaning of grading. I hope we are shifting our thinking about grades away from seeing them as extrinsic rewards to designing them as assessments for learning and as feedback to students so that they can advance their understanding. In this context, the addition of bonus points for community service does not enable students to better understand how they can advance their own learning while, alternatively, integrating assessment of service learning can serve that purpose.
Joan McRobbie: The teachers are acting on their impulse to ensure the greatest possible help for those in need. Admirable as that is, the parents are right in saying that it sends students an “end justifies the means” message. Moreover, in today’s education world, where tremendous emphasis is placed on accountability for student results and stories in the news media describe teachers cheating to make student achievement look better than it is, the practice of inflating grades by donating to charity has the potential to be misinterpreted and go horribly wrong.
I would appeal to department heads to point out the problem to teachers and work collaboratively with them on creating a less fraught and more academically sound means of achieving their high-minded goal.
Far better for teachers to construct curriculum-relevant assignments that help build student awareness of the problems the charity drives are addressing. For example, teachers could assign students to an article on the recession-related increase in families relying on food banks and write an essay about it. Math or economics students could prepare presentations -- for class, schoolwide assembly or community or parent meetings -- on the trajectory of poverty or joblessness in the community. Social studies students could interview local nonprofit officials and submit reports on the family impact of job loss.
Granted, this would require teachers’ time and thought. But the payoffs could more than make up for the effort.
Resulting student assignments would legitimately feed into grades, turning complaining parents into allies. Student interest in their subjects would likely get a boost from the real-world relevance. Pleased that their concerns prompted positive action, parents could also learn more about their own community by way of students’ presentations. And the teachers’ original intent ─ to spur more giving to worthy charities ─ would likely be fulfilled.
Should the media tune in, what might have been a story that no school wants would instead be one showcasing New City High as a place teaching strong academics while also promoting community values.
Paula Mirk: Avoid alienating either side by helping parents and teachers understand the “rightness” of each position here. Teachers offering points want the drive to be successful and perhaps have some positive experience with rewards systems that eventually lead to intrinsic student motivation. Concerned parents want students to learn selflessness and want their children’s choices to be genuine – doing “the right thing for the right reason.” Both are valid interests.
Treat this as an opportunity to help faculty and parents think together about the end goal: Is it student learning or a successful campaign? Is the short-term success of the charity drive equally as important as the long-term lessons about service and, if so, can this be adequately conveyed to parents and students so that everyone can support the points system? If not, is there another way to approach motivating students to participate, and would teachers be willing to work with parents to design and explore alternatives to the bonus points approach?
Use this leadership opportunity to lead discussions that explore the educational philosophy of your district. Ask teachers to present their evidence about when “carrots and sticks” are appropriate tools for learning outcomes. Provide safe space and time for opposing viewpoints.
Use your district code of ethics to center discussion around the core ethical values to uphold. Collaborate with faculty and parents to align classroom approaches with the long term internalization of responsibility, respect, compassion and other charity-related values your district intends for students. Both sides may find that charity drives require much more teaching and deliberate design than previously thought, and that student participation can be a much more meaningful and inspiring process as a result!
Roy Dexheimer: AASA’s "Statement of Ethics" clearly states that educational leaders have an obligation to “provide equal educational opportunities to each and every child.” Offering academic credit for charitable fund raising, however admirable that goal, is not an equal opportunity. Youngsters who, through circumstances, cannot participate are not receiving equal treatment.
The charity drives, without academic grade incentives, seem like a good value to promote, but not at the expense of unfair advantages to some students.
Shelley Berman: This situation needs to be thoroughly investigated before a decision is made. A resume should be comprehensive and complete, even if some information on it does not represent one’s best work.
Falsification of a resume can and should result in dismissal; however, omission is different from falsification. A resume need not include an individual’s entire work history, particularly given the trend toward a one-to-two page synopsis. However, information relevant to the position for which one is applying needs to be highlighted. In this case, it would have been appropriate to list the previous coaching experience, even if unsuccessful, on the resume.
The AD would not have made the recommendation to terminate unless something had brought the prior experience to the AD’s attention or there were circumstances in the coach’s job performance that raised questions about earlier performance. I would ask what motivated the AD to seek an action that is both immediate and without recourse. I would want to know what concerns, if any, the AD had with the coach’s current performance, how the information was brought to the AD’s attention, which references were checked in the hiring process, whether there was a temporal gap in the resume that should have been explored more fully, and why this information didn’t come to light at that time. It would be important to assess the thoroughness of the district’s hiring process and ensure the reasons for the recommendation were significant enough to warrant disrupting the experience of the students on the team.
Due process considerations would induce me to give the coach the opportunity to explain the omission on her resume and the nature of the experience that caused her to lose the prior position. If the gravity of that situation would have caused the district to not consider her for this position or could potentially compromise either the district or the students on the team, the omission would be cause for immediate dismissal.
If the circumstances were less grave, the coach could be allowed to complete the season with supervision and not be given a contract for the following year. Alternatively, she could be reprimanded, with future appointments based on her performance. If the coach were to remain in her position, it would be important for the AD to work alongside her to address any concerns of team members, parents or the community in a straightforward manner.
It is vital for the coach to understand that prior
problematic experiences are best handled candidly. Approaching such issues with honesty and reflection
demonstrates an ethical integrity that people respect, often prompting them to
give an individual another chance.
Roy Dexheimer: Clearly the coach had an obligation to reveal her employment record. However, assuming that no crime was committed (e.g., sexual harassment, stealing funds), it might be good to recognize we are in the business of reasonable and appropriate second chances for students and, from time to time, staff members.
I would be tempted to put a signed memorandum of agreement in her file, recognizing the omission. But I'd put a time limit on that memorandum and, if successful teaching and learning continues for the students, I'd remove it from the personnel files after a suitable period of time.
Redemption is good for the soul, especially if you can revive the career of a good tennis coach!
Joan McRobbie: The first salient point here is that the tennis coach was under no obligation, legally or ethically, to reveal a previous dismissal. The scenario offers no information about why she was dismissed. The reason could be anything from allegations of molestation to a bully boss who didn’t like her.
She apparently did not have a felony conviction because that would have shown up on the background check. Short of that, it is her right to be able to start over in a new job without casting a shadow on herself related to whatever happened at the previous job.
Assuming this athletic director hired her, I would ask the AD about how she or he discovered this information. If it came through the grapevine, the AD could likely have learned about it through the same grapevine before hiring the coach. He then could have weighed the information as he made the hiring decision.
At this point, I would advise the AD that any decision regarding the continuing employment of the coach must be based on her current job performance and behavior. There is no mention that the AD has so far found fault with either.
If the AD is mainly upset because she/he believes any job candidate should reveal and discuss a previous firing, I would remind the AD that the coach had no obligation to do so and discuss with him reasons why, regardless of any allegations he has become aware of, the coach should be given the benefit of the doubt.
If the new information raises a real concern, especially relating to student safety or well being, the AD should still give the coach the benefit of the doubt, while also taking deliberate steps to ensure student safeguards. As the context for these steps, the AD should launch or revitalize regular sessions that bring all coaches together for discussions around their role as ethical leaders and critical role models. Such sessions not only enable review of ethical policies and guidelines, but can offer mutual support -- and build a values-driven coaching culture -- by offering a place to overtly share tough dilemmas coaches routinely face and jointly work through “right” courses of action.
Paula Mirk: Validate the athletic director’s concern about honesty in the hiring process. It’s a critical element to judging who is equipped to teach our children. But thoroughly investigate the AD’s concerns, including the possible politics involved. What is the tennis coach doing that has prompted this demand? Surely the AD participated in hiring the coach in the first place, so something has changed in the time since the hire took place.
Collaborate with the AD to address whatever merits concern -- it is likely to reach beyond omission in the hiring process, but may well be connected to why the coach left her previous job. Mindful of those circumstances, design an improvement plan centering on ethics, not tennis, for this individual. (Another “tennis improvement plan” may also be in order, based on the AD’s input.)
Stress the importance of modeling the core ethical values we want our students to uphold. Task the coach with designing opportunities to demonstrate ideas like “honesty” and “responsibility” on and off the court and across the entire season. Suggest the AD approve the plan, and check in with the AD frequently for evidence that the plan is unfolding effectively.
Place a reprimand in the file for the original hiring omission. If the AD’s concerns are valid and persist, do not renew the contract. If the coach meets all improvement plan requirements, extend the probationary period of her contract and make it clear that you and the AD will continue to monitor progress next season. Expect the coach to demonstrate sincerity in this process, and keep up communication with the AD about progress.
Click on the link to see Previous Ethics Cases.
The Ethical Educator column presents a real dilemma in school leadership. The panelists are Shelley Berman, superintendent, Eugene, Ore.; Roy Dexheimer, retired BOCES superintendent, Ithaca, N.Y.; Karl Hertz, senior associate, National School Reform at Community Training and Assistance Center, San Francisco, Calif.; and Paula Mirk, director of education, Institute for Global Ethics, Rockport, Maine. Abbreviated answers are published in School Administrator magazine.