Paula Mirk

Set an Authentic and Respectful Tone at the Top

"Tone at the Top" is a key research finding from our Schools of Integrity research project, so we know the vital part leadership plays in the process of building school cultures. Having worked frequently with great school principals who are deliberate and responsible about that role, there are specific qualities we now look for in leadership at our participating Ethical Literacy schools.

Know your philosophy. Leaders who have not developed a philosophy of education will have a hard time being consistent in choices about direction and strategy. While "collaboration" is a key leadership skill for the 21st century, it doesn't mean "being all things to all people." An effective leader is clear and articulate to others about priorities.

Be authentic. Leaders sometimes need moral courage to both develop and stick to a philosophy. Giving lip service to ideas, rather than putting thought and time into arriving at deep understanding, makes leaders vulnerable to the many agendas and influences they face. With authentic philosophical grounding, leaders can effectively seek common ground for progress.

Model what you want. School leaders must walk their talk. That's why knowing and authentically internalizing "talk" is so important (see above), although it's not sufficient. An effective leader recognizes that others are watching and absorbing the choices she makes.

Be a learner. In an effective learning environment, leaders are engaged and active learners. They love learning and participating with others in learning. They are the risk takers, the connectors, and the curious minds we want students to experience and emulate. They are the responsible, intellectually honest citizens we need, and the compassionate, fair, and respectful community members we want.

Be in the 21st century. As great learners, great leaders can't help but be current thinkers. They have a 21st century worldview with a natural appreciation for collaboration, communication, and creative problem solving; they understand that "we're all in this together." Their mind-set includes a commitment to ethics as an integral element to our sustainability.

During our Schools of Integrity research project, we talked to hundreds of students and educators to discern patterns and also to gather replicable practices that all schools could use. Here are the suggestions for our Tone at the Top finding, in which we describe school leaders as "the lynchpin for promoting trust within the school culture:"

  • Promote access to the process for anyone impacted by the issue or decision. Rarely is a decision made without consulting the staff.
  • Model and promote informal opportunities for professional growth. Informal time is when collegiality develops, and students are always the focus.
  • Admit your own failings. Own mistakes and be honest. None of us has the answer. We're all learners.
  • Actively demonstrate an interest and confidence in moral reasoning. There's a path of logical reasoning that gets you to an ethical solution.
  • Decide on deepest priorities and seek them actively and courageously. It comes down to what you want to see when you walk down the hall? Do you care what the students think? Do you want them to be able to talk to you and not be afraid?
  • Seek out the kind of adults you want in the culture. When hiring, ask the prospective employee to describe her understanding of discipline. Ask her: "How do you integrate ethical problem solving into your classwork?"
  • Get clear on the vision and values, and get good at communicating them. As one trustee put it, "The head has to have this clear and be able to articulate it to trustees."
  • Truly self-examine and align your attitudes with values. Faculty members are not employees—they are the school. They have to be regarded with enormous respect because the life of the mind is such an extraordinary gift.
  • Invite feedback. Involve a group to look for the underlying value system: What situations arose and how did we handle them?

Positive school cultures function on trust, and so does good learning. That puts the responsibility on our school leaders to be authentic, respectful stewards of the environments our students deserve.

Paula Mirk worked at whole child partner the Institute for Global Ethics (IGE) for 17 years. For the majority of her tenure, she oversaw IGE's education department. IGE collaborates with national and international organizations and with school districts large and small to integrate ethical literacy into classroom practice, school culture, and systemic reform. Connect with IGE at education@globalethics.org.

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