The following is a guest post from Pepper Givens, a freelance writer who focuses on trends in secondary and higher education.
For many in America, especially the victims and their families, the Penn State scandal is a painful point of discussion. It goes way beyond just the heinous crimes perpetrated by one man. The abuse, we now know, continued for over a decade only because organizational leaders, adults entrusted with the wellbeing of children, looked the other way. While this moment in Penn State’s history enrages the public, those of us who study and practice educational leadership should use this moment to reflect on the role of ethics and ethical decision making in leadership in order to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. Clearly, the preparation and practice of educational leaders should place a much stronger emphasis on ethics, in ways such as:
Focusing specifically on the theory and practice of ethics, not just paying it lip service.
What many people do not understand about ethics is that they are not biologically inherent. Ethics are learned and developed socially. It’s simply not enough to cursorily talk about “doing the right thing” and then expecting all educational leaders to fall into lockstep with this “do the right thing” mantra. Some educational leaders are arguably born, but the vast majority of them are made. Organizations like the UCEA must actively push centers like The Centre for the Study of Leadership and Ethics to develop training models and materials wherein ethical leadership, and UCEA must urge its member institutions to use these tools. Ethics must become more than a semester-long course that candidates take during their university preparation program; rather, training in and engagement with ethical leadership should be required of educational leaders throughout their careers.
Encouraging leaders to develop an institutional culture not conducive to cronyism or idolatry.
The crimes committed at Penn State University could have been stopped almost as soon as they started. The systematic cover-up that ensued the following decade occurred precisely because the university allowed an institutional culture of idolatry to flourish. Although, shaping and reshaping the culture of an institution is no simple task, it is the responsibility of educational leaders to work with their organizational members to develop organizational cultures that foster learning, respect and safety. Within such an organizational culture, educational leaders should actively discourage the cult-like status of any one individual or sport or department.
At Penn State, the status of the football program and late coach Joe Paterno had reached such gargantuan heights, that fear of shedding light on the scandal dissuaded many—from coaches to janitors to high school officials—from saying anything. There is something deeply disturbing about an institutional culture this entrenched. The organizational culture that allowed crimes against children at Penn State provides a powerful rationale for developing cultures that celebrate learning and growth rather than the deeds or personalities of individuals.
Supporting educational leaders who truly listen to and stand up for their students.
Ethics as practiced in educational institutions translates into supporting students and their families every time, all of the time. Children are the number one priority, the foundation upon which all the goals of education rest. In the Penn State scandal, the child known as Victim 1 told his high school counselor about the abuse. He told several adults, many of whom did not believe him. It wasn’t until Victim 1’s high school principal, a graduate of Penn State’s K-12 educational leadership program, blew the whistle and filed a report that the whole scandal came to light. Educational leadership preparation programs must work to develop leaders like this principal, who stood up for students even when many other adults would not. A constant focus on the well-being of children should be the bedrock of any discussion about ethics in education.
What do you think? What are some concrete ways educational leadership preparation and educational institutions can focus on applied ethics in and out of the classroom?
Pepper Givens is a freelance writer whose foremost passion is writing for her blog about education. While her primary writing focus is trends in higher ed, Pepper also enjoys writing about personal finance, parenting, sustainable living, small business strategies, and more. She can be reached for questions or comments email@example.com.