Michael Troeger Explains Ethical Leadership in Education

We live and work in a scandalous era, where organizations, including schools are accosted with sexual harassment, assaults, retaliation, and capitulation to nondisclosure agreements (NDAs), where good educators are actually forbidden from telling the truth…in perpetuity. Hence, ethical leadership is a common topic, although perhaps only whispered within the shadowy recesses of academia. 

Experts like Michael Troeger of Shokan, New York say it is essential for all educational stakeholders; students, teachers/staff, leadership, parents, and community to understand and comply with acceptable ethical standards within schools. During my career,  I have both seen and opposed a surprising number of unethical acts, the opposition of which ironically stimulated and emboldened additional acts. Both my personal experience, and my research confirm that leadership is the number one variable in establishing an ethical, positive school culture, as perception of the leader by the organizational members determines cultural wellness trends of the organization. Troeger (2022; see also Muskita & Kazimoto, 2017, p. 110 ) cautions us:

 If workers are unconvinced that their respective leaders are honest and of high integrity, systemic efforts to improve school climate and morale are in vain, plunging employee morale and catapulting the worker into a state of self-protectionism. (p.38)

What is Ethical Leadership? 

Michael Troeger says ethical behavior in general, involves acting with integrity, showing respect for others, being honest, and having moral principles based on a shared set of values. In an educational context, this means ensuring physical and emotional safety, treating peers fairly and with respect, practicing honesty, not taking advantage of other people’s work or resources without permission, following school rules and regulations, respecting the opinions of others, and engaging in activities that benefit the whole community. Expected ethical behaviors and performance indicators must be developmentally appropriate for both student and adult.

Ethical leadership is operationally defined as the “demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships” which is presented and modeled to followers via “two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision-making” (Zhang, et al, 2018; see also Brown et al., 2005, p. 120). A survey of the literature indicates several common tenets of ethical leadership, including truth, respect, and [social] justice, all motivated by the dignity and rights of others. Integrity is the metric, where integrity, as Troeger (2022, p. 38) asserts, is “honesty and consistency between a person’s espoused values and behaviour” (Yukl, 2013, p. 331) and either “creates or denigrates a workplace of trust between teachers and leaders” (Engelbrecht et al., 2017, p. 4). Furthermore, ethical leaders lead authentically, congruently, and by example in service to the community; admitting mistakes, accepting responsibility, acting in concert with shared values, and exerting uncommon courage to do the right thing … even under duress.

What is Considered Appropriate/Ethical Behavior In Schools? 

Appropriate ethical behavior within schools is typically delineated via various forms of guidance, namely board of education (BOE) policies, procedures, and regulations, as well as relevant laws and statutes. Several areas require the attention of administrators, teachers, parents, and even students regarding appropriate behavior in schools. Here are some examples of how each group can ensure that schools remain ethically sound: 

For students, appropriate behavior is commonly set forth in a district’s code of conduct. Moreover, districts often create curriculum to assist with behavior under their social emotional learning programs, where students become aware of their own emotions and those of others, acquire a universal language to describe such, comprehend the causes and consequences of emotions, and pragmatically gain powerful skills to appropriately express and regulate their emotions. Acquiring these skills is a critical step when it comes to making important academic, career, and life choices. 

Students must remember that their actions have consequences both inside and outside the classroom and they should always act with respect towards their peers, teachers, administrators, and property. Most systems employ a progressive discipline system, however also utilize zero tolerance policies for more severe offenses. Some schools ascribe to the tenets of restorative justice, where the offender is taught to see the personal harm the offense causes, prompting efforts of reconciliation which are couched in respect, nurtured by compassion, and inclusive in nature. This theoretical approach relies heavily upon accountability and engaged mediation, with an end-goal of healing, restoration, and reintegration.

Parents should understand what’s expected from their children at school so that they can set reasonable expectations at home; they should also take time to get involved in their child’s schooling by attending parent-teacher meetings or volunteering at the school whenever possible. Parents are routinely required to “sign off” acknowledging the code of conduct, inviting them into the process.

Regarding teachers, Michael Troeger says teachers have specific guidance, where BOE policies are augmented as expressed in collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and teacher handbooks. In such guidance, and in established best practices, teachers are required to treat all students fairly while maintaining professional boundaries; they should also be aware of any potential power imbalances between themselves and their pupils. 

Teachers play an essential role in promoting ethical behavior among students, and should set [realistic] expectations for their student’s behavior by modeling appropriate conduct, both inside and outside the classroom. Teaching ethical behavior by example ensures students are more likely to follow suit. I have observed that when students participate in the creation of classroom rules and consequences, with teacher oversight of course, there is a buy in wherein students take ownership and responsibility. 

Teachers should establish a safe, mutually respectful classroom culture where a free exchange of [dissenting] ideas is the norm. Open communication between students and teachers allows a safe platform wherein any issues can be discussed openly and resolved quickly. This allows students to identify a problem, and through collaborative empathetic listening skills initiate a remedy, monitoring it for effectiveness in real time. Problem solving is a life skill. 

Furthermore, teachers should be firm yet fair when dealing with disciplinary issues within their classrooms; there needs to be a balance between enforcing rules that protect everyone’s safety and allowing for a spirited, yet healthy debate. Ensuring a mutually respectful environment establishes a foundation of safety, which in turn encourages student engagement, achievement, and wellness. School leaders, however, have the most influence upon the system, and are discussed in the next session.

How Schools [systems] Can Promote Ethical Behavior 

There is a well-known idiomatic phrase in organizations, summarily stating that if a fish stinks, it starts at the head. This is clearly a metaphor depicting the pernicious influence an educational leader can have upon the students, educators, system, and community they purport to serve. Accordingly, the converse is also true, where integrous leaders can employ certain steps to effect a positive culture, as follows. According to Zhang et al., (2018, p 1) ethical leaders effect positive change, thereby [positively] influencing task completion (Bouckenooghe et al., 2015), perceived efficacy of leaders (Brown et al., 2005), “organizational citizenship behavior (Piccolo et al., 2010), workplace deviance (Resick et al., 2013), ethical behaviors (Mayer et al., 2009), and prosocial behaviors” ( Kalshoven et al., 2013). 

Leadership, or the lack thereof, sets the tone for ethical standards in schools. Systemically, administrators should strive to create an environment where all individuals are respected regardless of race, ability, gender identity, religion, economic standing, sexual orientation, or any other factor. They should also ensure that any rules established by the school align with local laws and statute. There are a plethora of state and federal laws, as well as statutes which guide school administrators, especially protecting the rights of the disabled, due process protections, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment statutes, and contractual agreements. 

Ethical leadership necessitates a benchmark, “an ethical code of behavior, and the code must set high standards for all educational leaders” (AASA, 2023). As school leaders are tasked with protecting and furthering the wellness and safety of both student and staff alike, behavioral markers [performance indicators] are enumerated, including compliance to policy, regulation and applicable law, and the due process protections of civil and human rights (NASSP, 2023). 

Schools can promote ethical behavior by ensuring that all policies are clearly communicated to staff members and students, and equitably enforced. This includes administrative procedures and rules regarding student conduct. For educational staff and administration, this is typically achieved in targeted professional development, and is often front loaded as “day 1” superintendent’s day fodder. For the community, such information is typically shared online.

Additionally, Michael Troeger says schools can offer developmentally appropriate instruction, exploring ethical questions and social justice. Students, if developmentally appropriate, may apply such freedom of speech principles, even protests… within the substantial disruption limitation afforded to schools. 

Last but not least, schools should ensure social justice; that any disciplinary action taken against those who violate relevant policies is done fairly; this means investigating any allegations thoroughly before coming to any conclusions and treating each case individually rather than punishing all offenders equally of circumstance. Doing so will help create an environment where everyone feels safe and protected from unfair treatment or abuse of power by those in authority positions within the school community (e.g., teachers). 

Sadly, not everyone plays by the rules and even teachers and staff are sometimes the victims of ethical shortfalls. A unionized teacher is protected via a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which delineates rights and due process for teachers. Systems err when they commit an inequitable application of a board of education policy, typically prompting a “grievance”, and spurring a series of due process responses.

Due process occurs intentionally, and typically line upon line, step upon step. A first “convincing” step to ensure a positive school culture, and consistent with tenets of dignity and rights, is to establish anti-discrimination policies, which define the act(s), the reporting process, and the protections of complainants. Policy steers procedures, typically the establishment of internal complaint process(es), delineating reporting protocol of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and more. Comprehending such a reporting policy requires targeted professional development, and an intentional dissemination of such information, commonly on school websites. Some ethical organizations are even brazen enough to post EEOC or NYSDHR posters on break room walls, operationally defining illegal workplace activities, identifying compliance officer(s), and describing processes for reporting.

According to best practices and common sense, such an internal complaint system must utilize integrous officers, including a neutral agent absent any conflict of interest (COI). Multiple complaint officers can be utilized, including a third-party designee from without the district; one truly intent on remedy. Additionally, a reasonable person would expect that a compliance officer, investigating such weighty workplace maladies (perhaps crimes), should not be known for practicing, or encouraging actual or similar behavior(s).

Systems [leaders] must offer protection(s), and are vexed when they target the complainant, one reporting an alleged illegal act in good conscience, which the EEOC describes as retaliation. Sadly, retaliation is the fastest growing niche of complaints regarding workplace discrimination (EEOC, 2023), and according to Troeger (2022; see also Padilla et al., 2007, p. 183; see also Kellerman, 2004; Lipman-Blumen, 2005a, 2005b) ), some capitulate to it as: 

Such motivational factors, or the lack thereof, create “certain followers” who are “unable or unwilling to resist domineering and abusive leaders” (p. 183) and endure such in trade for “safety, security, group membership, and predictability in an uncertain world, namely (a) conformers and (b) colluders. (p.39)

Final Thoughts

In sum, an ethical leader desires to comply with the law, but more so to establish a positive culture of wellness; one where staff and students are encouraged to boldly come forward to disclose any alleged illegal activity so that it might be REMEDIED! A positive culture, not necessarily a perfect one, is the end goal, including positive leadership styles and relationships, as they have emerged as critical components of teacher job satisfaction; attributes confirmed as staff culture/climate indicators (Troeger, 2022, p. 114; see also National School Climate Center, 2021). A dedicated, mission driven leader is essential, as perception of the leader by the organizational members determines cultural wellness trends of the organization. Troeger (2022; see also Muskita & Kazimoto, 2017, p. 110) posits: 

If workers are unconvinced that their respective leaders are honest and of high integrity, systemic efforts to improve school climate and morale are in vain, plunging employee morale and catapulting the worker into a state of self-protectionism. (p.38)

An ethical system protects all stakeholders through the vehement establishment of, and staunch compliance to the aforementioned policies and procedures. Ethical systems prevail when augmented and nurtured by a positive culture of mutual respect and trust, one ensuring a supportive, safe and lawful workplace where students and staff thrive. According to Troeger (2022; p. 42), leaders of integrity have a sublime opportunity, as well as a daunting responsibility to “establish a culture of trust within their schools, described as the lubricant of organizational functioning, freeing teachers from preoccupation with physical or emotional safety to focus on the work itself ” (Brezicha & Fuller, 2019; Tschannen-Moran, 2004, p. 16). Moreover, Troeger ( 2022) reminds us of the fluidity of systems, and that: 

schools must foster a growth mindset (Dweck, 2008) because schools are learning organizations, as first postulated by Toffler (1984), asserting, the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn (Toffler, 1984, p. 414). (p.113)

Finally, regarding integrity, aloofness is unacceptable, as Troeger (2022) reasserts Amiel (n.d., p.1), positing: 

“Truth is not only violated by falsehood, it may be equally outraged by silence”. 

Bio summary

Dr. Michael Troeger is an accomplished, award winning doctoral level educator-leader leveraging 20+ years of best educational practice; a compassionate educator of indomitable, undeterred ethical and moral character; committed to infusing hope to ALL students. Troeger is currently “seeking to partner with an educational system led by persons of integrity, where integrous acts are NOT an anomaly, but the norm; one which he can serve in loyalty and good conscience.”


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