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Exploring Ethical Leadership: A Superintendents' Professionnal Learning Project

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Increased accountability for student achievement and the implementation of provincial priorities, changing demographics due to growing immigrant and Aboriginal populations, and the necessity for ever greater fiscal restraint – all contribute to the growing complexity of the school superintendency. In Manitoba the challenge and opportunity for leadership at the local level remains strong compared to many other jurisdictions, with superintendents and boards still able to exert significant influence over the quality of education. There is, however, no formal provincial preparation for this role; individuals seek out academic post-graduate programs or depend on the Manitoba Association of School Superintendents (MASS) or conferences outside Manitoba for much of their professional learning. The Association saw the need for a new kind of sustained professional learning for its members and elected to launch a study of ethical leadership, modeled somewhat on a similar program run by the Superintendents Association of Iowa (SAI).

Why ethics? The answer lies in part in MASS's commitment to public education, its stated sense that "the challenge for educators is to define what we believe about education in a manner that encompasses the values of a democratic society, respects the inherent uniqueness of the individual student, and at the same time provides equity of opportunity for all." The Association’s Statement of Beliefs in Public Education has codified the values that have grounded its work for the past 15 years (see www.mass.mb.ca) and reflect Robert Starratt's "ethic of justice" and "ethic of care", as well as the "ethic of critique", which is crucial for the constant renewal and change required to create and maintain a strong democracy.

If individuals hope to provide the leadership necessary for such change and renewal, and to establish cultures where justice and care are at work, they require clarity around values, the ability to articulate those values to others, and the ability to make judgments based on them as they encounter ethical dilemmas. A sustained dialogue on the centrality of those values formed the base of our work on ethical leadership begun in 2008. As we said at that time, "ethical leadership gets at the heart of the superintendent's work – not only to provide a moral compass for individual decision-making and relationships but to lead in establishing an ethical culture where children and learning, equity and justice, are central."  

The purpose of the experience was to "provide a forum for participants to engage collectively in an ongoing inquiry into their practice; to provide the opportunity for reflection on the moral imperative of leadership; and to positively affect the culture of leadership in schools and divisions across the province." A cohort of 20 superintendents and assistant superintendents, and a "critical friend" from the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Education, met four times through the year for two half-days and an evening. Part of each session was spent with a resource person (Jerry Starratt, Chris Kelly, Nel Noddings, Margaret Wheatley, to name a few over the past two years), and each session was planned and facilitated by members of the cohort. Jerry Starratt remarked: “I was enormously impressed by the sense of teamwork, candour, and transparency…The group moved very quickly into analysing the ethical implications of systemic issues and challenged themselves to lead the necessary changes.”

Themes that emerged from the written reflections, focus groups, and survey revealed that the experience led to a deeper understanding of the ethical implications of the superintendent's work, sharpened tools of analysis, changes in practice, and increased comfort, confidence, and courage with their roles.  As one participant said, "The biggest single plus of the cohort model has been the opportunity for sustained dialogue and interaction with a group of people trying to do this job in the Manitoba context."

Personal comments reveal how the study of and dialogue around ethics relate to practice: "I am now much more conscious of the need to situate decisions within an ethical context in a purposeful and systematic way"; "I am looking for the ethical and moral aspects of the issues, trying to peel back the layers to get at the deeper meaning of the issues"; and "For every decision I make, I reflect on what is ethically right. I try to view it through the various lenses – the ethic of caring, ethic of justice, and the ethic of critique".

The dialogue around ethical leadership was ultimately less about a personal style than about the wider system: "The discussions and questions posed at our sessions have more deeply instilled in me the importance of creating a 'shared ethics' within our school division in order to positively promote change." 

That dialogue centred around questions such as: How do we make education more successful for aboriginal and immigrant kids? How can we change the system to be more inclusive of all learners? Do immersion programs challenge our ability to provide a strong education for all? Do we target groups or schools based on socio-economic status with extra resources as the most caring and just solution? How can we give voice to marginalized groups within the system? and even, How can we build schools that are structurally more caring of their inhabitants and more environmentally friendly?

The cohort continued to meet a second year on its own, and a second cohort was launched this past fall. By enabling superintendents to extend their thinking in rich ways around ethical issues, these dialogues have helped to create a coherent value system within the association and among the province's school districts, resulting in a common language that has deepened commitment to public education and to the provision of a fair and equitable educational experience for all of our students.