Ethical Leadership In The Classroom

The trouble with schools is that their leaders and teachers can sometimes forget the value of keeping ethical thinking to the forefront of decision making, behaviours and actions.

In my mind, leadership is not about being kind.  It is about being ethical in your decision making and day to day actions.  By nature, I’m someone who has always wanted people to like me.  Some would call it a failing, especially in leadership positions. If you are always making decisions based upon whether the person on the receiving end will continue to like you or not, you are not always going to make the correct choices. I learned this quickly when starting my career as a teacher. I was not there to make my students like me (although it’s obviously advantageous if they do), no, I was there to help them to learn whatever the topic was that day in an as effective and engaging way as possible.  

I could have interpreted ‘effective and engaging’ as sitting my students in rows, taking part in rote learning and engaging them through threats of detentions and weighty letters home to parents.  A few years earlier, as a pupil in Scotland, many of my own lessons had been like this, with the threat of the taws (leather belt) across the hand to help engage me.  It certainly didn’t feel right as a pupil nor did it as a new teacher. 

My students took advantage of me in my first few years and I became very inconsistent, moving from being authoritarian to their best friend, often in the space of 15 minutes.  It took a year or two to find the balance and that involved ethical principles (not that I realised this at the time).  Concepts such as fairness, equality, rights & responsibilities, empathy and compassion began to creep into my lessons, underpinning all I did.   It took a while and in times of stress these virtues would quickly vanish, but the more I became consistent the more I noticed my lessons begin to improve. 

As a Headteacher I always found it useful to observe lessons from both a management & leadership perspective; both are essential qualities.   Good lessons are always well managed.  For example: good planning, pace & timings, groupings, assessment and feedback points, the ratio of teacher led to student led activities.  To be outstanding however, requires an element of leadership, and for me, effective leadership must have ethical decision making and behaviours at its core.   Outstanding teachers are consistent in their display of ethical leadership qualities, not only in the classroom but around their institution on a day-to-day basis, and in their planning preparation and assessment of/for learning.

So, what do we mean by ethical leadership?  For the remainder of this document, I have described ethical leadership in relation to the teacher, under four headings:

  1. Consciousness and Curiosity – why a utilitarian approach isn’t always the most ethical approach

‘Putting students first’ is the short answer to describe the principle that should underpin ethical leadership in schools.    It becomes more complex when we try to distinguish between actions which are utilitarian (i.e. the greatest good or value for the greatest number), or we consider the rights of the individual, which utilitarian principles tend to miss.   For example, I have worked with many children in deprived schools who have multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).  These children tend to disrupt lessons more than children who have been brought up in more stable backgrounds.  The ‘greater good’ argument would condemn these children to a constant stream of sanctions leading to a cycle of disengagement and on ultimately to exclusion.   It is all too easy to follow this path, as a teacher or school leader when managing young people.  Ethical leadership however, would encourage us to look at the student as an individual, asking questions such as: What am I as a teacher doing to engage this student in my class?  To what extent am I offering this student unconditional respect? Are there external mitigating factors affecting the student? What are we doing as a school to support this young person and are school leaders aware of the needs this child has? 

I accept that it’s a balancing act.  We can pour too much resource and/or time into one student which is not always the best way to manage limited resources we have.  However, it is the constant examination of this balancing act that is vital.  Flexibility and adaptability are two essential terms to consider here and patience in the heat of the moment is the obvious virtue. 

Ethical leadership then, is about being conscious of the need to ask questions concerning the morality of our actions and curious about alternative solutions.  It’s about asking questions which consider the individual and more importantly being honest with ourselves, our own abilities and actions, before choosing the ‘greatest good’, utilitarian route.  This ‘route’ in my opinion carries with it principles which most disciplinary or behaviour management policies and systems adhere to.  They are clear, they appear effective, they can make it easy to manage situations, but they don’t always result in the most ethical outcomes, especially for the individual concerned.  

Examine your own student management routines in class.  Do they do enough to protect individual rights and allow you the space to find ‘balance’ when making decisions?  Do you feel you are working in an environment where you feel you can share your concerns if you are struggling with a particular child? If you are, then it’s your responsibility to share your concerns.  Hopefully the school leadership team are practicing ethical leadership also, in which case there will be no problems with sharing concerns, if not then perhaps the next two aspects of ethical leadership will help.

2. Modelling behaviours

I mention the importance of supporting individuals above.  Is the support we offer proactive.  We reinforce expectations with students, through whole school events, tutorial classes and in day-to-day lessons, but is this enough?  

How consistent are we at modelling the behaviours we want to see? For example, we expect students to be punctual.  Do we arrive on time for every lesson?  We expect students to not be messaging or receiving personal calls in lessons on their phones, but do we ignore our own phones when they buzz in our pocket or bag? 

Effective ethical leaders will always model the behaviours they want to see in their students.  For example, by showing unconditional respect, picking up litter, remaining calm in a crisis, not shouting in an aggressive manner, using professional language.  In short, the behaviours which identify teachers (or any leader for that matter) as being professional; behaviours which instil trust, encourage a sense of belonging, and involve constructive dialogue.

Effective ethical leaders will also model the behaviours they hope to see in their leaders.  If we consider the example given above where a teacher may be afraid to share their concerns regarding a pupil for fear of being seen as an inadequate teacher, by adopting clear transparent principles and rationale for actions and behaviours (As covered in the next section), then your influence as a teacher will extend upwards and not just down to your students.

Ethical leadership in this sense is again about being mindful and alert to what it is to be an ethical leader and modelling the behaviours we expect to see, or we hope to develop in others.

  • Clear transparent principles and rationale for behaviours and actions

I have always held that the main purpose of schools is to enable young people to go on and flourish in life.  We have a responsibility to make sure they leave with a passport for life, i.e. their qualifications, but I also believe we have a joint responsibility with parents to ensure we instil in them the confidence, aspirations and general wherewithal to use that passport effectively to help them go on and flourish.   This is especially important for schools in deprived areas, where it can be argued that schools have an even greater responsibility to accomplish this. 

The ethical leader needs to explore their own values and principles and exhibit these in their practice.  For example, here are two principles/values I uphold, and the thought processes myself and my staff followed to form them (they are two of eight we followed):

  • Firstly, we desired our school to be community focused, within an environment where young people wanted to attend daily, not because they were forced to by law but because the school belonged to them and played a meaningful part in their lives: We believe in developing and maintaining a sense of belonging.
  • Next, we explored what might put a young person off coming into school. Initially, we discussed the tension between staff and student when a student did something wrong or was being asked to do something they didn’t particularly want to do. Through further discussion we acknowledged that young people are still developing and therefore will make mistakes, and therefore it was vital we accepted this fact. We accept that young people are still developing, will make mistakes/errors of judgement and we will support them through this. 

It is essential that when exploring and forming values and principles such as these, they are shared and discussed in partnership with students and regularly revisited, reviewed and evaluated. It is time well spent.

  • Providing opportunities to develop good habits of learning

If we agree that the purpose of education is to enable young people to flourish in life, then as inferred in’3’ above, surely it is about more than just focussing upon achieving the highest grades in national exams.  Young people need so much more much more in schools if they are to use their (exam result) ‘passport’ effectively.  They should have opportunities to make mistakes and errors of judgement, not just in their learning tasks but in their behaviours and approaches or attitudes to learning.  This means giving them a degree of freedom and autonomy to explore and reflect upon all aspects of their learning and to develop the behaviours, skills, competencies, attitudes and approaches necessary to have the confidence to make decisions take positive actions throughout their lives.

There’s a lot here to consider and none of this is easy, but surely we should be working towards this with the children in our care, if we are making ethical decisions concerning our leadership of teaching.   Sometimes it takes a leap of faith.  If we gave our pupils more autonomy through extended tasks, projects, enquiry-based learning activities, (whatever you decide to call them), ensuring there was as much (if not more) emphasis upon reflection of how they worked rather than a focus on the assessment of outcomes, then my own experiences lead me to believe, those outcomes would still materialise, very likely to a higher level.  But this is hard, probably the most difficult aspect of ethical leadership in teaching to plan and organise, however it is the most rewarding.

I always seem to end up citing Guy Claxton’s and Graham Powell’s Learning Powered Approach[1] (Because it’s good!) which encompass many of the learning habits inferred above.  It’s also well worth reading John Corrigan’s “Teacherly Authority For The Twenty-First-Century” which also refers to the value of developing what he refers to as Core Growth Skills. (Aug 2022) 


Ethical leadership will enable a teacher to be genuinely kind when appropriate. It also carries with it all the values and principles that will support, nurture and guide those we work with and lead, in an honest way which does not leave those we lead guessing our intentions or struggling to interpret our actions.  

Being recognised as an ‘outstanding’ teacher or an ‘outstanding’ school is not the end of the journey.  Constantly evaluating and reflecting upon our practice and refining our skills and professional behaviours, ensures excellence not only in teaching but in the quality of learning taking place.  Seeking to always develop the ethical leadership qualities in our practice, will ensure we sustain excellence.

[1] G Claxton & G Powell 2019 – Powering Up Students: The Learning Power Approach to high school teaching, Crown House Publishing

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