In order to implement an ethical paradigm within the shared vision, one must first lead by example. It is by doing more than expected when no one is watching. It is by giving more of yourself and expecting nothing in return.
By Jonathan Robinette
If you were to ask any child for their definition of the essence of being mean, you would get varied responses: being selfish, being greedy, or horrible, bad, nasty, etc. Indeed, the common denominator to all of those definitions would be the inherent emphasis on disposing discomfort on another human being.
School yard bullies are considered mean; as are abusive coaches, confrontational teachers and authoritative administrators. Being considered rude or malicious or any acceptable synonym for meanness automatically renders the accused unethical and immoral. One simply cannot be ethical and cruel simultaneously; the two are diametrically opposed.
Yet, today’s leaders (both in education and the private sector) constantly try to live lives that are righteously incongruent; desperately hoping their questionable ethical decisions are smothered by a blanket of purity. No matter how moral the intention, the negatively charged poles of life’s magnetic aura will always repel. Leaders can be quickly rendered incompetent by one perceived act of meanness. Therefore, moral and ethical leaders must strive to embody the antithesis to that which may cause discomfort to another person.
To that end, if you asked that same child for their interpretation of the exact opposite of meanness, he/she would offer a predictable list of adjectives: kindness, or being nice, or accepting, or tolerant. Most people would not disagree. It is a common sense reaction to a remedial question; it’s neat and tidy and very hard to dispute. Unfortunately, I do not believe it is accurate.
“In studying slavery in America and the concentration camps of central Europe I found that kindness could be the ultimate cruelty, especially when it was given within that unbalanced power relationship. A kind overseer or a kind camp guard can exacerbate cruelty, can remind his victim that there are other relationships than the relationship of cruelty, and can make the victim deeply bitter, especially when he sees the self-satisfied smile of his victimizer” (Hallie).
It is without question that administrators are expected to be kind in the classic sense of the word, and clearly not in the way that Hallie describes. In fact, to help school children remember the slight spelling differences between the homonyms “principle” and “principal,” teachers (and parents) often remind students that the principal is your “pal”—a kind reminder of the pleasant persona of the school boss.
What is most frightening to a teacher or administrator, is that cruelty is most probably never an intended outcome when one is dealing with a student or co-worker in a kind way. But, as Hallie suggests, being kind can actually intensify pain inflicted on a subordinate. Although probably not premeditated, even a benevolent misuse of power pushes the administrator farther from what the community would view as an ethical steward of children.
To avoid this seemingly innocuous yet potentially costly mistake, administrators must establish a moral compass built in contradiction to meanness. Once defined, it needs to be chiseled into the foundation of every administrator’s “true north” paradigm. “Do no harm” is insufficient. As is being just, patient, concerned or, as California Professional Standards for Education Leaders (CPSEL) Element 5C, suggests being “fair and equitable.” These can all be used to enhance the discomfort of the subordinate.
An administrator cannot simply, “communicate expectations and support for professional behavior that reflects ethics, integrity, justice and equality (CPSEL 5C-1). His or her ethical paradigm must contain not just goodness and professionalism, but unconditional generosity. “I learned that the opposite of cruelty is not simply freedom from the cruel relationship; it is hospitality. It lies not only in something negative, an absence of cruelty or of imbalance; it lies in unsentimental and efficacious love” (Hallie).
Learning cannot take place inside of chaos. Unfortunately, on a middle school campus, chaos can take many forms. Indeed, there is the continued chaos of increasing standardized test scores, identifying funds for improving dilapidated buildings, rising employee salaries, and updating or expanding curriculum. This type of chaos is continuous and must be effectively managed by administrators so that learning does not deteriorate.
In reality, administrators must work within these restraints and challenges to avoid a respite in learning, but at the same time thrust the school past historical benchmarks. This seemingly impossible task has become so apparent on campus that the job description of today’s administrator might read: to effectively manage daily bedlam while providing a safe and welcoming learning environment for a diverse student and teacher population, while simultaneously operating within ever-contracting budgetary allocations and exceeding the expectations of the district and community. To a good administrator, this chaos is manageable and controllable. To a great administrator, this chaos is anticipated.
Efa Huckaby is in his first year at Folsom Middle School. Although his official title is vice principal, with a good natured laugh Efa tells me his real job is “chaos manager.” A hulking man standing well over six feet tall, his appearance suggests the rugged persona often associated with a disciplinary position at a large middle school. Yet, his wide smile and boisterous laugh offer a different first impression: He’s an approachable person, very quick to offer his time to parents, teachers and students, and always willing to help with lunch clean-up or take on additional adjunct duties. He’s a collaborative leader who takes others’ opinions into consideration and treats them respectfully even when they have done nothing to deserve his accommodation.
The duties of the vice principal are quite unlike other jobs on campus, with the exception of janitor during an influenza outbreak. A vice principal’s job is largely reactive; he is the person in charge of dealing with children whose moral compass is off-kilter. Suspensions, expulsions, due process, detentions and screaming parents dominate Efa’s day. Indeed, the daily barrage of negativity can wreak havoc on one’s authentic self.
Through it all, Efa never deviates from his true north: “For me it’s a lot of reflection. I think about what I do a lot. Even something on the playground, I will go home sometimes and think, ‘did I handle that correctly?’ I’ll sit up at night and think about how I spoke to a kid and how I would have felt if I was spoken to like that. I think about how I can change, soften the blow but still be a leader by the book at FMS.”
Having my own kids, I think is this how I want someone to talk to my kids? Is this how I want someone to talk to me?” Efa’s constant reflection results in continued positive growth as an administrator. Indeed, self-reflection is necessary for any leader to remain consistent with their personal ethical paradigm.
Efa came to FMS from Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord, Calif. He spent six years as Ygnacio’s VP before accepting the position at Folsom Middle. Daily, Efa made the two-and-a-half-hour commute to Concord from his home in Orangevale.
While his students slept comfortably at 5 a.m., Efa was already aboard his train to the Bay Area and prepping for his administrative duties. After school, while his students were finishing family dinners and relaxing in front of the television, Efa was on the return trip to Sacramento. For six years he did this. For six years the students did not know the sacrifices that Efa had made for them.
“When I told the kids that I was taking a job closer to home because I lived in Sac, they were like, ‘Wow! You did that for us? Why did you do that?,’ Efa said. “I said, ‘because I love you guys. I’d do anything for you.’’’
Efa did not tell me this to increase his standing in my eyes. I’m quite certain that conversation happened almost exactly as he described. This is his authentic self, one built on selflessness and generosity, and indeed, ethical self-reflection. Without question, Efa’s true north is grounded in hospitality.
Shortly after my conversation with Efa Huckaby, I became ominously self-aware of my every action as an educator. Certainly, this reflection has created positive growth, but also nightly discomfort from the constant analysis of my daily decisions. “How could I have better handled that?” “Did that person take it the way intended or did benevolence inflict pain?” “How do I look in the eyes of a child?”
Much like Efa Huckaby, reflective practice made it difficult to turn off at night. I’ve always considered myself self-aware – sometimes to a fault—but my personal ethics were now under a microscope. I resolved to implement my true north statement daily and use it as the guiding light for my relationships with students: ethics, integrity, justice, equity, kindness, etc.
I do not believe that any person can “talk the talk” and become a leader viewed as ethical by stakeholders. In order to implement an ethical paradigm within the shared vision, one must first lead by example. The way subordinates view their administrator can only be formed from hours and hours of hospitality toward others. It is by doing more than expected when no one is watching. It is by giving more of yourself and expecting nothing in return. It is Efa Huckaby doing daily lunch duty or trying desperately to memorize the names of 1,400 students because he believes an effective VP should know each student by name. It is the vice principal spending extra time with a troubled youth to get to know them better in order to offer solutions rather than punishment. It is unsentimental and efficacious love for the job, the kids, and the school.
California Professional Standards for Education Leaders (2014). California Commission on Teacher Credentialing: www.ctc.ca.gov/educator-prep/standards/CPSEL-booklet-2014.pdf.
Hallie, P. (1981). “From Cruelty to Goodness.” In Institute of society, ethics, and the life sciences. New York, NY: The Hastings Center.
Winlock, S.L. (n.d.). “The working triangle for leadership.” Sacramento COE Leadership Institute: http://scoeleadership.net/documents/the_working_triangle.pdf.
Jonathan Robinette, M.Ed. is an educator and author. He holds three California clear teaching credentials as well as an Administrative Services Credential. He has an undergraduate degree in Communications and a Master’s in Education. He writes regularly on the topics of education, curriculum development, administrative practices, and public speaking. He can be reached at email@example.com.