Reflections on Ethics and Teacher Leadership

While teachers may not always traditionally thought of as leaders, they are. Even when not taking a formalized leadership role, they lead in the context of managing their classrooms, or in the context of advocating for students. In these contexts, teachers face leadership challenges that require application of principles of ethical decision-making. Particular principles of ethical decision-making, such as looking to a decision’s outcomes (Thiel, Bagdasarov, & Harkrider, 2012), engaging the values of others, and involving key stakeholders in decisions (Vroom, 2003), can provide insight into ways teachers can respond to leadership challenges.

Ethical Teacher Leadership in the Classroom

When determining whether a decision is an ethical one, Thiel, et al. (2012) suggest that one must look to the decision’s potential outcomes, rather than the immediate short-term effects. For a teacher, looking to long-term potential outcomes is a part of the quotidian of classroom management. When faced with a student exhibiting an undesirable classroom behavior, a teacher has to immediately balance the short-term outcome of reprimanding him or her, with the long-term implications the punishment might have on the teacher-student relationship. At any given time, a teacher has to consider how her interactions with her students will impact those students’ lives and academic future. This is especially true for middle and high school teachers, because teachers must consider how to keep students on task in an unruly classroom, and how punitive measures will impact a students’ investment in their academic future. Thus, teachers must consider long-term potential outcomes of each interaction rather than just short-term outcome (Thiel, et al., 2012).

Vroom (2003) suggests strong leaders should engage the values of others; in a classroom environment, students’ values must be engaged before true learning can occur. Thus, a teacher’s ethical obligations in a classroom include motivating students and inciting their passion for learning. In order to increase students’ buy-in in their learning, a classroom teacher should not take for granted that the students are already grateful, invested, or passionate about learning a subject. Instead, she should devote some time to building their investment, perhaps through a mini-lesson designed around the power of education and the disenfranchisement that accompanies a lack of education, and the direct relevance and importance of the particular subject area. While this may feel like a sales pitch, it is an essential component of leading a classroom, as it develops a foundation for student investment in their learning. More importantly, it engages the students’ values and passion, which allows for teachers to then make better ethical decisions in that environment in the future (Vroom, 2003).

Ethical Teacher Leadership in Advocating for Students

Ethical decision-making by a leader often requires involving all key stakeholders in the process (Vroom, 2003). This has implications for ethical decision-making by teachers in a variety of scenarios. One common scenario a teacher might face involves catching a student plagiarizing or otherwise violating school rules; according to Vroom (2003), the teacher should involve an administrator, a counselor, a parent, and the student him or herself before making a decision about how to best reprimand him or her. However, if the student were an English Language Learner (and was perhaps, less aware of the expectations), or a student with special needs (and perhaps, without a firm grasp on social skills and norms), the teacher might advocate for the student to receive a less harsh consequence.

In a less common, but more complex scenario, a teacher might observe that a student exhibits specific needs in the classroom, and might require further observation to determine whether a screening might be potentially needed. In this situation, according to Vroom (2003), the teacher would include all stakeholders, including the student him or herself, and the parent. In practice, however, this might not be the ideal approach; the student might get upset, the family may not be receptive to the teacher’s observations, or might become litigious, and counselors or other teachers who may not have observed the same things might not lend support. In such a scenario, a teacher must balance the ethical need to involve key stakeholders (Vroom, 2003) with the need to be completely sure of what she was observing before involving all key stakeholders.

While not in formal positions of power, teachers are leaders in their professional context, and are thus responsible for ethical decision-making. By considering involving key stakeholders in important decisions, engaging students’ values before leading them into learning (Vroom, 2003), and thinking ahead to long-term outcomes (Thiel, et al., 2012), teachers can better respond to various leadership challenges. Doing so may yield more meaningful and positive outcomes.


Thiel, C., Bagdasarov, Z., Harkrider, L., Johnson, J., & Mumford, M. (2012). Leader Ethical Decision-Making in Organizations: Strategies for Sensemaking. Journal of Business Ethics, 107, 49-64. doi:10.1007/s10551-012-1299-1

Vroom, V. H. (2003). Educating Managers for Decision Making and Leadership. Management Decision, 41, 968 – 978. doi:10.1108/00251740310509490