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Core Ethical Values in Schools

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

Identifying a school's core ethical values can involve either a cursory mention of vague principles (e.g. caring, respect, and responsibility) or can quickly become a rabbit-hole of moral and ethical conundrums resulting in more confusion than solutions. Finding an effective middle ground for identifying core ethical values is by far the most important consensus to have for a school and its staff, especially when engaging in conversations regarding social, emotional, and character development of students and their families.

For example, a school which elevates the value of respect as a school-wide core value might find the word respect to be interpreted a number of different ways depending on who is part of the conversation. Is respect an authoritarian structure of power and control? or is respect a more egalitarian, collectivist perspective that places a smaller distance of power and control between levels of structural relationships?

Using a word like respect in schools directly impacts instructional practices, especially when differences in perspective between classrooms can be subtle or wide. It is in this capacity to interpret concepts such as respect that instructional leadership from an administrator can add to this complexity. This is particularly true when administrators seek to shape these concepts into a collective campus-wide agreement on how these concepts are infused into classroom teacher's management and instruction.

Defining (Western Philosophical) Ethical Values

This becomes a particular challenge when schools use language without adequate definition. Referring to an idea such as respect as a core ethical value of a school may actually be a misplacement of it as a virtue in the first place. "Disrespect" is often presented on the grounds that a person has been deemed of little or no worth, or at least less than their own perceived self-worth. In this way, respect may be seen as a defining of an assumed personal value, but how is this value being defined? The idea of respect is often associated with behaviors related to obedience of authority - a unidirectional expectation for behavior.

What might be better is to consider actual ethical values of Western philosophy such as magnanimity (having great spirit; noble and giving) and temperance (having self-control and restraint with regards to pleasure). There are excesses and deficiencies to such virtues that a school seeking to formalize core ethical values may want to discuss openly and honestly. Seeking temperance in our behaviors lends itself to ideas of self-regulation which are quickly becoming more popular in social-emotional learning programs. However, an excess of temperance might result in an insensible restriction of basic human rights, while an extreme deficiency results in a constant state of damaging self-indulgence. It is not as simple as exercising one form of temperance in any and all situations. Life for students in the K-12 grade levels becomes increasingly complex, personally and socially, with each passing year. Their behaviors become more complex as both their social and their societal expectations become increasingly more complex. To discuss behaviors based on virtue principles begins by defining core principles with purpose and intent.

Principles and Discipline

Policies and behavior management strategies directly impact differences in understanding of core principles. Perhaps a school refers to responsibility as a core principle. There is often an expressed desire to promote intrinsically-motivated student responsibility, for students to "take responsibility" for their belongings, their actions, their consequences. However, this is often done through the rewarding and punishing of specific behaviors, resulting in an extrinsic approach to motivating students to develop a specific set of "responsible" behaviors. This creates a philosophical conflict - are principles learned through behavior? or are behaviors learned through principles? and how does a school's discipline policy impact these principles and behaviors?

If we were to take a philosophical perspective, we would find a separation between what Aristotle and Kant would argue is a focus on specific behaviors guided by moral and virtue, versus a more consequential focus on circumstance where the end justifies the means. The difference is in whether specific behaviors can be expected to always be "right" regardless of the outcome (deontological ethics), or whether our focus on an outcome can be expected to validate what we might consider is a "wrong" behavior (teleological ethics).

A Philosophical Look at Principles and Behaviors
A Philosophical Look at Principles and Behaviors

This can create conflict in a school's discipline policy when a school-wide policy on discipline might focus on avoiding certain outcomes from student behavior while teachers in that school might focus on specific behaviors which, though intended to align with the school-wide policy, creates a gray area of individual circumstances between specific behaviors and the undesired outcomes.

For example, a school may seek to keep students from using offensive language or engaging in physical fights. A teacher in that school may also seek the same goal but, instead of listing undesired outcomes as the focus for their class rules, a list of general behavior expectations is discussed, such as:

  • be kind,

  • show respect,

  • be prepared,

  • raise your hand to speak.

While being kind and showing respect does address a school's desire to avoid offensive language or physical fights on campus, there does exist a gray area between the two which can get lost in translation, especially from the perspective of the students.

Now imagine how students might react to the kind of philosophical discussion introduced in this article about what is right, what is wrong, and separating the differences between the 'means' and the 'end'. What benefit could ongoing conversations regarding these philosophical differences have on student understanding of ethical principles and discipline? How could a school's philosophical perspective, combined with the collective perspective of that school's teachers, impact student social, emotional, and character development?

Pluralism and Diversity in Schools

One other consideration is the plurality of a public school setting. Core ethical values can be a difficult topic for discussion in school communities which do not have a large majority of stakeholders sharing similar interpretations of specific school-defined values, ethics, and other moral codes of conduct. I believe pluralism and diversity serves a great value in a public setting and that schools seeking to define their core ethical values would benefit from crowdsourcing their own definitions from their community stakeholders. Additionally, differences and disparities of philosophical interpretation can be better understood through the direct instruction and modeling of appropriate conflict resolutions strategies both in and out of classrooms, school grounds, as well as throughout a school's community. This is only one consideration which leads me to connecting explicit social and emotional learning and assessment in schools as well as connecting a school's organizational structure, its culture, and its climate.

Pluralistic diversity in public schools is a reflection of our communities.

Organizational Culture and Character Development

I see a need for government officials and policy-writers to see schools for what they are - opportunities to develop in students what to develop a strong understanding of organizational culture while they are working to develop a meaningful approach to social, emotional, and character development (SECD). A challenge I see in schools as I continue working through this connection is that schools don't have objective domains for specific elements of organizational culture like they do with CASEL's organized competencies for SECD. I believe the more we help schools shift toward a perspective that embraces SECD, the more we'll see schools needing to specifically address deeper-rooted elements of culture and climate.

Core Ethical Values are embedded in a school's Elements of Culture and approach to SECD.

My work in connecting SECD and Elements of Culture in schools is directed toward creating a self-directed learning environment within a school system. As I continue my work, I hope to connect with other educators and leaders in education seeking to adopt and adapt such an environment through the use of a standards-based approach to social-emotional learning with a developmental mindset. Interested educators or school leaders can contact me directly at for opportunities to collaborate on school campuses across the country.

April 26, 2020

(Edited September 7, 2020)

Greg Mullen

Exploring the Core LLC

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