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.