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Ethical School Leadership: The Conceptions and Practices Secondary Principals use to Maintain Ethical Context and Relationships in Their Schools Open Access

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Contemporary educational theory and practice emphasizes interpersonal teacher–student relationships as a means of enhancing academic performance, promoting social development, and improving class management. Unfortunately, related policy, training, and professional standards have lagged. Into this void steps the principal, who as school leader falls the responsibility of guiding staff. 12 principals from public secondary schools (grades 6-12) in central and coastal Virginia were interviewed, to gather their descriptions of how they perceived appropriate ethical teacher–student relationships, and their practice in promoting and maintaining them in their schools. A qualitative methodology grounded in social constructivism was employed, which included inductive coding of the transcripts, and content analysis to categorize results. Principals’ practice was then compared with theoretical approaches from literature, which included care theory (Noddings, 1984), professional development and practice theory (Shapiro and Stefkovich, 2016), and standards based professionalism (Barrett et al., 2012; Barrett et al., 2006). The results indicated that principals envisioned positive teacher–student relationships as a critical enabler for class management and improved instructional outcomes. Foundations for the relationship were the teacher’s caring and professional behavior, and placing a genuine priority on acting in the best interest of students. The boundaries for the relationship were behaviors that detracted from, or undermined that foundation, and potentially traumatized or harmed students. Principals described the development of friendship and personally intimate relationships between teachers and students as the gateway to potential ethical relationship boundary issues, and sought to reduce opportunities for this to occur. The key factors in principal practice for promoting and maintaining ethical teacher–student relationships were described in terms of modeling expected behaviors, training staff, promoting a positive school culture and climate, and monitoring behaviors. Leadership and the ability of the principal to cope with peripheral influences on the school were also recognized as important factors. Three models from literature attempted to enhance understanding of how principals promote and maintain ethical and productive teacher–student relationships. Principals described using elements from all of these approaches, attempting to promote and develop positive attributes and skills in their staff, while at the same time monitoring and supervising their behaviors in relation to standards. Research findings implied that ethical teacher-student relationships and associated boundaries are clearly defined conceptually, vaguely defined in policy, and ambiguously defined in practice. The absence and vagueness of policy and standards places an onus on the principal to develop teacher attributes and skills, and for teachers to be able to act semi-independently as professionals. All as principals, teachers, and schools are under intensified public scrutiny, in the age of social media and electronic communications. Principals confronted the issue by drawing on their character, experience, skills, and leadership, which they tempered to meet the context and challenges of their respective schools. Student safety and trauma (physical and psychological) surfaced as growing concerns for school leadership, and something that needed to be factored more prominently into decision making.

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