Principles for principals (and superintendents)

With all the talk about political principles, I decided to ask several Minnesota principals and higher education leaders about what ethic principles they use as a guide.

A number of principals talked about the importance of putting students first. Ben Lewis, principal at Century Middle School in Forest Lake, agreed, but explained that’s not always easy, “I think the most often ethic I rely on is to do what is best for a student or students in the situation and its various constraints. The catch is the last part… budget, time, external demands often limit the options. In addition there are several interpretations on “what is best for students” in any given context.”

Mitch Clausen, Principal at Cambridge/Isanti high school, told me that “A few of the areas that come to me are in the areas of money/valuable items, relationships, and confidentiality… We are public employees. We could have several opportunities to accept gratuities, gifts or favors from various companies or individuals. We just can’t put ourselves into a situation that can be looked at as giving favors for gifts. I just say sorry but no thanks. Relationships: We are in perceived positions of power. In no way can we use this power to gain personal advantage. Confidentiality: Doing my job means that I obtain a lot of private information about students, staff and parents. This information is to remain very private and only shared on a must know basis.”

Forest Lake Area Superintendent Linda Madsen wrote, “I believe anyone in a leadership position in an educational organization, or in any organization for that matter, must communicate to the members of the organization and to those outside of the organization with clarity and thoughtfulness. Clarity involves knowing the person or group you are communicating to and making every attempt to bring understanding to the situation. Thoughtfulness involves being accurate and straightforward, as well as trying to put into perspective what the impact will be for those involved.”

Jeffrey McGonigal, Interim Associate Superintendent in the Anoka/Hennepin district wrote, “The principle I would describe is “equity to challenge.”

“As a principal I want all students in my school to be challenged in a manner that leads them to their greatest success; no matter their level of support outside of school. A practical example of this idea is where the parent of one student comes forward raising a question about a teacher’s practice. I would want to make sure, with the teacher’s involvement, and on behalf of all students, that the best possible practices are taking place. Any other parent should rest assured that the principal takes such efforts even if they are not the one who raised a concern.”

James Steckart, director of the Northwest Passage Charter in Coon Rapids, responded, “We look at each student as an individual. Our tag line: students first , adult egos last.”

Shifting to the University of Minnesota, Gary DeCramer, Director of the Master of Public Affairs at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs told me, “my most prized principles as a teacher are to the practice of openness and trust, and a deep commitment to creating a safe place for personal leadership development.”

Karen Seashore, a widely respected “Regents Professor “at the University of Minnesota has talked with educators at the K-12, as well as college/university level. She “also conducted research on the ‘practical ethics’ that faculty members use in their research settings.” She suggested

  1. “…Every time you make an on-the-spot decision, you have to ask yourself whether you are creating an opportunity for harm.
  2. Be fair, particularly in allocating opportunities and credit. In fact, be generous. I hardly ever work alone, and it is very important that others with whom I work have the chance to participate fully and be given public commendation for what they do. This is as true of students in classes as people who work with me as assistants.
  3. Never fudge “data” or try for quick fixes. I have been a teacher-leader at the university as well as a scholar. It is always tempting to put the end first, but the consequences are always terrible — usually for other people. This applies to grading, to classes that are not going as well as I wanted, to students who may be stumbling — as well as to research projects.
  4. Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes — whether a student, a colleague, or a person who is cooperating in a research project.”

Along with suggestions above that others offered, John Beach, principal of Princeton’s North Elementary wrote, “I don’t know if this is a principle, but an appropriate sense of humor really goes a long way in creating a comfortable, easy going environment.”

We (including me) don’t always succeed at being open, honest, generous, mixed with a sense of humor. But I found it useful to ask others about their “guiding principles.” What are yours?