Ethics in Education: The Importance of Good Leadership

December 15, 2022

Every school has a set of formal and informal rules that all students, faculty members and staff are expected to abide by. These rules, designed to protect and enhance everyone's educational experience, are often based on common sense and good practice. But who decides the difference between what is right and wrong, whether rules are bent or broken, and to whom and when these rules specifically apply? Behind every common-sense rule, there's a more complicated story about ethics in education, decision-making and leadership.

John Pijanowski is a professor in the Master of Education in Educational Leadership program at the University of Arkansas. Having worked previously as a teacher and principal at the elementary school level before becoming an administrator and dean in higher education, he has dedicated much of his career to understanding the challenges of maintaining ethics in education.

"We think of ethics in education as the codification of morality. So, it's what we've decided, institutionally or socially, are the rules that we're all going to follow. That becomes our ethical framework or ethical code. Within that ethical framework, we follow our own moral compass."

John Pijanowski, Professor of educational leadership, University of Arkansas

Ethical Leadership and Decision-Making in Education

"Ethics in educational leadership is understanding the rules, understanding how your actions affect other people and the system as a whole," says Pijanowski. "Then, we've got to understand the various ways in which we all make ethical mistakes. Often, we know what to do, but sometimes do the other thing."

Pijanowski explains that the challenges of ethical leadership are very much human challenges.

"We think of ethics in education as the codification of morality," says Pijanowski. "So, it's what we've decided, institutionally or socially, are the rules that we're all going to follow. That becomes our ethical framework or ethical code. Within that ethical framework, we follow our own moral compass."

While most people know the difference between right and wrong, Pijanowski explains that his biggest challenge is helping people navigate ethical issues.

"I's one thing to know where north is," says Pijanowski. "It's another thing to know how to reach your destination when north takes you through a mountain."


When Educational Leadership Goes Wrong

Pijanowski was initially attracted to the field of ethics in education because it combined his interests in educational leadership and experimental psychology.

"I became involved with a research team that was studying the microeconomics of school," says Pijanowski. "We were tracking the money coming into a school. Most of the money was spent on teachers' salaries. So, I had to reconcile budgets for hiring and staffing with student enrollments."

Pijanowski quickly realized that the numbers weren't adding up.

"I found several examples in one school district where teachers were being paid really high salaries for teaching scheduled classes," says Pijanowski. "But when I looked closely, nobody signed up for those classes. I later discovered that these were relatives of school board members who were given six-figure salaries."

Photo of John Pijanowski
John Pijanowski

While this level of corruption was shocking, Pijanowski explains that it's not unusual for ethical issues to go unnoticed or simply be ignored.

"I find that people are pretty good at knowing right from wrong," says Pijanowski. "When people embezzle money, they don't post it on Facebook because they know it's wrong. But there are times when there are gray areas, and we have to help people understand the rules and why we have rules for these situations."

Pijanowski spends much of his time dealing with "the judgment-action gap."

"The judgment-action gap is a process of understanding when people already know that they're supposed to do one thing, so why do they do something else? " says Pijanowski.


Why Do People Make Unethical Decisions?

Pijanowski explains that ethical issues are often sidelined because people are too focused on reaching their destination.

"When people are in a hurry, they're much less likely to behave in a way that they've already decided is the right way to behave," says Pijanowski.

Pijanowski uses the example of what people value when driving a car to illustrate the problem.

"People will dance around the issue and talk about prioritizing comfort or listening to the radio," says Pijanowski. "Then they'll talk about being considerate to other road users and not getting a ticket. Eventually, somebody will say they are focused on surviving the trip."

Pijanowski explains that, when you rank priorities, everybody will agree that not killing themselves or another person is the thing that they value the most when driving a vehicle.

"So, then I'll say, ‘Every time you get behind the wheel, everything you do, acts in service of that top value, and you never drive in a way that would risk your own life,' " says Pijanowski. "But everybody agrees that's not true. So, we have a conversation about all the reasons why they act in service of other goals and not the thing they value the most. The No. 1 reason: being in a hurry."

Pijanowski suggests that being hungry, thirsty or tired can also dramatically affect the decisions people make.

"When people are facing tough decisions, we need them to take a breath and understand what's going on in their minds," says Pijanowski. "We also want them to approach their jobs as professionals. They must understand that coming to work well-rested, hydrated and fed, and not allowing themselves to be rushed into decisions that don't need to be rushed, is all part of being a more moral professional."

"One of the things that I really focus on a lot is transparency. I'm a big believer in being overly intentionally transparent about how and why we make decisions – this is the information I have and this is the decision I'm making. That way, people can see your thoughtfulness and understand that it's not an arbitrary or capricious decision. It also means that people can hold you to account."

John Pijanowski, Professor of educational leadership, University of Arkansas

Creating an Honest and Transparent Environment

Pijanowski is careful not to dictate to his students what their moral compass should look like.

"I try to explain that's not what I'm here for," says Pijanowski. "We're just trying to add some glue to all the pieces they've already brought to the table and build something strong based on personal habits."

Creating an open and transparent environment is often built on the basic concept of being kind to one another.

"If, as a supervisor, you are talking to somebody who is not performing well on their job and you withhold direct feedback, you're actually hurting that person," says Pijanowski. "If your opinion matters for their future success, then you owe it to them to tell them what that is and help them be successful. You've got to communicate directly while preserving their dignity. This isn't a written rule, but it's probably one of the most essential elements of successful leadership."

Pijanowski explains that leaders in education want to create a culture where anyone within their organization can say, "I made a mistake."

"One of the things that I really focus on a lot is transparency," says Pijanowski. "I'm a big believer in being overly intentionally transparent about how and why we make decisions – this is the information I have and this is the decision I'm making. That way, people can see your thoughtfulness and understand that it's not an arbitrary or capricious decision. It also means that people can hold you to account."

This commitment to transparency and being held accountable as a leader in education is highlighted by Pijanowski with a simple message.

"This is the kind of job where you have to have the moral courage and be willing to get fired every day," says Pijanowski. "I say that because, ultimately, you're responsible for so many other human beings. So, that's not just about what kind of day they will have, but what kind of life they will live, whether they are safe and have an opportunity to thrive."


Acting in the Best Interest of the Child

Ethical leadership and decision-making in education require those in educational leadership roles to always act in the student's best interest. But unfortunately, this process isn't always so straightforward.

"We have difficult conversations about specific situations when we don't always act in the child's best interest," says Pijanowski.

Pijanowski uses the example of a fight between two students.

"So, one child is the victim, and the other is the bully," says Pijanowski. "But you have to be the leader for both of them, and that's one of the hardest things to do. They both need you to do the right thing."

Pijanowski is particularly concerned about students not being singled out and made to feel different.

"You control the extent to which you try to understand another person's humanity," says Pijanowski. "It could be that one person's humanity has really broken in that moment. As a result, another person has been damaged by that human being. While they are very different, they need you to be fair, and they need you to care about them both."

Leadership in schools wasn't always so compassionate.

"I remember when we used to have the two lunch lines," says Pijanowski. "There was the free and reduced lunch line and the pay line, so everybody knew who the poor kids were. This was an institutionalized way to single people out and make them feel different."

Thankfully, times have changed, and ethical leadership in schools now strives to focus on inclusivity while celebrating more appropriate differences such as specific talents or attributes – including kindness.


A New Generation of Leaders in Education

According to Pijanowski, recent cohorts of students studying for their master's in educational leadership are tracking at a much younger age than in previous years.

"The current generation of teachers see themselves moving into leadership roles sooner than their predecessors," says Pijanowski. "There's a lot of turnover in the field. So, it could be that they're getting tapped on the shoulder at a younger age."

While Pijanowski doesn't like to generalize about generational differences, he believes that the accessibility of programs like the online M.Ed. in educational leadership at the University of Arkansas certainly makes a difference.

"We've been online now for about a decade," says Pijanowski. "When I first arrived at the University of Arkansas, we taught everything face-to-face. That meant my students had to balance their study with their work and family life before potentially driving two hours to campus."

According to Pijanowski, this meant that many students with young families waited until their children reached a certain age before they resumed their studies.

"The ability to balance work and family life with study, as opposed to having to wait until your children are 13 or 14 years old and more self-sufficient, is a game-changer," says Pijanowski.


Social Learning

Students sometimes worry that completing an online program leaves them on their own. Pijanowski emphasizes that, at the University of Arkansas, online learning doesn't mean learning in isolation.

"In our program, we decided very early on that one of our primary values should be social learning," says Pijanowski. "We believe people learn best with each other, learning from peers, sharing ideas, getting to know faculty, and building relationships."

According to Pijanowski, those bonds extend beyond the typical student/professor relationship.

"We put a lot of energy into engaging with our students as faculty, using video conferencing tools and not just email," says Pijanowski. "When we meet live, I get to know my students' spouses and kids because they often bounce in and out of the calls. Sometimes, they have their computer set up and a game is going on in the background."

Pijanowski also stresses the importance of peer-to-peer learning.

"A lot of our students develop study groups with each other," says Pijanowski. "They become very tight, and they communicate with each other a lot outside of the classroom experience. I'm delighted with the way all that has evolved. Some online programs have gone a different direction and look more like correspondence courses. We determined we were never going to look like that."


"I'm a Razorback"

Pijanowski explains that a sense of community is essential to his students.

"I once had a student who was referred to as an online student," says Pijanowski. "She pushed back and said, ‘I'm not an online student; I'm a Razorback!' I thought that was just a lovely encapsulation of what we're trying to accomplish here. The idea that you're part of the learning community here and when you graduate, that doesn't go away."

This level of passion is particularly evident during events like commencement.

"It was so wonderful to be at the last commencement in May," says Pijanowski. "We had a reception for our students, and many came with their families. One of the tests, I think, for an online program like ours, is that when somebody walks in the room, you instantly recognize each other."

Pijanowski highlights a tradition that creates a permanent record of each graduate's achievement at the University of Arkansas.

"We have this wonderful tradition at the University of Arkansas, where every graduate has their name carved into the sidewalk," says Pijanowski. "They'll come back years later, and they'll take rubbings of their name and connect with that experience."


Learn More About Educational Leadership

To learn more about how the University of Arkansas ONLINE can help you develop the ethical and decision-making skills to advance your career in educational leadership, visit the Master of Education in Educational Leadership program page on our website.

Online Learner Blog Home


Master of Education in Educational Leadership

This master’s degree program provides professional preparation for educators seeking administrative positions in elementary and secondary schools. The program now has a 100 percent pass rate on the School Leaders Licensure Assessment (SLLA). An internship (not online) is required for building-level licensure. Apply anytime through rolling application process.

Program Page