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Moral leadership: a school management team imperative

| April 10, 2017 | 0 Comments


The shaping of a society is underpinned by cultural, ethical and moral norms, which influence educational processes that give meaning to the world in which we live.

According to Taylor,1 all pedagogic discourse creates a moral regulation of the social relations of knowledge acquisition; and contends that such a moral order is prior to, and a condition for, instruction and the transmission of competence. It can be argued that learner attainment is inextricably linked to the moral fabric that constitutes the learning and teaching processes. The “moral leadership” construct, according to Greenfield,2 is first the education of public children, and it is by its very nature a moral activity; and second, the relationships among people who are at the very centre of the work of school leaders and teachers. Greenfield3 further postulates that at the core of school leadership lies a moral consideration: leading and teaching to what ends, and by what means? The answer to both these questions should lead school management teams (SMTs) to discussions around teachers and learner attainment.

Moral leadership and the role of SMTs

Moral leadership holds much promise for enabling SMTs to lead in a manner that would best help teachers to develop and empower themselves to teach and lead in the context of external pressures to reform schools. According to Hanhimaki and Tirri,4 SMTs serve as moral agents and role models for their schools – even if they do not consider themselves as such. It may, therefore, be contended that moral leadership is inherent in leading schools, and that moral leadership is feasible when SMTs evoke a sense of righteousness and obligation, and use these as the motivations for action and work aimed at improved learner attainment.

The fact that SMTs are moral agents does not mean they would always do the right thing. It only means that they hold themselves responsible; because they believe they are able to do the right thing.5 SMTs need to take responsibility for their actions and those of their peers. They may not always act in the best interests of their schools or learners, but they must have the conviction to act with impunity, and to correct any failings in their actions. Frick6 contends that moral leadership is motivated by conceptions of what is desirable, in personal and collective terms. SMTs need to inculcate a moral obligation within the school environment that addresses the needs, the circumstances and the development of cognitive capability in learners.

The moral imperative is that it has value to the person, and it is not based on the notion of economic marginal utility, according to Frick.7 Moral leadership is about promoting the best interests of learners, and this is what makes the education profession unique, since it is client based. Furthermore, within the school context, a myriad of considerations need to be internalised before attempting to influence moral practice. According to Sergiovanni and Starratt,8 teaching and learning constitute moral actions or activities.

For this reason, Sergiovanni and Starratt9 argue that teachers and learners need to be guided by a high moral purpose. In defining moral leadership, it is therefore important to uphold the integrity of the relationship between SMTs and the school staff and between school staff and learners. This will facilitate the common rights, responsibilities and procedures to be followed in the engagement of teaching and learning.

Bergman10 quotes Noddings, maintaining that morality in education is nurturing the ethical ideals of those with whom one comes into contact (educators, inside and outside formal schooling). Moral leadership means working towards a common goal in which SMTs take responsibility for school improvement and learner attainment.

Moral leadership and learner attainment

According to Rucinski and Bauch,11 learner attainment within the context of globalisation has become an educational and political conundrum. The achievement gaps across communities internationally have been a contentious issue throughout the Western world during the last century. As a historically segregated society, South Africa has been no exception in trying to bridge the achievement gap within diverse communities. This democratic dialogue has included issues of ethics, morality and social justice – putting learner attainment high on the student agenda. Rucinski and Bauch12 maintain that the achievement gap can only be addressed when school leaders embark on reflective, ethical and moral dispositions and practices in creating major curriculum strands.

SMTs in the South African context need to know that they have a critical role to play within the differing contexts where education takes place – whether rural or urban – and to ensure that learner attainment is a purposeful activity in which learners’ competence is enhanced. Christie13 states that teachers are responsible for engaging students in formal curriculum activities, as well as for instilling morals and values. It is thus imperative that SMTs in schools ensure that teachers address both the formal curriculum and the nurturing of moral behaviour in learners. Starratt14 suggests that learners need to learn in a moral context, and that the moral character of learning must accommodate the integrity of the learners’ activity of learning. In this way, the learning activity acquires full moral realisation.

In the South African context, the assimilation of all cultures and races within a school context has necessitated that schools refocus and re-engineer their operations, to become inclusive of all learning, cultural and religious activities. Moral leadership has to be understood from a sociological perspective in the light of the complex reorientation of communities and their traditions in a global context. Solomons and Fataar15 argue that moral formation in young people occurs within a global context, which is constituted by the remnants and fragments of deconstructed values, morals, belief systems, cultures, traditions and political arrangements.

A distinct moral obligation

Learners in South Africa have the challenge of holding in tandem the individual freedom to choose between personal values while, as a priority, retaining the commonly prized values and morals in a democracy. SMTs therefore need to be conscious of the difficulties that learners may experience within a school community – especially since moral affiliations may be fluid. Consequently, SMTs need to guide this fluidity in the best interests of the learners and the school, and uphold the moral construct as a vehicle to promote improved learner attainment. 

Roger Looyen is principal at Sandhurst Pre- and Preparatory College in Johannesburg, Gauteng.

References: 1. Taylor, N. (2009) “The state of South African schools”, Journal of Education, 46. 2. Greenfield, W.D. (2004) “Moral leadership in schools”, Journal of Educational Administration, 42(2). 3. Ibid. 4. Hanhimaki, E. and Tirri, K. (2008) “The moral role and characteristics of Finnish urban school principals”, Journal of Research in Character Education, 6(1). 5. Cooper, D.E. (2004) Ethics for Professionals in a Multi-cultural World. New York: Pearson Prentice Hall. 6. Frick, W.C. (2009) “Principals’ value-informed decision-making, intrapersonal moral discord, and pathways to resolution: The complexities of moral leadership praxis”, Journal of Educational Administration, 47(1). 7. Ibid. 8. Sergiovanni, T.J. and Starratt, R.J. (1988) Supervision: Human Perspectives. United States: McGraw-Hill. 9. Ibid. 10. Bergman, R. (2004) “Caring for the ethical ideal: Nel Noddings on moral leadership”, Journal of Moral Education, 33(2). 11. Rucinski, A. and Bauch, P.A. (2006) “Reflective, ethical and moral constructs in educational leadership preparation: effects on graduates’ practices”, Journal of Educational Administration, 44(5). 12. Ibid. 13. Christie, P. (1998) “Schools as (dis)organisations: the ‘breakdown of the culture of learning and teaching’ in South African schools”, Cambridge Journal of Education, 28(3). 14. Starratt, R.J. (2010) “Leading a community of learners”, Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 35(2). 15. Solomons, I. and Fataar, A. (2011) “A conceptual exploration of values education in the context of schooling in South Africa”, South African Journal of Education, 31(1).


Category: Autumn 2017

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