The School Doctor: To all School Leaders

The School Doctor writes to all school leaders on ethical leadership and how it can impact the future generations…

It is now a given that excellent schools rely on excellent leaders. Excellent school leaders have almost always been – and continue to be – excellent teachers. It is now also a given that school leaders will take on a number of responsibilities concerning pupils’ personal safety and wellbeing, as well as their educational progress. These responsibilities are, of course, often delegated and distributed, but the buck still stops with school leaders.

As of today – 20 January 2017 – the imperative for school leaders to provide ethical leadership in all its forms becomes much more urgent. Historically, school leaders might have been able to rely to a certain extent on sharing that burden of responsibility with a number of different community, national and international leaders. There are still a huge number of those leaders to whom we can look with admiration. But at the apex of international power and leadership, the responsibility for rational, ethical and measured leadership has been abrogated in return for behaviour that can easily be interpreted as aggressive, misogynistic, self-serving, nepotistic, avaricious, unthinking, divisive, prejudiced and dangerous. This is not an exhaustive list.

We know that the tone of a community is set by the person, or people, leading that community. When I first entered teaching, I observed an English lesson, in which a mob of thirteen-year-old boys sneered their way through forty-five minutes. I was, at first, perplexed at how the atmosphere had become so toxic, until I looked more closely at the teacher, whose own sneery and dismissive behaviour had set the tone for the lesson. This single microcosm speaks volumes for how the behaviour of those in positions of responsibility – those people at the literal or metaphorical front of the room – model, legitimise and validate certain forms of behaviour.

We now have, in one of the most prominent positions in the world, actions that model, legitimate and validate – that normalise – behaviour that we would not accept in a four-year-old. We have already seen many examples where such actions have been used as an excuse for aggressive and divisive acts elsewhere: if it’s ok for him to do it, it’s ok for us to do it – he wants us to do it, and he’s the one in charge. If that behaviour does not change, and the accepted standards for behaviour, exchange and discourse plummet on an international level, then school leaders everywhere have no choice. They need to put up their respective shoulders to such an abhorrent demeanour, and further take on the mantle of the most visible example of acceptable behaviour that the majority of our charges will encounter. 

Part of this responsibility naturally will be shared with parents. It will also be shared with other figures, in person or in the media, to whom young people look for validated behaviour. But school leaders, more so than ever, will be the ones whose own actions trickle down to validate the behaviour of the younger generations. Those leaders might themselves be used to looking upwards, to their own seniors in domestic and international positions, for guidance and reassurance.

As of today – 20 January 2017 – that appropriate guidance and reassurance cannot be guaranteed in certain extremely prominent quarters. If we want future generations who behave with dignity and respect, with rational thought and due recourse to the law, with empathy and understanding, with selflessness and altruism, then it looks like we might have to model those characteristics even more ourselves.


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