Everyday Ethics in Schools

This image shows a young man deeply engaged in reading for school.
Reflective Work To support Critical Thinking about Equity, Scholarship, and Hope

In her essay on bioethics in medicine, Rebecca Dresser (2011) proposes that small choices have significant impacts on patient treatment. In the words of one of her colleague interviews, “Doctors and nurses make ‘constant small ethical decisions [in their] everyday clinical work’, like whether to make eye contact with a patient or take seriously a patient’s complaints about treatment side effects. . . . Their choices have a major impact on patients and caregivers (p. 15).”  I believe the same is true in schools.

What happens when we trade the medical terms in this quote for school-based terms? Principals and teachers make ‘constant small ethical decisions [in] everyday school work’, like whether to make eye contact with a student or take seriously a student’s feelings about a lesson, teacher, or peer group. . . . Their choices have a major impact on students and learning. Equity work and microethics go hand-in-hand and both have a tremendous impact on school culture and student learning.  

Below are two case studies that illustrate some interpersonal everyday ethical decisions from my own teaching practice. Although these interactions were brief and happened several years ago, I was reminded of these two young men last spring when our academic team began studying antiracist work more intentionally. Both stories use pseudonyms to protect the identities of the scholars.

Case Study 1: Hank

Once identified as struggling readers, students were assigned to my literacy intervention program. Often my students did not lack reading skills as much as they lacked an interest in engaging with books that had little to do with their own lived experiences. 

This was the case with Hank, a bright-eyed football player. One day, Hank’s general education English teacher cornered me. She demanded to know why he was in her class “because he clearly doesn’t know how to read.” 

I asked if Hank would please read his football strategy book to us. “Sure,” he said, fluently, offering his own complex commentary and insightful connections to the text. 

Case Study 2: Jamal

During our passing period, a lanky young man tumbled into my classroom.  He reached into my bookcase and grabbed a copy of James McBride’s The Color of Water (2006). 

“ Can I borrow this? I’ll bring it back soon.” Before I could answer, he was gone with the book.

He brought it back during the next passing period. “Thanks!” he shouted, running off. 

After two weeks of borrowing and returning the same book, one of his teachers appeared in my doorway. Visibly upset, she accused me of “enabling” him for her silent reading activities. 

“By lending him a book to read?” I asked, clearly miffed.

“He’s not reading it. He’s just using you to game the system.” 

Just as Chad Donhue (2016) reminds us that if a student shows up without a pencil you let them know, there is always one available in your classroom, I assured her that teenagers were always welcome to “use” my classroom for access to books. The next day Jamal grabbed the book from his spot on the shelf and called out to me, “Did you read the part about him teaching his mom to drive? I did that, too. Teach my mom to drive.” 

I wish I could tell you that Jamal and I developed a close relationship, that we talked about books for the rest of the year, exploring narratives and making connections. However, we didn’t.  I was simply a teacher with a full bookshelf and an open door. Jamal borrowed a few more books during the course of the school year. Whenever he did, he would periodically shout out evidence that he was indeed reading them.  

An Exercise in Equity

Like many school leaders, my team and I are engaging more deeply with antiracism work. When we started this process, I was surprised that Jamal and Hank, were the students who rose to the front of my consciousness. Their stories certainly aren’t the most illustrative or overt examples from my career, nor were they the most impactful for me. 

After some reflection, I realized it wasn’t Hank and Jamal that drew their memories to focus, instead it was my interactions with their teachers, and what those interactions have taught me about teacher support and school leadership.

These two educators came to me angry, sharing that they believed students either wouldn’t or couldn’t read—accusations that cut deep in my teacher heart. These same remarks had been pointed at my own son, also an African American young man, and also a highly-proficient reader at home.  I was so anxious to prove these teachers wrong, that I failed to do the more important work that needed to follow.

What should I have done in these situations? If I had it to again— and unfortunately, I do, in countless microethical moments— here is the protocol I wish I had followed: 

  1. call out inequitable and unjust behavior, 
  2. address the systems that allow and encourage these beliefs and actions, and
  3. act with empathy recognizing that we are all works in progress.  

Micro-ethical moments, like those shared above, have a significant impact on the self-efficacy and achievement of our children. Positive school change is complex and big, but it’s also simple and small. Sometimes so much takes place in those brief 4-minute passing periods.

We can change school culture through a series of countless small moments, as well as committing to better systems and policiies. The scenarios above are supported by policies and practices that conflate grading with behavior, or worse, with access to resources. They are convoluted by the ways we identify students for remedial classes, and by a curriculum that centers narrow and Eurocentric narratives. These case-studies are also reinforced by bias about what or whom a scholar looks like.

We must commit to positive school change. This change requires continual difficult and courageous intentionality In his bestselling memoir, How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi (2019) challenges that decisions and policies are not race neutral. In fact, he says there is no such thing as “race neutral.” Policies are either racist or antiracist and so are our behaviors.

So where can you start? While there are many places to start, below is a list of questions to aid your teaching teams in this work. These are hefty dismantling questions, in part, informed by Ohito’s work on antiracist teaching, which found that teacher educators’ beliefs about antiracist teaching are “shaped by the (inter)connections between and among the following: 1) race(ism) and family histories; 2) race(ism) and schooling experiences; and 3) race(ism) and embodiment (2011, p. 5).”

Rather than trying to tackle all of these questions in a single session, spend several months, engaging deeply, courageously, and honestly. At the start of each monthly session share what you have learned over the previous month. At the end of the session, set specific and actionable goals for the coming weeks.

Month 1: Stage Setting 
What feelings did these two case stories bring up for you? When have you been the different characters in the story? What are your important takeaways from this article? Who will you partner with to hold you accountable for equity and compassion? (Assign partners.)
Month 2: Hope and Connection
How do you communicate hope and connection to students? Be specific. Who in your classroom isn’t receiving these messages and why? How will you change the messaging in your classroom? How will we change our messaging across the school?
Month 3: Biases
What biases are interfering with your ability to reach, teach, and connect with all of your students? What is your plan to address this? Include specific actions and behaviors. As a school community, how will we support each other in this work in ways that move beyond looking at data?
Month 4: Exploring Anger
When students (or teachers) make you angry at school, what is the root of that anger? How can you use your anger more productively? As a school community, how can we honor the productive possibilities of anger and other big emotions?
Month 5: High Expectations
Which students know that you believe they are capable of just about anything? Which students don’t know if you believe they are capable of achieving at high levels? How will you commit to intentionally building relationships and changing this narrative? As a school community, how will we commit to supporting all students’ achievement in tangible ways?

On Hope and Anger 

Hope and anger are intentionally entangled across these questions and within this work. In a 2017 essay, I defined hope as “a universal form of resistant imagination.” Likewise, Black feminist scholars, such as Audre Lorde have taught me that anger may also be a resistant imagination. Lorde’s address at the NWSA Convention in 1981, reminds us that anger is not only useful, but necessary in addressing racism. 

“We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor to seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty; we must be quite serious about the choice of this topic and the angers entwined within it… (Lorde, 1981, p. 8)”

“To hope,” I wrote, “is to believe that situations, circumstances, and practices can be better. This decision making framework centers hope by calling on educational leaders to consider how schools can create more equitable responses and practices to dynamic situations in schools. (Fishman-Weaver, 2017, p. 10)”

Hope and anger are not opposite positions in a philosophical debate. Instead they are partner drivers in antiracist teaching and school leadership. 

May these questions and stories be a positive tipping point for your school. And certainly, if a long-legged teenager comes tumbling in from the crowded hallway seeking a book, a pencil, or connection, make sure he knows that these things are always available in your classroom.


Donhue, C. (2016) Give the Kid a Pencil. Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/give-the-kid-a-pencil

Dresser, R. (2011). Bioethics and cancer: when the professional becomes personal. The Hastings Center Report, 41(6), 14-18.

Fishman-Weaver, K. (2017). A call to praxis: Using gendered organizational theory to center radical hope in schools. Journal of Organizational Theory in Education, 2(1), 1-14.

Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an Antiracist. One world.

Lorde, A. (1981). The uses of anger. Women’s Studies Quarterly. Retrieved from: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/wsq/509/

McBride, J. (2006). The color of water: A black man’s tribute to his white mother. Penguin.

Ohito, E. O. (2019). Mapping women’s knowledges of antiracist teaching in the United States: A feminist phenomenological study of three antiracist women teacher educators. Teaching and Teacher Education, 86, 102892

The Universal Language of School

Hanoi Journals

I slide off my high heels, adding them to the large pile of shoes at the front of a brightly colored kindergarten building in Hanoi, Vietnam. Looking down the hallway I notice dozens of irregular snowflakes each cut with kid scissors and hung with a teacher’s care. I feel at home.

While I have never been to Vietnam before, much less this specific school, my global travels have shown me that there is a shared humanity that runs across our school hallways. Whether I am at a Catholic school in Brazil, a private school in Vietnam, or a public school in the United States, there are several things I know to be true. These things transcend language, culture, and worldview.  In fact, they may be the magic that makes schools work.

Connection matters

  • It only takes one spark of laughter to change the whole tenor of a classroom. 
  • Learning a new game can bring people together.
  • Though we show it in different ways, we all need to connect.
  • It is absolutely possible to sit with someone who speaks a different language than you and have a conversation.
  • Friends can share a joke without saying a word.
  • There is a renewed sense of possibility each morning when we greet students and colleagues. 
  • Few gifts are more treasured in a school day than receiving art from a student or a hot cup of coffee from a teacher.

Kids are Kids

  • Young children need to dance and sing.
  • Middle school students are curious about everything.
  • You can see both the lasting glimmers of childhood and the new glimmers of adulthood flash across the faces of high school students at play or work.
  • Kids carry big worries and big ideas and they don’t always know how to express those.

Universal Language

  • We straighten our gaze with determined focus when solving an interesting problem. 
  • When we see something beautiful, we want to share it.
  • We nod when we say thank you.
  • We crinkle our eyes to show delight.
  • There is a telltale kind of tired that teachers everywhere wear on their faces at the end of a school day.

I am grateful to Wellspring International Bilingual School for inviting us to spend the week with students and teachers. While I did manage to learn a few phrases in Vietnamese (thank you mostly to a group of sixth grade students), more importantly I learned that it doesn’t take spoken language to say many of the things that matter most in school including: thank you, I see you, I value you, and I’m happy you’re here.

Appreciatively yours, Dr. KFW

Wired for Inclusion

Lessons from our early-elementary classrooms

I recently spent a morning working with and learning from first, second, and third graders at my daughter’s elementary school. As a high school and middle school principal, it’s been awhile since I’ve asked someone to sit criss cross applesauce or posed a question and watched as every hand in the room shot up. There’s nothing quite like that enthusiasm.

I also believe that young children are wired for inclusion. Throughout my career in education, I have been constantly inspired by the ways young children are quick to make friends with peers who are different from them.

This doesn’t mean they don’t see differences, it just means that these differences seldom impact who they choose to color with, kick the ball with, or build a huge tower out of multicolored blocks with. It also doesn’t impact who they choose to give a hug to or receive a hug from.

I have been thinking a lot about inclusion, elementary education, and the lessons we
can learn from neurodiverse student populations. My first teaching position was in an
early elementary classroom for students with disabilities. This position taught me
everything I know about teaching. When we launched our program, I was teaching in
what is called a “self-contained” classroom. The idea was that all of my students’
learning would “be contained” inside this classroom.

I had other ideas.

Learning should never be contained to the four walls of a classroom. I also didn’t want
our class to be isolated from the broader school community. Therefore, I sought out
every opportunity possible to make sure my students were included with their peers in
the general education first-grade program and that those first graders were reciprocallyincluded in our classroom.

Thanks to some critical colleagues who partnered with me on this endeavor, we
adopted new collaborative approaches to managing our class rosters. We said yes to
huge integrated projects like painting a mural or recording a CD together, and we took
numerous field trips to learn outside of the classroom. These experiences made us
better educators, and with hope, they made us better human beings too.

Do you want to learn more about inclusion? Spend time with a diverse group of young
children, preferably during free play or art.

Will young children ask questions about why their friends are different? Of course.
They ask questions about everything. Maybe they haven’t yet had a friend with
physical disabilities or a friend who uses assistive technology. However, their curiosity
is usually satiated with a simple, straightforward answer. This helps me talk; these help
me walk; this helps my weaker eye grow stronger. A few words saying this is who I am
and what I need is usually all it takes for children to get back to the important business
of playing, learning, and making friends.

That we could we all be so wise.

With hope, Dr. KFW