Ethics on Display

“Being a role model is the most powerful form of educating,” said John Wooden, famed coach of the UCLA Bruins who led the team to 10 national championships—including a record seven in a row—and former high school coach and teacher.

Education is an ethical effort. The aim of teaching and reinforcing ethics is to help people—namely, students—carry out ethical decision making on their own. Advisers and teachers of student leadership programs or activities and sports occupy a special role, one that provides students with an opportunity to practice ethics in real, everyday ways.

Advisers and teachers have the ability to help students understand, practice, and eventually adopt ethical leadership traits based upon their own willingness to “wear” their ethics in full view of others—in the hallways, in the classroom, during interactions with other faculty and students, and in the community. But what do ethics “on display” look like to students?

Ethics—the responsibility to uphold ideals or moral codes—is anchored in personal commitment. Advisers enjoy a professional status through codes of ethics that are framed by their state departments of education and local school districts. The codes establish the ideals that educators and other school employees model in their educational duties and practices. In concert with professional codes of ethics and their commitments to their schools, students, and the profession, those working with student activities must be committed to their roles and to the organizations they lead.

Commitment to the Profession

Educators are committed to strengthening their instructional skills and content knowledge for the classroom. Likewise, advisers can model a professional approach to their student program roles. That includes displaying their commitment to being responsible professionals and taking opportunities to promote their profession both in and out of school. Students are challenged daily to acquire knowledge or improve a skill, so it is inspiring for them to see that their advisers are working to do the same.

Specifically, advisers can display their commitment to the profession by actively seeking to expand skills and knowledge that strengthen their management and leadership instruction abilities. For instance, advisers can:

  • Participate in online or in-person professional development relevant to the student program, particularly around topics addressing known personal weaknesses, areas of challenge, new skills, and those with applicability to instructional assignments.
  • Regularly seek out professional articles and research online, either in support of ongoing professional development or for personal growth.
  • Participate in online communities with peers to establish a professional network that encourages the sharing of information, consultation, and advisement on topics and issues, and collegial dialogue among like-minded educators.

Commitment to the School

As members of the school faculty, advisers have a responsibility to support the educational mission of their schools through their instructional practices and by performing the duties in their activity roles. Likewise, they are charged with upholding and enforcing campus policies and rules. They demonstrate their commitment to those responsibilities in their high expectations for student achievement and success no matter the subject, organization, or activity in which a student is participating. For instance, advisers can:

  • Be knowledgeable of school and district policies, especially those that specifically address cocurricular program participation in things such as fundraising, travel, dues/fees, etc.
  • Apply policies in a fair and consistent manner.
  • Model behaviors in both instructional settings and student programs that are respectful and accepting of differences, creating an inviting environment for diverse populations.
  • Establish and maintain effective professional partnerships within the school. This includes faculty colleagues, administration, and staff throughout the building—from custodial to cafeteria.
  • Model behaviors outside of the school that are reflective of community values and expectations for educators, and recognize that students are as observant of teachers in public spaces as they are of teachers during school and related activities.

Commitment to the Student Program

The adviser’s visible commitment to their student program is essential if there is to be an expectation for students to also have a personal commitment to the organization. Authentically exhibiting such an obligation conveys its value to the students and establishes “commitment” as a cultural norm of its members. For instance, advisers can:

  • Demonstrate a working knowledge of the governing documents of the organization by following organizational policies and procedures, day-to-day program activities, and general management responsibilities.
  • Provide student members with access to or copies of the constitution, bylaws, or similar governing documents of the organization and establish a routine to familiarize students with them.
  • Collaborate with student members to establish rules and practices that reflect policies found in the governing documents.
  • Advocate internally and externally for the student program as an integral part of the educational environment and valuable student experience.
  • Meet regularly with the principal or other administrators to update them on activities, share good news, and consult on any concerns or issues pertaining to the student program.
  • Introduce new faculty, administrators, students, and parents to the student organization by providing orientation materials.

Commitment to the Student

For many students involved in activities—student council, the National Honor Societies, sports, or others on campus—the faculty adviser or coach often becomes that “other caring adult.” Working with students away from the classroom in the activities environment creates opportunities for advisers to see students in a very different light and develop a strong, healthy rapport that can provide students with a safety net when they find themselves struggling or in crisis. For instance, advisers can:

  • Be there. It is important for advisers to be visible and accessible to the members of their programs. While student leaders enjoy the independence of planning and leading their activities, knowing their adviser is just down the hall or a text away is comforting.
  • Confer authentic recognition to student members for their efforts and celebrate the successes of both individuals and the group.
  • Lead student members in exercises to identify, create, and adopt a code of ethics for the student program. Remember that such a code reflects the personal standards that student leaders will strive to model in their own leadership roles.
  • Create a respectful environment where student members are at ease conversing with the adviser and each other.
  • Provide formal leadership training to student members. Recognize and use teachable moments during activities to help student members develop their individual leadership skills.

Students are always studying ethics through everyday interactions. Most importantly, aside from their parents and family members, they study and view the actions of teachers and advisers most closely. Always set a good example to set your students up for success.


Jeff Sherrill is the associate director of National Student Council at NASSP.