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Character Development Initiative

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) is delighted to partner with the Kern Family Foundation in the development and cultivation of character and ethical leadership in aspiring and current school principals and public school district executives and superintendents. Our Center for Educational Leadership has a long history of recognizing and espousing the crucial role of ethical behavior, selflessness, caring, and honor as indispensable strengths for effective leadership in schools and districts. The Center’s programming reflects the imperative of “courageous, student-centered leadership” and its strategic plan notes that all initiatives are “grounded in the transcendent values of integrity, collaboration, and service.” In recent years, the Center, and the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies within which it operates, have sought to weave these transformational concepts of character inextricably more explicitly, purposefully, and comprehensively into the fabric of coursework, field experiences, leadership coaching, and professional learning efforts.


  1. Character & Values

Great educational leaders are continuously building upon, refining, and reinforcing their strong moral character. Such leaders seek to ground their leadership in a set of clear and enduring values, including equity, engagement, and excellence.

  • We provide a strong foundation in the research and literature around character and values, and a platform for aspiring and current educational leaders to examine and strengthen their moral character in the context of the complexities of modern public education. Additionally, our instructors and coaches encourage leaders to explicitly identify, articulate, embrace, and exemplify the values and character strengths that drive their leadership.


  1. Ethical Leadership

Educational leaders should adhere to a set of ethical and professional principles that reflect the most honorable and appropriate practices identified by their state and their profession. In Tennessee, those practices would include the Tennessee Instructional Leadership Standards (TILS), the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL), and the Tennessee Teacher Code of Ethics.

  • Our curricula and leadership development programming are deeply rooted in the Tennessee and national standards for ethical and effective leadership. Further, we embrace the state requirement to steep our students and professional development participants in the tenets of the Tennessee Teacher Code of Ethics, so that they both understand and can internalize these critical expectations. Finally, our coaching and programming facilitate deep reflection on practice, and examination as to whether ethical standards are integrated into participants’ day-to-day leadership.


  1. Character Strengths

Effective and ethical educational leadership requires school principals and district executives to understand, embrace, and cultivate their leadership and character strengths, and leverage those strengths to speak and act courageously on behalf of all children. Faced with conflicting agendas, limited resources, political pressures, and other daunting challenges, educational leaders must leverage their strengths to boldly ensure the needs of all schoolchildren are met adequately, appropriately, and equitably.

  • We provide all the participants in our leadership programming with the knowledge, skills, and support to understand their strengths, and to be confident and comfortable in their leadership on behalf of all kids. While our graduates and completers will certainly face challenging situations and ethical predicaments, we seek to equip them to build on their existing leadership and character strengths, and to feel self-assured in making the hard calls that are morally correct.


  1. The Volunteer Spirit (Selflessness and Service)

A dedication to each individual one serves (students, parents, staff) and a commitment to the larger community are endemic to the ethos of a great educational leader. A clear outward focus makes effective leadership not about who is leading, but about what positive impact they are able to have on people and communities.

  • A pervasive emphasis on selflessness and service is a critical aspect of what makes the University of Tennessee special. The Tennessee Volunteer Spirit means that we focus on others and do the work that needs to be done, without seeking recognition or reward. In our curriculum and programming, we deeply explore the values of selflessness and service, and how they are integral not only to our university and our state, but to excellence in educational leadership as well.


  1. Phronesis

At the heart of ethical and effective educational leadership is the ability to discern the best and most virtuous decisions to be made and actions to be taken, particularly in the face of competing priorities and values. Aristotle called this virtue phronesis, and because it is a capability often developed through experience, it is also sometimes labeled “practical wisdom.” In educational leadership, Phronesis1 can be seen as the application of character, virtue, and values to real-world challenges and dilemmas, which will ultimately benefit students and the community.

  • Our approach to leadership development and support centers around exploring realistic situations and scenarios that pose deep moral quandaries. Through this exploration, and specifically, through the practice of genuinely grappling with challenging hypothetical and real- world ethical quagmires, leaders develop the practical wisdom to approach complex problems and dilemmas always aspiring to make virtuous decisions and deliver beneficial outcomes.


  1. Long-Term Goal

It should be noted that at the present time our framework is focused largely on character development and ethical leadership for adults. However, it is a longer-term goal to also cultivate educational leaders who see value in character education for schoolchildren, clearly communicate character as a priority, and actively seek to teach, nurture, and develop students of character.

Research has shown definitively that leadership matters in public education, and we believe that character development and a values orientation enable even more effective and impactful educational leadership, which ultimately positively impacts the lives and future opportunities of students. The University of Tennessee is committed to excellence in all that we do, and we are grateful to the Kern Family Foundation for supporting our efforts in developing and cultivating the next generation of educational leaders of character.