Posted April 28, 2011

Fighting for ethical leadership and preparing ethical leaders

Faculty Focus Joan Poliner Shapiro

Bullying. Cheating. Discrimination. The magnitude of the dilemmas educational leaders must be prepared to face is daunting. But under the guidance of Professor Joan Poliner Shapiro, Temple educational administration students methodically prepare to take on these challenges and many others they will face as educational leaders.

Shapiro pushes her students to think deeply about such topics, examining each detail-by-detail so that as leaders they are prepared and empowered to make ethical decisions throughout their careers.

It’s a charge she sees as crucial to her mission of helping students become “thoughtful, wise and moral practitioners who can address the difficult issues needed to move education and society forward both democratically and ethically.”

And, as befitting a great teacher, she does it in a way that’s profoundly meaningful for her students: she uses paradoxes and conflicts that mirror the real world. Since many of her students are already practitioners and administrators, she asks them to share authentic cases from the schools and universities where they work.

“I love listening to my students. They bring in fascinating cases, each one new and insightful,” said Shapiro, professor of educational administration in the College of Education and winner of a 2011 Great Teacher Award. “I look to them to determine where the class is going and as a result, our discussions are very different each year.”

Students thrive in the classroom environment that Shapiro creates and gratefully recall what they learned from her years later.

“When students enter Dr. Shapiro’s classroom, they are warmly welcomed by a vibrant learning community that challenges them to examine themselves, share opinions and explore alternate considerations and perspectives,” said one former student who now supervises her school’s special education programs. “Having (Shapiro) as an instructor has changed the lens (through) which I view my work and the world. As I encounter challenging situations, whether professional or personal, I often rely on the skills that Dr. Shapiro taught me to find a resolution.”

Shapiro works primarily with graduate students who are or wish to become educational leaders — assistant principals, principals, superintendents and higher education administrators. A former schoolteacher herself, Shapiro has made a lifelong study of the complicated ethical dilemmas that arise in schools and postsecondary institutions every day.

Her quest for ethical leadership in education began when her own career plans were derailed by gender bias in the late 1960s. Upon completing her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, she had difficulty obtaining a position as an assistant principal. Perplexed, she approached a female professor at Penn.

“She told me that as a woman, I would not be able to break through,” said Shapiro. “This influenced me profoundly, and as a result, I took a position in Women’s Studies. I’d never fully comprehended why women were not allowed into the system. Consequently, it made me think, ‘I need to learn something about gender and understand the education system better.’”

At Penn, Shapiro worked in programs focused on developing leadership skills in women and undergraduates. She also taught her first ethics course there. In the late 1980s, she joined Temple’s College of Education faculty, helping to revise the educational administration program’s doctoral curriculum and developing several core courses.

Throughout her career, Shapiro has deftly blended her scholarship with her teaching to the great benefit of her students, many of whom collaborate with her to publish and present their work professionally for the first time. For the third edition of her co-authored best-selling book, Ethical Leadership and Decision Making in Education, for example, Shapiro’s students were invited to write case studies.

But it is Shapiro’s personal qualities, namely kindness and passion, that are perhaps most appreciated by her students.

“Student feedback reveals that Joan is an extremely engaging, enthusiastic and nurturing instructor,” said James Earl Davis, interim dean of the College of Education. “Her fascination and passion for topics in gender studies and ethical leadership are both evident and infectious when she teaches.”

“Her passion for the content was what most contributed to my learning,” echoed a student.

The Great Teacher Award is not the first time Shapiro has been honored for her teaching. In 2008, she received the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, and she has also been honored by Temple’s College of Education and the University Council for Educational Administration.

Shapiro — co-founder, with Steven Jay Gross, of the New DEEL (Democratic Ethical Educational Leadership — is a graduate of Simmons College with a Bachelor of Science degree in history and education. She earned her master’s (social sciences) and doctoral (educational administration) degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and completed post-doctoral work at the University of London’s Institute of Education. She has co-authored six books and written more than 50 journal articles and chapters in edited books. Currently, she is vice president of Temple’s Faculty Senate.