Ethical Educator

Snooping at a Screen
School Administrator, November 2019

Scenario: When the middle school principal drops off a memo on the assistant superintendent’s desk, she glances, inadvertently she claims, at his computer screen and notices her name. It appears in an e-mail to the superintendent blaming the failure of a recent initiative on her. The principal considers that an overstatement but wonders how to defend herself without admitting to the inadvertent e-mail read.

Maggie Lopez: 
It would be difficult for the principal to defend herself without admitting to the assistant superintendent what happened. If the principal believes it is essential to talk to the assistant superintendent regarding his perceived overstatement in the e-mail, then she’ll need to admit to having read the e-mail. 

Reading the email has placed her in a highly precarious situation because to address the concern over the e-mail, the principal also must admit she crossed a line of confidentiality. This may leave the assistant superintendent wondering about the principal’s professionalism. 

The principal preferably might wait and see if the issue is brought up to her by either the assistant superintendent or superintendent, at which time she can state her side of the story regarding the initiative. Whether inadvertent or not, her snooping may have provided her with information she wasn’t aware of, but it also put her in a position that has given her little option to respond or defend herself without creating further questions from her superiors about her judgement or lack thereof.
Meira Levinson:
Whether it was inadvertent that she noticed her name on the computer screen, she could not have inadvertently read the entire e-mail message. That takes intent. The middle school principal thus has two choices. 

Either she can apologize to the assistant superintendent for violating his privacy by reading the e-mail on his computer screen and then explain why she believes she should not be held primarily at fault for the failed initiative. This is awkward but the most honest and transparent approach. Or she can remain mum but remain attentive to comments from anyone who may have received the e-mail and explain her perspective on the initiative’s failure when it comes up in conversation.

Finally, because it sounds as if the principal acknowledges that she bears some responsibility even if not the entire blame for the initiative’s failure, she may wish to be proactive in developing a new approach. That might be creating a proposal for a new initiative. She might be open about needing some personal professional development. For example, maybe she could ask the assistant superintendent to help her learn how to mobilize her staff around new ways of working together. Such actions may help the district leadership regain trust in her capabilities, without her having to discuss the e-mail she “inadvertently” read.
Max McGee:
The adage, “the best defense is a good offense,” is a wise one for our nosy principal to pursue. She should not have been reading her colleague’s e-mail, but because she did, she must not immediately react defensively. Instead, she needs to prepare her own compelling points for if and when the superintendent does call her on the carpet.

This preparation of an offensive game plan requires she first take a deep and thoughtful look at her role in the initiative. “How did I help advance it? How and why did I resist it? What could I have done differently to assure its success? What were other reasons to explain the initiative’s failure? What will my role be in a future, similar initiative?” These are just a few of the questions she should consider and prepare to address with the superintendent and assistant superintendent if she is blamed. This self-reflection, ideally in writing, is her offensive game plan.

After composing answers to these questions, she should take the proverbial field and proactively meet with the assistant superintendent face-to-face and confess that she had read his e-mail and apologize for doing so. Quickly following that apology and during that same conversation she should launch her offense and share the details of her self-reflection, letting him know that she took what she had read to heart.

Ideally, implementing her game plan at this point will demonstrate there were multiple reasons for the initiative’s demise -- one of which might include her – and that as a team player she has considered what she could have done and what she will do differently to support a revised initiative or future ones.

By preparing a well-planned, carefully thought-out offense, she will avoid the defensive posturing, bureaucratic crouch and “flight or fight” response that too often is a leader’s approach to blame that subsequently undermines his or her effectiveness and credibility.

Shelley Berman:

Because the assistant superintendent allowed people access to his desk and left a confidential document on his computer when he wasn’t there, he shares responsibility in this case. The assistant superintendent should assume that the principal saw the e-mail on his screen and immediately ask to meet with her to explain his reasoning. In that meeting, he should apologize for not raising these issues directly with her to better understand her perspective prior to writing the e-mail. It is even possible that such a discussion would eliminate the need to send the e-mail.

The assistant superintendent’s carelessness, however, does not absolve the principal from responsibility. It is evident the principal did more than glance at the screen. To understand that the e-mail blamed her for the initiative’s failure, she would have had to stop and read it. By reading the e-mail, she has compromised her position and trustworthiness. Now she has to defend herself on two issues, with reading the screen being as serious as her work on the recent initiative.

If the assistant superintendent doesn’t reach out immediately to request a meeting, the best option for the principal is to ask to debrief the initiative with him. In that meeting, she should admit she viewed the e-mail when she was in his office and apologize. She should then listen to his concerns about her role and leadership. In hearing his assessment, she may learn that there were issues with her leadership she hadn’t considered. Without being defensive or attempting to rebut his comments, she can provide her perspective on her role and any mitigating circumstances that affected the initiative.

While this conversation may not prompt the assistant superintendent to change his opinion or to alter the remarks he plans to send to the superintendent, it is still best for the parties’ ongoing professional relationship that they clear the air and understand each other’s point of view, which in turn may lead to a more direct and productive response to any future event. If, on the other hand, the principal believes that her work on the initiative has been unfairly maligned and that the e-mail to the superintendent may be used as evidence to discipline, demote or terminate her, she may choose to write a memo to the assistant superintendent, copied to the superintendent, summarizing their meeting and explaining her side of the story.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.