Justice Education

Good Work
October 2023

Leading with Character: Virtue Formation for Aspiring School Leaders

Wes Siscoe

Late in 2018, North Central College received a grant from the Kern Family Foundation to infuse virtue ethics into their Educational Leadership program, and Dr. Maureen Spelman–then at Saint Xavier University–was brought on to lead the reimagination process. As a professor at Saint Xavier for almost 2 decades, Dr. Spelman had served as a consultant and coach at several inner-city Chicago Catholic schools, and she also had experience serving as the principal at Memorial Elementary School in Tinley Park, IL. 

“I had a lot of experience working in Chicago’s inner city Catholic schools, schools without a lot of resources that in many cases needed to make big changes,” said Dr. Spelman. “Working with the Big Shoulders Fund (an arm of the Archdiocese of Chicago), I spent 10 years or so coaching teachers and principals and bringing in a lot of professional development to try and transform the school cultures. And that work was very much in line with North Central’s mission.”

So, in the fall of 2019, Dr. Spelman left Saint Xavier and became the Coordinator of Character Initiatives at North Central College. From the beginning, she was convinced that character formation and education were going to be integral to her work revisioning the Educational Leadership program.

“In my work with the inner city schools, every time we sat down to see what worked and what didn’t, it always came back to the leader. Were they a person of character or not?” said Dr. Spelman. “Whether the changes we made were sustainable, and whether the school thrived, was really determined by the leader of the school. And so, we saw that, if we wanted to create these thriving school environments, we needed to create leaders of character. When I heard about the opportunity to work with preparing educational leaders through the lens of virtue ethics, I thought that this was the perfect opportunity to do something I’m very passionate about.”

Building upon the Jubilee Centre’s foundational work on character education, Spelman and her team at North Central created the Cultures of Character Framework, an overview of 15 moral, intellectual, civic, and performance virtues necessary for strong leadership. With this framework, the Educational Leadership Program began cultivating three things in their leaders – the character, practical wisdom, and professional competency necessary to lead a successful school.

“When we first started, there were people that said you can’t talk about virtues, that’s not going to fly in the education world,” said Dr. Spelman. “And yet, when you talk to our students, when you talk to those applying to be in our program, they see the character component as what makes us stand out.”

Along with supporting the work at North Central, Dr. Spelman has been sharing the work of the Educational Leadership Program with other institutions. She has published North Central’s story, “Fostering Virtue Formation in Aspiring School Leaders: One Institution’s Journey”, and she has presented her work at numerous conferences across the country. She has also served as a consultant at the University of Tennessee, Saint Mary’s University, Arkansas State University, the University of Alabama, and Samford University, helping them to adapt the virtue ethics approach for their programs.

“Our students understand that there needs to be more than just a focus on meeting state standards, that we need to do more to address the whole child and the whole community. So that’s why we are, at the end of the day, focused on cultivating cultures of character.”