Sometimes when I am trying to define what we mean by “service learning” for our students, I’m confronted with what it means for school leaders…for me. These discoveries are most definitely not new or original, in fact they seem almost trivial. I know I am still in the process of learning each lesson, and still much in need of practice. As I was reading what smart people than I say about servant leadership, here are a few principles that kept surfacing.
1) It’s not about me. I know it’s been said before (Purpose Driven everything!), but it’s really not. When those reporting to me, or others I’m responsible for, have succeeded, I did my job…I have succeeded. It doesn’t really matter how much time I invest, how clever an idea sounds in my mind, how passionate I feel, or who gets the credit. My job is serving others. For a teacher, the job is about the students. For a Leadership Team — guess what — it’s still all about the students! We are all here to equip students. If they are learning and growing in a nurturing and inspiring environment and applying what they learn to serve others, we are doing our job. If they aren’t, then we need to address how to fix that. Our jobs are not about our own career development or about building our own program or having a school of influence. I am here to serve God by serving this community he loves, and that means everything I do is not about my own gratification, but about others.
2) Appreciate others. Of course, this applies to students, but also to parents, to colleagues, to our community, to whomever God brings into our lives. People are weird, but they are fascinating! When we look for those aspects of others that reflect God’s image and are unique from all others, we can be thankful for even the oddest or most irritating person, and find something good in them. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” We need to find ways to celebrate this weird and wonderful place filled with people with their own stories, their own cultures, their own backgrounds. We need to let people know how much we value them and how really interesting they are. We can be generous with praise and try to assume good motives when someone behaves in a way that annoys us.
3) Know people. Of course, we struggle to know all our students’ names, and some of those do not come easily. We might know when they are late and who might be failing or getting into trouble. But do we know what motivates them? What fills them with joy? What makes them angry? What do they do when they aren’t on campus? This is not just limited to teachers knowing students though. Do we take the time to know more about the people we work with than the job we do? Of course, we need to be professional and respect each other’s privacy, but we can demonstrate a sincere love and interest that goes beyond the roles we play in a limited time and place, and goes deeply into who we are as people.
4) Empower others. Our jobs involve discipling, mentoring, equipping. We do what we do, so that the students leave our schools to make their mark on the world, so young teachers learn their craft, so parents are supported in their challenging roles. Sometimes this means we allow others to make mistakes and to refrain from criticizing when they do. We set the example of fearlessness by being energized by learning and by trying new things. When we allow others to shine while letting them know they are safe, valued, and loved, we create a nurturing place for students — and also our colleagues — to try, fail, pick themselves up, and try again. Then we celebrate when learning happens!
5) Be quick to forgive. When people have the freedom to fail, they will sometimes make trouble or knock into those of us standing next to them or cause us inconvenience. Sometimes this happens even when they aren’t doing something noble like attempting some grand new thing; sometimes people are just annoying. It’s important for us to remember that we are too. Sometimes I am grumpy or sharp-tongued or forgetful or do really stupid things. I always see the reasons for these unpleasant traits: not enough sleep, a growling stomach because I missed lunch, feeling misunderstood, someone else’s lateness that makes my job harder…there’s always some greater context for myself, and I easily make allowances for my own bad behavior. The thing is, everyone has their own context and their own story of why they do the things they do. Of course, we want to hold each other accountable, but we also can assume good motives when describing bad behavior. We can be quick to forgive, even when we might need to confront.
No rocket science here, but sometimes being a school leader means going back to the simply complex matter of loving and serving other people.