There is a tremendous amount of literature surrounding the concept of “servant leadership” these days. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) states that servant leaders “…possess a serve-first mindset, and they are focused on empowering and uplifting…They are serving instead of commanding, showing humility instead of brandishing authority, and always looking to enhance the development of their staff members in ways that unlock their potential, creativity and sense of purpose.”1
I attended the National Association of Secondary School Principals National Conference in Chicago in 2018 and one of the speakers was Dr. Adolph Brown who made many challenging and profound comments, but one in particular has stuck and won’t let go of me. It’s on my email signature and is a reminder of the true role I play on my campus. He said, “If servanthood is beneath you then leadership is above you.”2 I can’t shake that. Or perhaps more accurately, that concept won’t let go of me.
As a career educator, I’ve had a number of “bosses” from department heads, to head coaches to administrative supervisors, principals, etc. I’ve also observed leaders from afar in other schools and programs. I hope that I’ve learned from all of them — some what to do while others what not to do. The ones that inspire me and that I find most admirable are those who truly serve with a sense of humility and a goal to empower those around them to enhance their development and unlock their potential, creativity and sense of purpose.
I worked for a legendary high school football coach in Oklahoma, Allan Trimble, and recently in a conversation, he made a remark that it never bothered him to bring assistants onto his staff that had been head coaches elsewhere or who aspired to being head coaches. Perhaps this is why so many of his assistants have gone on to successful careers as leaders of their own programs. It made me think that truly great leaders are ones who help create other great leaders.3
We also often refer to a segment of educators in our buildings known as “teacher-leaders.” Yesterday, I saw a tweet from one of my heroes who is also a teacher in my building. Randy is constantly evaluating his practice and its effect on students, and is never complacent with the status quo. I wouldn’t say he beats himself up or perseverates negatively, but he demonstrates the importance of the work we’re engaged in through the power of continuous growth and true development as a professional. I work with so many others just like him, but his tweet yesterday really struck this chord with me. It came from Joe Sanfelippo, the superintendent of Fall Creek school district in Wisconsin. In his brief video post, he challenged leaders to consider what we are doing to cultivate the ideas of those we serve. He noted there is power in numbers and building momentum by connecting those we serve with those who can help move ideas forward which demonstrates care for each other. 4
Randy’s tweet made me realize that calling him and those like him a “teacher-leader” is a mischaracterization of what he does. He’s not a teacher-leader. He’s a “teacher-servant” because his leadership is manifested by his service to others. Whether it’s a teacher-servant who acts as a facilitator in the department, or the Educational Technology representative that helps trouble-shoot problems or just listens to the frustrations of others, or the mentor who works with a new staff member, or the teacher who covers a class on their planning period because we’re short substitutes that day, or a colleague who solicits or gives feedback on a lesson, or the teacher who chairs the professional development committee every year because she wants to help facilitate growth in others, or the one who seeks to recognize outstanding performances in students and staff, or the instructor who is constantly looking at decisions through the lens of equity and social justice — this list is not exhaustive, but it’s representative of some of the incredible teacher-servants I am inspired to work alongside each day.
Great leaders help create great leaders. I acknowledge we live in a society too often marred by those who are egotistical or threatened by the strengths of others. Yes, sometimes the efforts and enthusiasm of teacher-servants or servant-leaders are dimmed by egocentrism. But in close to 30 years of public education, the models I find most compelling are those who invest in people. My challenge for myself and anyone else who may have read to the end of this, is to find someone to invest in this week. Model, mentor, facilitate, empower, believe in, connect, devote intentional time and attention to, be present for… Do it for the teacher-servants you work beside. They will benefit, but our students will as well.
2 You can find more on Dr. Brown at https://www.docspeaks.com
3 Coach Trimble is currently fighting ALS but has established a foundation to continue to develop leaders and make the world a better place. More info is available at https://www.trimblestrong.org
4 Here’s the original tweet https://twitter.com/Joe_Sanfelippo/status/1172901440441978885