Servant Leadership: When School Leaders Stop, Slow Down, and Listen
By Lumar Vargas, [email protected]
Lumar Vargas is an Urban Educational Leadership Ph.D. student at Cleveland State University. She has been a teacher, school administrator, and teacher leadership coach. Lumar also serves co-vocationally as a church planter and hopes to merge her love for ministry and education.
It was in the middle of the pandemic that I decided to return to urban education after spending three years in full-time vocational ministry. I felt called back to urban schools, because I knew more than ever teachers and students needed servant leaders. I put in my two-week notice at the church, and in the heat of COVID, political debates across America, and shutdowns, I decided to work as a bi-vocational pastor, a minister who works a full-time job and does ministry work. I left the comfort of my office and the joys of having an administrative assistant to move into an old school building. The building, formerly a Catholic Church and school, had been owned by three other charter networks in the past six years. When one school failed, they simply sold the building to the next network. Why they failed continues to be a mystery. Was it the lack of resources, the combined grade-level classes, or the fact that there were seven schools within a 5-mile radius? I wasn’t sure.
There I was, at school number three during its third year of inception. I was not worried that the school was already on academic watch because of failing test scores. The principal and I had the hope of being the team who turned it around. Director of Academics, a fancy name for Assistant Principal, was the title on a laminated sheet of paper taped outside my office—a classroom I had to repurpose into office space in the old decrepit, dirty, school building. But I was glad to be there. This was an opportunity to inspire teachers and support them during the greatest global crisis of our time. You see, I thought I had something to offer. It felt like being a missionary, those people who move to Third World countries across the globe to bring hope to people in need. Despite having grown up in the neighborhood and being just as brown as the kids there, I felt like an outsider deployed to save kids and teachers. Then, a hard reality settled that not only humbled me and my hero-complex but taught me more about leadership than any other position I had ever had. Teachers are education’s greatest human resource.
We’ve Forgotten Our Teachers
I realized that in prioritizing the wellness of students, we have forgotten our teachers. Teachers, like all of us, are people with stories, families, crises, and trauma of their own. In attempting to ensure all students have access to education, we have somehow forgotten about what teachers need to get their jobs done well. I often say this experience made me “soft,” because it taught me to stop and listen, and listening produced in me a new level of empathy for frontline workers who are genuinely striving to fill the gaps for urban impoverished and under-resourced children while experiencing cultural shock themselves. When I chose to listen to teachers, I heard stories of how they made ends meet on low wage salaries, how they coped with stress, and how they showed up daily for kids in urban poverty, regardless of their own health risks and insecurities. Listening well sometimes meant I responded not immediately but the next day, yet it also meant my staff felt safe and secure to push through the demands of public education in the middle of a global crisis. Listening is a key characteristic of Robert Greenleaf’s theory on servant leadership, one central to fulfilling the other nine traits: empathy, awareness, healing, conceptualization, persuasion, stewardship, foresight, community building, and commitment to growth (1970). It can become a foundational tool used by leaders, in any sector, to support the well-being of their staff. When school leaders stop, slow down, and listen, they serve teachers well.
Do We Have Time to Listen?
The question is whether we have time to listen despite the added demands of politics from the district office, personnel shortages and staff cuts, and the other unplanned calamities that can happen at any given day in a schoolhouse. As administrators, we are competent in educational pedagogy, instructional strategies, and organizational leadership, but can we listen? Regardless, we cannot afford to skip building rapport with the people we entrust to lead our classrooms and our children. No one wants to work for someone who does not care for them, regardless of their academic accomplishments and abilities. Just as we encourage teachers to build rapport with students by understanding their cultural values and lives outside the classroom, we must attempt to know our staff professionally and personally. In doing so, we do not lose power, but we gain trust, and trust is power. This begins with a simple but difficult skill servant leaders possess with excellence—the art of listening. Greenleaf argues listening is a primary characteristic allowing leaders to focus on caring for those they lead (1970). It requires the curiosity and drive to think of others first, and for a moment, see the world from their vantage point. Trust, built through time spent hearing others, may contribute to teacher performance, attendance, and overall satisfaction that may ultimately save us time in the long run. Evaluating our understanding of communication and filling gaps in our communication education can result in staff cohesiveness and effective rapport building.
Servant Leaders Listen
I’ve been guilty of this, and if you’re honest, you have also. We have lost the art of eye contact while listening. We meet with laptops in front of us and are often hurried to answer the next email on our phones, all while attempting to hear what a teacher or student is trying to say. In a way, that behavior makes us feel important. We are effective multitaskers who get so much done in so little time, but what if we committed to giving each teacher a minimum two minutes of our curiosity and undivided attention? How would that shape their overall connectedness to their leader, to us? Simple listening gestures, like greeting teachers every morning, go a long way in building trust. For example, stopping to ask how their morning or day is going and then pausing to genuinely hear their response is a simple and kind gesture that can become an opportunity for better rapport that is later reflected in the overall culture of the school. This requires the intention of looking a teacher in the eyes and stopping to hear their response, almost as if nothing else were more important. Before we practice simple, two-minute gestures like these, listening begins with (1) knowing yourself, and (2) knowing your audience. Only then can we improve communication.
As school leaders, we may be inclined to be distant and reserved to ensure teachers adhere to our expectations, but they can read beyond our expensive suits, fancy shoes, and dry monotone natures. Rolling up our sleeves and ditching the jargon occasionally makes us approachable. That does not happen by attending a staff gathering twice a year. Being personable is necessary for strategically listening to those we lead, but listening, like any skill, requires practice and professional training. We can begin by first gauging our own ability to listen by intentionally choosing someone we trust to keep us accountable. They may be a spouse, friend, or colleague who can evaluate and gauge our ability. For example, we could invite another school leader to a meeting and ask for feedback about our ability to track the speaker and repeat what was discussed. Being vulnerable about our gaps as listeners allows us to be mindful about the work that needs to be done to grow in this area. The truth is that listening requires a level of humility, a sense of putting the needs of other before ours as we gauge our ability to make significant improvements in our communication style.
Knowing Your Audience (Teachers)
Getting to know those we lead allows us to lead them with excellence, discover their gaps and gifts, and coach them in key areas of growth. This work is done beyond traditional classroom visits. It is experienced informally, while having lunch with teachers, when sharing an extracurricular duty together or at a neighborhood field trip. These spaces and places, outside the regular lesson delivery, are where other parts of their narrative and lived experiences unfold. That’s how we really get to know teachers: when we see them; they see us. Likewise, learning a teacher’s communication preference is key. Just as we might prefer a phone conversation or in-person chat in lieu of a five-paragraph email, teachers should know our best method of communication, and likewise, we should know theirs. Asking is part of listening, and learning does not come easily to every leader. While we may not want feedback on every strategic move we make, learning how people prefer to communicate will always serve us well. This might look like sending a staff survey about communication styles and gaps and using the data to drive our approach and style with teachers collectively and individually.
Practicing Caring and Curiosity
In most cases, when we greet someone in the morning and ask how they are, the response is short, and generic but intentionally stopping and listening is the the start of trust. After stopping to listen, remembering is crucial. That may look like remembering the name of a spouse or pet mentioned or noticing what they drink from Starbucks every morning. Listening begins with questions sparked by curiosity, and curiosity can be verbal, but also nonverbal. Stop, listen, and remember what you see inside a classroom, beyond academic instruction. Ask yourself, what do you know about the people you trust to care for your students? After all, a teacher’s quality impacts student performance, and so does your investment in them (Cerit, 2009). It’s likely the pictures on their desk will tell you about who or what they value most. Perhaps there are specific colors they use more often, religious items on their bookshelves, or decor from their favorite destination places. These all tell a story. When we take two minutes to silence the operational demands like trouble tickets for more laptops, or the instructional needs like lesson plan submission, and we stop, listen, and see, we build a team willing to go the extra mile and support us with additional extracurricular needs, because they trust us. The trust we build while working together, in and outside the classroom, plays a role in whether teachers feel job satisfaction.
Curiosity in 2 Minutes
Do you have two minutes? With twenty staff, that may turn into forty minutes, which is simply the time it takes to respond to one email or observe one class period. What if you practiced active listening with teachers on a regular basis for a minimum of two minutes a day? Something as simple as this is how trust is built.
Curiosity Stops and Listens:
School Leader: “Hi Marcella, how was your weekend?”
Marcella: “Not too bad.”
School Leader: “Do anything fun?”
Marcella: “Yeah, Jaxon and I took Pedro to the pumpkin festival, and I had the best pumpkin spice latte.”
School Leader: “Sounds awesome! I’ve been meaning to go this fall. I’ll have to try a latte. Glad you went. Have a great day.”
Marcella: “Thank you!”
In that short, thirty-second interaction, the school leader has been given meaningful information about the people this teacher values: Jaxon and Pedro, and a few of her favorite things, like lattes and pumpkins. It’s likely Marcella will mention them again because everyone’s favorite conversation topic is themselves. If you happen to visit that festival or try that latte, you have the opportunity to mention something common to both of you when you strike up conversation again.
School Leader: “Hi Marcella, how was your weekend?”
Marcella: “Not too bad.”
School Leader: “Do anything fun?”
Marcella: “No, not really. How about you?
School Leader: “Oh, I finally tried that pumpkin spice latte. It was delicious. Hey, have a great day.”
Marcella: “That’s awesome. Thank you!”
Little does this leader know that a specific connection with Marcella has been built by his remembrance of an earlier conversation. Something insignificant, like remembering a drink or a previously mentioned event, begins to shape the way Marcella sees the principal. A bonus would be greeting Jaxon by name when meeting him for the first time. We do the same with students when we attempt to know them before we teach them. Teachers are no exception.
Time has an ability to expand and make itself available for what we value most. Slowing down is an intentional choice. When we spend time listening, we earn trust, and trust is at the core of rapport building, one of the most powerful forces that exist between a master teacher and their students. Every great administrator would encourage teachers to make time to understand the family dynamics, cultural and ethnic make-up, and mindset of their students. It is time we practice what we preach! The need for rapport between an administrator and those they lead is not optional. It ensures the wellbeing of the culture and therefore the effectiveness of the school. Investing time and effort in the people we lead builds that relational capital necessary for a strong academic program and high student achievement. This simply requires a call, to all of us, to take off our instructional, organizational, and administrative hats, and put on a human resource hat with the desire to create people-first organizations led by servant leaders. When we slow down to listen to those around us and discover the blind spots in our communication, hierarchy becomes less important because we realize we are just as human as the teacher next door.
Cerit, Y. (2009). The Effects of Servant Leadership Behaviours of School Principals on
Teachers’ Job Satisfaction. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 37(5), 600–623. https://doi-org.proxy.ulib.csuohio.edu/10.1177/17411
Greenleaf, R. K. (1970). The servant as leader. Cambridge, Mass: Center for Applied Studies.