By Rhoda Sommers |
Most teachers became educators because they wanted to help students learn and realize their full potential. Being a leader is not typically part of a teacher’s vision; however, being a teacher means that one is also a leader. John Maxwell (2007) says that “leadership is about influencing people to follow” (p. 13), and this is the work of a teacher. Teachers influence students to learn academic content, become inquisitive, acquire positive dispositions, and develop a vision of how they might impact the world. Students regularly tell stories about teachers whose influence has altered the course of their lives. It would serve teachers well to consider four characteristics of effective leadership as a means of enhancing teaching.
One of the most beautiful acts of service which Jesus performed for his followers was washing their feet (John 13:1-17). Not only did Jesus stoop down and wash dirty feet, but he also instructed the disciples to serve others by washing their feet—a task relegated to servants. This is not typically the mental picture we have of a leader, but the “heart of leadership is putting others ahead of yourself” (Maxwell, 2007, p. 223). This means giving up our own agenda and preferred approaches to benefit those we are leading. Leaders look for needs others have and search for ways to meet these needs.
One does not need to spend much time in any classroom to discover that students vary greatly in their levels of academic ability, background knowledge and experiences, and learning styles. This requires teachers to differentiate instruction. Educators recognize differentiation as the means by which we enable each student to learn, but by differentiating our lessons we are actually serving our students. We are putting their learning needs above our own desire for easy lesson preparation and an approach to learning which is focused on our own assumptions and biases. Instead, differentiation requires us to study our students, recognize them as individuals, and tailor instruction to match them. This, in essence, is washing their feet.
Leaders “teach” who they are
Parker Palmer (1998) says “we teach who we are” and “as I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students…and our way of being together” (p. 2). Maxwell (2007) suggests that this is also true for leaders when he says “true leadership always begins with the inner person” (p. 17). This is why effective leaders spend time and energy on developing their soul and facing the sin and evil in their own hearts which takes a great deal of courage.
I remember well when I began to understand the constructivist theory and the way living it out in the classroom meant a shift in how I saw my students. Even though I have deeper knowledge, understanding, and typically more life experiences than my students, living out the constructivist theory means I need to approach my classroom in humility. My students have much to teach me when I give them the opportunity. In the true constructivist classroom, we learn from each other.
Few of us like to talk about teachers having power in the classroom, but we need to. Teachers hold sway over what gets taught (to an extent), the classroom climate, teaching methods, and evaluation or grading. We regularly have the opportunity to affirm others or belittle them because of our position in the classroom. When I am insecure or weary, what resides in my soul bubbles to the top and is reflected in my classroom. Students see through words and actions, gaining a clear picture of my character.
Leaders Facilitate the Success of Others
In order to help others be successful, we need to know who we are leading. We need to become students of our students so we recognize their gifts, know how to encourage them, provide opportunities for them to grow, and be secure enough in ourselves to identify the areas in which they are stronger than we are. This only happens when we are internally secure, confident of God’s calling on our lives, and have a strong understanding of ourselves. One of the most challenging aspect of leading is looking at ourselves realistically.
I remember Jimmy, one of my fourth graders, who was incredibly knowledgeable in mathematics and science which, incidentally, are my two weakest content areas. I had a choice: I could hold Jimmy back in an attempt to cover up my own areas of lack, or I could encourage him, give him the opportunity to delve deeply into the subjects he loved, and then have him share this knowledge with others. In all honesty, there were times I facilitated Jimmy’s success and other times I stifled his curiosity. In retrospect, maybe Jimmy was placed in my classroom so that I would learn about myself and realize that sometimes we are tasked with facilitating the success of individuals who are far more brilliant or capable than we are.
Leaders are Stewards
Spears (2002) notes that stewardship means we recognize we are entrusted with resources and other’s lives and committed to serving their needs for the good of all. Frequently, stewardship is used in connection with financial resources, but that is limiting. The people around us are of much greater worth than anything tangible. Each day others allow us to lead them, they are entrusting us with themselves and their future. As leaders, we are responsible to use our own talents and gifts to pave the way to a brighter future for those we serve.
In the past few years, I’ve observed teaching, a vocation I love, be denigrated by politicians, the media, community members, and even by colleagues within the profession. In the face of criticism and a lack of understanding regarding the demands of our work, it is challenging to maintain a focus on the students whose lives are touched each day by how we choose to serve in the classroom. Being a faithful steward of the people God has entrusted to us requires a deep reliance on him and a constant awareness that we are doing his work.
Our world desperately needs teachers who are leaders, individuals who willingly give of themselves for the success of others, who are engaged in developing their soul, and who see their work as stewardship. It takes great courage to lead, but the reward of seeing students grow and make their own contribution to the world is worth the risk. After spending a year in Chris Zajac’s fifth-grade, multicultural, inner city classroom, journalist Tracy Kidder (1989) notes that “good teachers put snags in the river of children passing by, and over the years, they redirect hundreds of lives” (p. 313). River snags are a clear visual of influence, and we as teachers are privileged beyond measure to impact our students’ lives while also allowing them to also teach and influence us.
Kidder, T. (1989). Among schoolchildren. New York: Avon Books.
Maxwell, J.C. (2007). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.
Spears, L. C. (2002). Introduction. In L. Spears, & M. Lawrence (Eds.), Focus on leadership: Servant-leadership for the twenty-first century (pp. 1-16). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.