Teacher as a Servant: Servant Leadership in the Classroom

looking up at nation hall

It is hard to describe the impact that teachers have had on my life. From a young age, I realized the power of education and its importance in my life. I grew up in a household that did not value education. For my family, education was something you had to get through, but for me, education was an escape from the disorder of life. Outside of my walk with the Lord, it was the place where I found the most joy and belonging. If not for the influence of several teachers, I would not be the person I am today. Their encouragement gave me great impetus in my journey. I am proud to say that I am a first-generation college student that succeeded in academia because of the impact that certain teachers had on my life. Most of us long to play a role like those teachers in my life. Many of you have a story of a teacher/professor that guided you along your path. Each of those teachers taught me lessons that help me reach my students today, and while they would never have put a name to the work they did, each of them was a servant leader in the classroom. The importance of teachers cannot be overstated. Teachers can empower all their students for the future through caring and establishing genuine relationships.

Today more than ever, we need servant leaders in the classrooms to help students as they struggle with an ever-changing world. When Robert Greenleaf wrote his seminal text, Servant Leadership, in 1978, he said there was a leadership crisis among those responsible for guiding young people. As if speaking to today's world, Bennis and Nanus stated, "the need [for] leadership was never so great. A chronic crisis of governance… that is, the pervasive incapacity of organizations to cope with the expectations of their constituents... is now an overwhelming factor worldwide." Servant leadership is an essential need of our society, including in the classroom.

Robert Greenleaf defines servant leadership as "the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first… The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?" While Greenleaf codified the notion of servant leadership, as Christians, we have the prime example of the perfect servant leader in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At least ten of the attributes of a servant leader are necessary to bring this leadership to the classroom: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.

Attributes of Servant Leadership to the Classroom

1. Listening

Teachers must understand that listening is more than simply hearing what your students are saying. As a servant leader in the classroom, you must be fully committed to giving your students your undivided attention and demonstrating that you value their ideas and input. To truly hear what your students are telling you, you must show that you are actively considering their information. This can be accomplished by taking notes, observing their body language, and offering immediate feedback during the conversation. By actively listening to your students, you can create a classroom environment that fosters open communication and encourages them to share their thoughts and ideas.

2. Healing

Emotional health and wellness are critical components of effective leadership and student productivity. Servant leaders must be aware that not all students may come to you fully healed; some may require mental or physical support. Servant leadership requires leaders to ensure that their workplace is healthy and engaging, where students can thrive and grow. You can create a more engaged student body by prioritizing emotional well-being and fostering a supportive and positive learning culture.

3. Empathy

It is essential to recognize that students' perspectives and viewpoints can differ widely. A servant leader in the classroom must put aside their own thoughts and biases when listening to their students. This approach allows you to be more empathetic and gain a deeper understanding of your students' intentions. By actively listening without judgment, you can create a safe and inclusive learning environment where all students feel heard and valued. This enhances their learning experience and promotes mutual respect and understanding among students. By practicing empathic listening, you can build stronger relationships with your students and help them thrive inside and outside the classroom.

4. Conceptualization

From a teacher's perspective, conceptualization is a quality that allows you to see the bigger picture. It is easy for leaders to get caught up in day-to-day tasks, but it is more important to understand the long-term mission and vision of your students' education. In my classroom, I try to have a long-term focus that helps everyone remain motivated and avoid unnecessary distractions.

5. Self-Awareness

A servant leader teacher looks deeply at their behavior and emotions to see how they affect others. In the modern world, many people are only concerned with how they feel, but a servant leader is more concerned with how their behavior impacts others. As part of self-awareness, servant leaders readjust their behavior to ensure it positively impacts their students. This ensures that their actions and emotions remain aligned with deeper values. Developing emotional intelligence is an invaluable tool for a servant leader. By understanding their emotions and how they impact others, a servant leader can create a positive and productive learning environment where students feel valued and supported. It is crucial to instill these values in your students and encourage them to become servant leaders who prioritize the well-being of others.

6. Persuasion

Teachers need to understand that a servant leader does not demand that their students fall in line; instead, they encourage people to work toward a group goal. This is not always easily accomplished in a classroom. However, a servant leader fosters an environment of open communication and collaboration where every student has a voice and is heard. By encouraging everyone to work together toward a common goal, a servant leader can harness the collective power of the classroom to achieve greater success. It is important to instill these values in your students and encourage them to become servant leaders who prioritize teamwork and collaboration.

7. Building Community

A cornerstone of servant leadership is that the classroom is not merely a place of learning but a unique community. You are responsible for creating a community your students want to be a part of. You can create a positive and inclusive classroom environment where students feel valued and supported by fostering a sense of community and belonging. This approach promotes a happier and more productive classroom and helps students have a place they feel they can belong.

8. Commitment to Student Growth

While servant leaders are dedicated to serving others and enhancing their personal qualities, they are even more focused and committed to encouraging their students. In the classroom, prioritizing your students' growth and development is essential. One effective way to achieve this is by conducting training assessments and personal meetings to determine your students' personal and academic goals. By understanding their individual needs and aspirations, you can more effectively help them reach their goals and enhance their skills. This approach benefits your students' personal and academic development and promotes a positive and productive learning environment where everyone feels supported and valued. As a teacher, it is important to instill these values in your students and encourage them to become servant leaders who prioritize the growth and development of those around them.

9. Foresight

From a teacher's perspective, it is important to understand that no one has perfect foresight regarding education. However, you can improve your ability to predict outcomes by carefully evaluating past experiences, learning from them, and identifying patterns still present.

10. Stewardship

Teachers need to understand that servant leaders recognize the need to take responsibility for their students' performance. As a servant leader in the classroom, you should be committed to ensuring that all your students' learning needs are met: not just the easy students, but all students.

Servant Leadership Mindset in the Classroom

Implementing a servant leadership mindset in your classroom can help you encourage students to become active participants in their own education and that of their classmates. Instead of just sharing knowledge, teachers are helping shape their students' future as well-rounded adults. As a servant leader in the classroom, you will have an unforgettable influence on the students in your classroom.

About Cook School of Leadership

The Gary Cook School of Leadership produces servant leaders, Christian scholars, and global thinkers who lead with excellence for the glory of God and the renewal of our world in business, ministry, higher education, and other callings. The Cook School of Leadership offers master's degrees in higher education, international relations, and leadership; a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies; and an online Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. Graduates of the Cook School of Leadership receive a Christ-centered, interdisciplinary education that prepares them to lead with effectiveness and serve with humility in today’s organizations, impacting both present and future generations to come.

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Written by Dr. Joshua Longmire

Dr. Joshua Longmire serves as Assistant Professor, Leadership in the Gary Cook School of Leadership.