Author Archives: David Loewen

Detours to Thriving School Culture

Lately, I’ve been reading and thinking about organizational culture in the context of my own school system and in the context of other schools with which I work. My reflections on this topic are shaped by a mixture of my own experiences and random readings and coursework, but are most heavily influenced by the work of Andy Hargreaves and the leadership/teaching of Lloyd Den Boer.

I’ve worked in leadership in three different Christian school settings, evaluated and consulted for many others, and served on several boards for not-for-profit organizations. I have seen thriving organizational cultures in which those involved flourish personally while also enabling those around them—colleagues and students alike—to flourish as well. These thriving cultures I would like to call authentically collegial communities. These are the kinds of school cultures where faculty and staff work together to enhance student learning because they believe it is the right thing to do, but also because they feel a strong desire to do so. They are also the places where faculty and staff work well together, not only despite their differences, but often because their differences come together to create strength. The leadership in authentically collegial communities serves to facilitate and support authentic collaboration, to highlight needs, and to inspire toward a direction—hopefully the fulfillment of the school’s vision and mission.
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Extending Candor and Care

With thanks to those who contacted me to engage in the conversation regarding communities of candor and care, I want to extend the discussion we started with my last entry. I am motivated to continue the conversation because I feel it is an essential component of competent Christian school leadership, and because the importance of conducting critical conversations is an issue that seems to be all around me.

Here’s a fictionalized example of a difficult staffing issue. A principal, who has been at her current school for a few years, is dealing with a staff member who has been there for over 25 years. The principal’s overriding frustration is that the issues with this staff member have been present for those 25 years but have not been dealt with. This staff member has been left to assume that these practices are acceptable when they are not, and sadly, the parents who have expressed concerns over those years have come away with the assumption that these poor practices are just something they need to put up with. In my personal experience as a Christian school leader, evaluator, consultant, and colleague, this scenario is all too common.
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Communities of Candor and Care

One of the most powerful parts of our role as leaders in Christian education lies in the area of initiating difficult conversations. These are the conversations that involve confronting a staff or faculty member regarding a questionable comment or action they have demonstrated.

They are the conversations wherein the question of whether someone is a good fit for ABC Christian School is broached. They are the conversations that require us to, as tactfully as possible, directly address an issue or problem that is affecting student learning/mission fulfillment in our schools. And I think they are one of the most important actions we take, because they get to the heart of why we exist and whether we are going to faithfully pursue our vision and mission.
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Restorative Practices as a Framework for Leadership

Over this past year, we’ve been looking at the relationship between power and leadership, including some of the key factors that impact the power dynamics in our schools. I’d like to turn now to some reflections on different ways of doing leadership and how those impact power in our schools. For our first step on this journey, I want to draw from the excellent work of the restorative practices movement. Restorative practices draw from a variety of disciplines and seek to build healthy community, increase social capital, reduce anti-social behavior, and repair harm and relationships.
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Bilbo Baggins and the Power of Hope

A few weeks ago, when we were celebrating our family advent time and had lit the candle of hope, we all shared something that gives us hope. One of my daughters said, “Going to church gives me hope, because it makes me feel that I’m not alone in trying to follow Jesus. We’re all in this together with other people trying to do the same thing.” That statement has stuck with me and taken my mind and heart in all sorts of reflective directions. I’d like to share with you the strongest one:

I see my journey of faith as a grand adventure, the kind of adventure that will entail all sorts of unexpected mini adventures along the way: new awakenings of grace and wonder and times of distance and quiet that require a deep faith to move through. And all the while this deep hope of my place in the Christ story is centering the day-to-day of my life and calling me further on the adventure. All of that said, it may come as no surprise that I love J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I guess I see myself as a bit of a Bilbo Baggins, called (maybe even cajoled: “I don’t want any adventures. Not today. Thank you…”) to a grand journey with a grand goal when large parts of me would rather just stay in a place of comfort in my hobbit hole (suburban house, couch, fireplace, big screen TV, dark ale…you get the picture).
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How do you get your pizza?

Every Friday at lunchtime, our secondary campus music department brings in pizza to sell as an ongoing fundraiser. There’s usually a pretty big line of students, and several of the teachers also enjoy the option of having pizza for lunch. The students are very gracious and let teachers go to the front of the line, but there is one adult who never takes the students up on their offer. Each time he buys pizza, our secondary campus principal lines up with the students. A couple of month ago I asked him about this. He said he learned it from former Regent College president Walter Wright, who lined up for coffee with his students as a deliberate eschewing of his power to exercise privilege.

Students notice that the principal lines up and waits like they do. Just to be clear, I am not passing judgment on the teachers who go directly to the front of the line; they may have important meetings, intramurals, or student supervision scheduled and need to get there. This isn’t about them going to the front; it’s about the principal waiting in line.
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The Culture of Language

In my last blog, I wrote about the concept of hegemony: “the power revealed by norms, behaviors, beliefs, and practices” of an organization. The hegemony of a place can often be hidden and yet have more power in shaping a school culture than the official stances and statements the leadership uses to promote and define a place. I was heartened to read Joel Westa’s latest Voices blog wherein he talked about the power of culture: “culture eats strategy for lunch.” We’re talking about the same thing. One could say that the hidden hegemonies of a school, once exposed, are the real definers of a school’s culture.

I’d like to continue this theme of hegemony/culture for one more post, and I’d like to do that by taking a deeper dive into thinking about the power of language. The late educational theorist Thomas Greenfield once said, “Language has power. It can literally make reality appear or disappear.”
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Your Real Mission: Understanding Hegemony

I hope your start of the year has been good. Mine has been super busy. Why is it that, no matter how much I prepare for that busyness, I am always surprised by it? All that said, there is something that speaks deeply to vocational fulfillment when I fall into bed exhausted by a day well spent in what I believe is kingdom work, submitting it all to God and trusting him to bless it through me, and at times, in spite of me. I hope you feel passion and fulfillment in the leadership work you do for the King.

For the past year, I’ve been using this blog to share thoughts on the intersection of power and Christian school leadership. I’m hoping you’ve drawn something from those thoughts to reflect on and, in your own way, allowed it to shape your practice and beliefs. We’ve spent some time looking at factors at play in the arena of power (remember gender, charisma, theology?). I’d like to shift gears a little to deepen our understanding of how this plays out in our schools.
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Charlottesville, Power, and the Beatitudes

This summer I’ve spent a little time reading in and about the Beatitudes and reflecting on how they shape a more faithful view of enacting power. I was reading Darrel Johnson’s (2015) book on the beatitudes the weekend of the Charlottesville event when my Twitter feed exploded with updates. I went from reading and reflecting on what it means to be captive and captivated by the kingdom to watching clips of people being beaten and mowed down by a car. I was overcome, and I wept. I was overcome by the hatred, but I was also deeply moved by the clergy who gathered together to promote peace—followers of Jesus standing peacefully in solidarity and singing “This Little Light of Mine.”

Since then, I have heard a lot of political rhetoric and blame that just adds to the sadness. So much of what was happening in Charlottesville is a grasp for power, a grasp for power that is more connected to personal fear and the oppression of others and has nothing to do with human flourishing. In a word, it is evil; it flies in the face of the life of Christ and must be named as such.
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Knowledge Is Power, but Wisdom Is Transformative

Have you ever been in a room where someone asks a question and the presenter answers with vocabulary and information that seemed designed to make the questioner look stupid? I can. I have also witnessed a presenter being asked a question that was less a question and more a clear opportunity to demonstrate superior knowledge over the presenter. I can even remember doing something similar myself when I was feeling threatened.

Knowledge and intelligence (please note that I am certainly NOT talking about wisdom here) can be wielded to gain power. This can happen on so many levels. There are people who have inside information and release it in a way that gives them status or power. There are those who have expertise on a topic who can be tempted to use their knowledge to gain power and authority. And there are times when knowledge is used to intimidate others into letting one have one’s way.
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