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.
I’m not talking about issues of malpractice, wherein student safety is at risk or there has been an obvious breach of professional or community codes of conduct. I am referring to the more general issues of poor practice, wherein student learning is hampered and student flourishing is greatly limited, and where the fulfillment of the school’s vision and mission is threatened. Leadership of those engaged in best practices is straightforward: we encourage, support, resource, and facilitate their work. Leadership of those engaged in malpractice is also straightforward: we need to facilitate their removal from the classroom setting. It is those engaged in marginal practices that require our focused attention in conducting critical conversations regarding their teaching practice.
Currently, I draw my inspiration for engaging in honest and caring conversations from three sources.
First is the importance of doing everything I can in my role to create the optimal learning environment for the students entrusted to our school. I have a colleague whose leadership spurs me on in this area. She is super supportive of her staff but holds them highly accountable to pursuing best practices, because she believes the stakes are too high not to. She can articulate that this is one way she can show care for her students in her leadership role. This way of caring for our students is one of the central responsibilities in our role as leaders in a Christian school. She inspires me to do better.
My second recent inspiration is from reading American theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas differentiates between relationships and friendships. He notes that we have relationships with many people, but they are vastly different from the biblical idea of friendship. For Hauerwas, a biblical view of friendship is predicated on the assumption that we are first in a friendship relationship with God, and that friendship with God entails love, complete honesty, truth in our innermost parts, and growth forward.
To paraphrase Richard Rohr, we are made in the image of God and then are invited to receive the gift of grace that allows us to transition toward the likeness of Christ. That transition is impossible without love and truth. This view of friendship gives us a template for how we are to do collegiality in Christian schools. It challenges us to have the depth of relationships that allows us to speak honestly to one another, out of a posture of desiring that the other person flourish as a child of God. It means we are speaking the truth in love.
I don’t think these kinds of relationships are the norm in our schools. In fact, I’m not sure they are the norm in our churches, either. I wasn’t raised to relate to people in church in that way. I really don’t recall my brothers and sisters in Christ holding me accountable for any of my dumb decisions through my teens and now into my forties. Nor do I ever recall speaking any hard truths to a fellow parishioner out of deep sense of love for that person.
And finally, I am inspired to engage in honest, caring, and often difficult conversations by the hope of the legacy I want to leave to the next leaders in my school. As the principal I mentioned in the opening paragraph was frustrated that nobody had dealt with the obvious marginal practices, I am inspired to ensure I am not that guy! In one of the schools I served I was fortunate to follow in the footsteps of an exemplary principal, and while that was very intimidating, I now realize that, as a school, we did so many good things for students because of the strong foundation that had been laid prior to my arrival. I am inspired by that experience, and I want my leadership to benefit students, teachers, and administrators beyond my time in this current role. I believe a thoughtful mix of supporting my staff and holding them accountable will help achieve that goal.
As you move into a time of planning staffing assignments for 2018–2019, my prayer is that you will be emboldened with a love for your staff that enables honest conversations, conversations of celebration and conversations of accountability.
– David Loewen