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.
As we explore alternate ways of “doing power,” I want to start by encouraging us to look at the inherent power we have within our positions and the authority we gain or lose depending on how we exercise that power as opportunity. There is a temptation to use our power and authority for personal gain. We can manipulate the language and focus of the school to bring attention to ourselves, to build our careers, or to select those we like, or who like us, as the ones rewarded with opportunities. In doing this, our authority becomes weakened, as those around us lose trust in our ability to faithfully steward the power we have been given. And the vision and mission of the school drift out of focus.
On the other hand, there is the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives by empowering others. We can use our positions to create opportunities for others to grow and flourish, we can have direct conversations with people about their strengths and areas for growth, and we can model a different way of “doing power” than what is commonly experienced in the world of business and politics.
It took me a while to understand the importance of this last point. I was often confused when parents or faculty would be surprised and so appreciative if they saw me driving the bus for a field trip or picking up garbage on the school yard. I think my motivation was that I was simply getting bored and needed to mix up my day a bit: to just enjoy some time with a primary class as a way of keeping myself grounded in the reason for the school’s existence (it’s not actually there just so I can generate paperwork!).
What I came to realize is that I cannot underestimate the importance of some of the symbolic acts of leadership I perform. If I want my faculty and staff to serve their students with passion and commitment, I need to do the same. I need to serve the students and families and my staff and faculty with passion and commitment, and I need to be seen to be doing so. I’m not talking about a performative stance to build some false sense of credibility. I’m talking about demonstrating humble service to others (and yes, I know that “demonstrating humble service” sounds like an oxymoron).
I came to realize that I need to consistently make choices to put the people in my school community ahead of any sense of entitlement I think I might have because of my position. The best example I can give of this is being an elementary school principal and one of only two people in the building who had a flexible enough schedule to unplug the toilets when required. As a rookie principal, it was exceptionally good for my ego to be one of the go-to people for that job. And over time I grew to understand that by doing this increased my credibility with some of my faculty, and that allowed me to speak into other areas of leadership in the school.
As leaders, we need to enact the kind of leadership we want our faculty to enact in their classrooms. And I believe we can choose opportunities every day that are highly symbolic of what we believe about power, position, ourselves, and those we serve.
Back to the top: students and some faculty notice that our secondary principal lines up with them to get his pizza. They also notice that he walks the property before school each day to pick up garbage. There are many components to his leadership that are thoughtful, strategic, and effective, but his choosing to eschew the privileges that might be considered acceptable with his position symbolizes his view of leadership as service and care. I believe it gives him a higher measure of authority.
In the bigger picture of creating a school culture, it might just be worth waiting with others for our pizza.
– David Loewen