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.
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.”
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.
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.
I grew up as one of three boys, all of us physically active and rambunctious. That meant several things: we were rarely inside the house except to eat and sleep— kind of like a pet cat; a lot of stuff seemed to get broken in our house – windows, drywall, bones, etc.; and I knew where I fit in the social order. I was the youngest and therefore the smallest (until I was an adult; I’m now the biggest when IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER).
As children, my oldest brother was the biggest and strongest and was therefore at the top of the sibling hierarchy. He generally got his way amongst the siblings, while my middle brother just quietly did his own thing and never ruffled any feathers; he seemed to slide into opportunities unnoticed. As the youngest, I knew I had to suck up to my older siblings in order to be included in their shenanigans.