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.
We all know that when we walk into a school, there isn’t always perfect consistency between the mission and vision and what’s actually happening on the ground. I’ve heard educational leaders say things like, “The culture of that school is really all about academic excellence,” or “There is a culture of indifference to professional growth amongst the staff,” or “The culture of our school is very entitled.”
Another way of understanding this idea of culture is by understanding the idea of hegemony. Hegemony can be defined as the power revealed by norms, behaviors, beliefs, and practices. And these norms, behaviors, beliefs, and practices can be consistent with your school’s vision, or they can be completely different and unrelated. How do you discern the hegemony at play in your school? The clearest evidence can be found in the comments, symbols, routines, and “liturgies” found on a day-to-day basis.
First of all, comments: what are the throw-away comments that go unchallenged in our school communities? If a staff member makes a joke about women being the lesser gender, does it go unquestioned? Is it an assumption that certain kinds of jokes/comments are acceptable? What about comments about professional development? What kind of language is used regarding students with behavior issues? The comments that are commonplace and acceptable in our schools reflect what we believe about each other, schooling, and what it means to follow Jesus. What are the comments you hear in the staff room or parking lot of your school? What about the hallways?
Secondly, the norms and values of our schools are evidenced in the symbols we display. Does most of the wall space consist of athletic trophies, mass-produced store-bought posters, or student work and other evidence of our mission and vision? When we compare our mission statement and our deep hope for our students with what we display in our newsletters and on our walls, do we find congruence? When we look at our budget, do the numbers symbolize our mission statement, or are there areas that are grossly over- or underfunded compared to what we say we value? I remember a school with a beautiful mission statement about changing the world for Christ, but the budget set aside vast sums for one male sport at the expense of all other sports, the library, and learning supplies. It was clear that either the budget needed to change to match the mission or the mission needed to change to match the budget (explicit values).
And finally, what routines and liturgies are evident in our schools and what do they say about our beliefs and values? What do we do on a regular basis? I’ve been in schools where staff open the car doors for children as they get dropped off and make a point of welcoming them to school. I’ve also been in schools where teachers walk into the class right at the starting bell. Both routines say something about the school’s values. Some principals start every staff meeting with a long devotional, others start with shared devotions, and others still include small prayer groups. All these liturgies—who speaks when, who gets listened to and who doesn’t—say something about the real power structures at play in our schools. The routines and practices on the playground; in the staffroom, classroom, and gymnasium; and at the board table all tell a story of the implicit norms, values, and beliefs of our schools.
The question is: Do we engage all areas of our practice with missional intentionality, or do some of our habits and routines default to the values of traditional school and power structures or the values of culture we are in but called to be “not of”? Another way of framing that question is to ask, “What are the hidden hegemonies at play in our schools?” One of our core responsibilities as leaders is to ensure missional consistency in every area of our schools. A way into that is by doing the hard work of deep, honest reflection on what the comments, habits, norms, routines, and liturgies say about our beliefs and values. Some would call this work deconstruction.
I’ve learned over my time in educational leadership that as we seek to build for the Kingdom, we often need to do some deconstructing first, to clear the way for construction and reconstruction. My hope for you this year is that you are empowered to lead this work in collaboration with your school community and to do so all for the glory of God.
– David Loewen