Want to learn Servant-Leadership? Try teaching

The longer I teach, the more I feel that an effective teacher is actually a servant leader to his students. These are some of the ways I have exercised servant leadership, either in my classrooms or in my personal coaching of individual students.

Serve not the person in front of me but who he can be in his full glory

Most of us were either awkward, silly, sloppy or outright horrible some time in our growing years. We all owed our gratitude to someone who saw through all these and believed in us before the world acknowledged us. An effective teacher has this vision about his students and he is driven by this vision to make his students into what they can be in their full glory.

True story: This guy came into my class in the beginning of the semester, sloppily dressed and spewing vulgarities. I was quite turned off by his demeanor and smart-Alec attitude in the beginning. But I held my peace and just treated him as any other guys. All the time I was listening and observing, to understand him better. Gradually I observed that he often took initiatives to lead in discussions and other class activities. He was quite a natural leader. One day I wrote to him to tell him what I saw in him; he also wrote back later to share his story, that his mother just passed away and his girl friend left him for his friend. So there was a lot of bitterness in him. If I’ve just judged him by how he looked, talked and behaved in the first few weeks, I might never have gotten to know the story about this guy or get to tell him that he has something great in him.

Never give up on the dude in front of me no matter how frustrating it can be

As much as I see the potential of my students, sometimes I am deeply frustrated or grieved by their, immaturity, messiness, sloppiness… the list goes on. At times like this, it’s important not to give up on them, but to persist on with a kind of faith that parents have on their children, no matter how wayward they can be.

True story: Whenever I feel like giving up on my students, I always recall how hopeless I was in my Further Maths when I was a second year student in Hwa Chong Junior College.  There was no way I could have gotten a B for Further Maths and an A for Maths C, if not for my Maths teacher Mr Ng Wei Min. He made me report to school during the entire term break and made sure I ploughed through the entire ten years series. He had never given up on me and he was always there to help. To me, he exercised leadership on me. He led me to a better grade.

Always do, or be prepared to do, whatever things I ask my students to do

One of the frequent complains I hear from students are this: ‘If this is so easy, you come and do it yourself.’ ‘Give us so much homework to do, but the teacher himself do nothing during his lunch break’. The same rant can probably be heard in a corporate setting between employees and bosses. The truth is, students or employees alike follow examples, not some orders issued by me just because of my authority.

True story: I noticed this rather cocky fellow in my class who didn’t have a partner in doing his presentation. Perhaps he made a name for himself for being a pain to work with. When I told him that I would be his partner, he was rather shocked. We worked together through the preparation and when it was our turn to present, I did it just like every other student. The class was rather amused, but I thought I saw some change in the cocky guy’s attitude. He mellowed and became good friends with others in the class.

Not afraid of making mistakes but be committed to learn from them

Learning is hard work. It requires patience, determination and a willingness to look stupid. When I was very new to teaching, I was terrified of not knowing all the answers or answering a question wrongly. In my imagination, students will laugh at me – in my face or behind my back – if they ever see me making a mistake. But can anyone be free to explore, to clarify his half-baked understanding or to experiment a new technique, if he is penalized or ridiculed for making a mistake? And what kind of persons am I nurturing, if they cannot tolerate any mistakes in others, worse still, in themselves?

True story: After about 10 years of teaching, I now set this rule in Day 1 with any students: “I am a human being just like you, not a calculator or a search engine. I make mistakes too, even though I try not to. My commitment to you is not that I am mistake free, but that I will always admit it when I am wrong, and I will not rest until I fix the mistake I’ve made. What matter most is that we learn together through the mistakes and become better everyday.”

Be in the same shoes – learn something new all the time

Another frequent complain from my students sounds like this: ‘Cher, of course you can solve this easily. You have a Maths brain and you are a teacher. It is hard for me.’. I cannot refute that. It takes humility and empathy to put myself in my students’ shoes, to imagine how things are like when I do not have the benefit of a lot more experience and having spent more time thinking about the subject. Both humility and empathy does not come naturally to me. Perhaps you feel the same way as I do. My solution to this is to always try to learn something new. It can be learning how to do mobile app programming, how to do marketing, how to make a website using WordPress. The best way, according to John Holt, the legendary teacher, is to learn how to play a new instrument. The idea is to expose myself to new things and live with the thrill, frustration and vulnerability of learning something new.

True story: In the past year, I have started learning how to play ukulele, how to do marketing for a startup company, how to write an assessment book, how to write curriculum, how to train adult learners and how to make classroom games for learning. I have not yet achieve any sort of mastery in these and I sure made a lot of blunder in all of these. But through these setbacks and victories, I am learning to empathize with my students’ challenges. I am learning to be a better leader in their learning journey.

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