November 26, 2014

Servant Teaching: Applying the Principles of Servant Leadership to the Classroom

by Ashlee Mattingly, Pharm.D., Clinical Instructor, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

There has been a push in recent years for education to transition from teacher-centered approaches, which is mainly comprised of didactic lecturing where students passively learn the information, to student-centered methods, where students and teachers interact more and students take a more active role in their learning experience.  While the research has shown that student-centered methods are superior to teacher-centered methods, to effectively make this transition there must an attitudinal change.1

Robert K. Greenleaf first coined the term “servant leadership” in The Servant as Leader in 1970.  The servant leader puts the needs of others first and focuses on their growth and development.  The servant leader is servant first and leader second.2  In 2008, J. Martin Hayes proposed a model of servant teaching by applying the principles and values of servant leadership to teaching.3

If we apply McGregor’s Theory X - Theory Y styles of management to education, there would be two distinct teaching styles.  The Theory X teacher would be the authoritarian leader of the classroom.  The teacher determines what will be taught as well as how it will be taught.  The student is believed to lack motivation, be dependent on the teacher, and requires close supervision.  In contrast, the Theory Y teacher relinquishes the power and control.  The teacher instead allows the student to play a large role in determining the material and instructional methods.  The student is more autonomous and the teacher acts as a facilitator to guide the student.3,4  While traditional teaching more closely follows the Theory X method, J. Martin Hayes argues that Theory Y is consistent with the principles of servant teaching.3

Larry Spears describes how the ten characteristics of servant leaders can be applied to teaching.5  (See Table 1)  Servant teachers allow the students to determine their own learning needs.  Instead of the teacher simply transmitting the knowledge that they deem important to the student, the teacher must listen to what the students are saying (or not saying) in order to best serve the needs of the students.3,4,5,6 

Table 1 – Characteristics of Servant Teachers
Listen to students to help them determine their learning needs.
Understand the students’ perspective and foster an learning environment where student can openly express their thoughts
Some students will fail.  It’s an important part of the learning process.  Rebuild the student’s self-confidence after failure.
Help students understand the importance of an concept but allow freedom to formulate their own opinions
Be aware of students’ response to your teaching methods and be adaptable
Plan carefully using student-centered methods
See the big picture.  How do all the parts fit together.
Commitment to Growth
Help each student reach their potential.  Foster your own growth at a teacher.
Seek to improve the community and the profession.
Build Community
Create a welcoming environment but help students hold themselves and others accountable.

The servant teacher must understand that students have a lot of trepidation when they enter the classroom.  This may be due to a concern over a lack of knowledge or simply a fear of the unknown.  The teacher must be able to empathize with the students in order to calm these fears.  In order for the servant teaching method to work, the students must feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and opinions and it is the teacher’s responsibility to foster an environment that encourages this behavior.3,5,6

Servant teachers must also accept that students will fail and to understand that failing is an important part of the learning process.  The teacher must provide a safe environment to allow the student to fail but then to work to heal and rebuild the student’s self-confidence and self-esteem after a failure.3,5,6

The servant teacher relies on the power of persuasion (not their authority) and focuses on helping students understand why a certain answer (or approach) is correct.  The servant teacher explains to students why a certain topic (or concept) is important but allows students the opportunity to formulate their own opinions instead of merely forcing an idea.3,5

Servant teachers must be aware of how the students react to the lesson plan and teaching methods.  They must be able to adapt to serve the needs of the students.3,5  Moreover, servant teachers should use foresight and try to predict how students would react to a certain lesson plan or teaching method.  Teachers should plan for the unknown and make the commitment to foster a student-centered learning environment.3,5,6  Servant teachers must conceptualize how all of the parts fit together to make the whole and are able to communicate the importance of this to the students.3,5,6

The servant teacher makes a commitment to growth, not only the growth of each student but also one’s own personal growth.  The teacher understands that the learning process is never finished and is continually seeking feedback in an effort to improve.5,6

The servant teacher accepts the role of steward for the community and their profession.  They strive to encourage the students to be stewards as well.3,5,6  As stewards, servant teachers understand the importance of building a community in and outside the classroom.  They work to create a welcoming environment in the classroom where students feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions.  The teacher instills into the minds of the students the importance of holding others accountable, whether this is through group assignments or class participation.3,5,6

In one field based study traditional-age (18-24 years old) college students were surveyed regarding the characteristics they associated with their most and least effective teachers.7  The survey was was based on Laub’s Servant Organizational Leadership Assessment instrument.  This instrument utilizes the characteristics of servant leaders and attempts to measure perceived servant leadership qualities.8  Not surprisingly, the most effective teachers had strong servant leader qualities.7

Servant teaching can serve as the starting point for student-centered learning.  On an end of course evaluation where a teacher used a servant teacher approach, one student wrote, “The room had been transformed into an incredibly unique learning culture.  The class had established some of the highest levels of trust, respect and honesty that I have ever experienced in study or work…”3  If teachers accepting their new role as facilitators, students will take a more active role in their learning which will empower and better prepare them for the future.9

  1. Corley MA.  Student-Centered Learning.  Just Write! Guide.  American Institutes for Research.  February 2012:23-25. Accessed November 15, 2014.
  2. What is Servant Leadership?  Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Accessed November 1, 2014.
  3. Hays JM.  Teacher as Servant-Applications of Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership in Higher Education.  The Journal of Global Business Issues.  Winter/Spring 2008(2);1:113-134.
  4. Balfour DL, Marini F.  Child and Adult, X and Y: Reflections on the Process of Public Administration Education.  Public Administration Review Nov/Dec 1991(51);6:478-485.
  5. Spears LC.  Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders.  The Journal of Virtues and Leadership.  2010(1);1:25-30.
  6. Robinson FP.  Servant Teaching: The Power and Promise for Nursing Education.  International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship.  2009(6);1:1-18.
  7. Drury S.  Teacher as Servant Leader: A faculty model for effectiveness with students.  School of Leadership Studies Regent University.  Servant Leadership Research Roundtable. August 2005.  Accessed November1, 2014.
  8. Laub JA.  Assessing the Servant Organization: Development of the organizational leadership assessment (OLA) instrument.  Dissertation, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL.  Accessed November 15, 2014.
  9. Hannay M, Kitahara R, Fretwell C.  Student-Focused Strategies for the Modern Classroom.  Journal of Instructional Pedagogies.  March 2010; 2: 1-16.  Accessed November 15, 2014.

No comments: