A Servant’s Heart

You know how you have favorite words and phrases? Go-to language that just sort of rolls off the tongue in different situations? Sometimes slang, sometimes jargon, sometimes just words you like because they’re fun to say? (I’m a big fan of “plethora” and “veritable,” personally.)

One of my professional favorites (along with “edubabble”) is “the students and families we serve.” I use it a lot in describing goals, aspirations, the mission and values of my program and my department.  I never really thought much about it until a potential client school pointed it out as an unusual turn of phrase.  (Really? It’s unusual? I don’t think so but whatever- that’s beside the point) He noted that, while it’s certainly a concept that he and his faculty would agree with, it wouldn’t be a phrase that would come to mind for them right off the bat. It was the word “serve” that drew him up short- he didn’t think of their work as service so much as…educate, teach, inspire, etc.

In my undergraduate program (Go Mizzou!), I was fortunate enough to have an educational philosophy course that pushed me to identify my own stance as an educator.  What did I ascribe to, not in terms of traditional educational philosophy, but as a human being about to walk into a career filled with teenagers?  We had some great conversations and I settled on the idea of a Servant’s Heart. It was something I’d explored in my summer work with the American Youth Foundation, it had been a part of my own religious upbringing, and it was something my grandmother had talked about during my summer visits to the family farm. The idea that my role was that of servant- humble, willing, cheerful, kind, supportive- fit well with who I wanted to be in my professional life.

Now, 20+ years later, I can say that I’ve done a lousy job about half the time.  It’s not easy, that particular stance, but it’s something I continue to aspire to.  Particularly as I seem to see more and more schools arranged for the convenience and goals of adults (policy makers, administrators, bus companies, testing services, etc) and fewer and fewer in service to the kids and families who walk through the doors everyday.  As we get more frustrated with those above us in the educational food chain, we let our anger roll downhill. We blame teachers for not being inspirational enough, we blame parents for not doing a better job of instilling values and work habits and reading skills, we blame kids of not being the kinds of students we think we were, for lacking “grit” or “aspirations” or whatever.   There’s a whole lot of anger, a whole lot of blame…not a lot of service.

Here’s an idea: the next time you’re tempted to go down that road, when you feel the anger building and you want to scream in frustration, take a deep breath and turn to the person “downhill” from you- the person most likely to bear the brunt of your frustration at that moment, and ask one simple question:

“How can I help you?”  

Just that.  Not “how can you help me?” or “how can you fix this for me?” but “How can I help you?”  Sincerely. With curiosity and not judgement. With sympathy and a recognition that, as Mother Teresa told us “We belong to each other.”

Let me know what happens- I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


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