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Servant Leadership: the Ultimate Key to a Healthy School Environment

by Eddie Rayner

Working in a school is a beautiful job, but it can also be lonely, hard work and stressful. However, leadership styles – of which there are many – can have a crucial influence on the welfare of teachers and principals. Here, we discuss the advantages of a shared leadership style with Larry Savery, who having completed training in ‘servant leadership’ in the USA is now principal of the American National School in Al Ain.

EDUAE: How did you get into education?
I started my working life as a freelance journalist. While working as a journalist, I got a call from my former athletics director about coaching a wrestling team at a high school. At that time I needed something stable, and I enjoyed coaching, so I said: “Tell you what, give me a full-time position at the school, and I will coach the wrestling team.” Once in the classroom, my coaching instincts took over, and I was hooked.

After seven years of teaching, it was time for a new challenge. The management appreciated my work ethic and the ease in which I led my colleagues. So, they provided the challenge by sending me to compete in Leadership 2000, which proved to be the gateway that allowed me to finish my master’s degree in Educational Leadership.

After I finished my degree, I felt I was ready to be a principal. Luckily, I was wrong, and wiser heads prevailed. Instead, I became a dean of students. And if you ask me now, from all my positions in education, this is the one I prefer, because there is a direct link to servant leadership.

EDUAE: How does servant leadership work?
The ultimate aim is to help people to achieve their own individual goals. When you help those people achieve, you are helping yourself achieve your higher goal; student achievement. It is a different mindset that doesn’t focus on total control.

One of my favourite stories was when President Kennedy visited NASA. He had a conversation with a custodian where the custodian said: “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” This mindset that everyone is important, everyone is serving for the greater good, is essential when running an organisation through servant leadership.

It starts down at the cleaners or custodians.

You go in if something is not done right and instead of being the dominant boss you ask them: “How can I help you to do this better?” Maybe they need some equipment, so you provide it. Eventually, the students see a beautiful, clean school; a place where they would like to learn. Building trust in that custodian allows them to go that extra mile; they don’t want to disappoint you.

EDUAE: Can you give an example of one of the other benefits of being a servant leader?
Savery: At one school I ended up learning about the complexities of a schedule because this particular school had to deal with eight different types of the population, so we had to make a schedule for eight different groups of learners. In the end, this complex problem was solved with the teachers and administration working together. I learned how to do it with the teachers. We created what we called pods; now, they are called bubbles. I could never have had a teacher buy-in if I had done this by myself.

EDUAE: So it essential to share leadership responsibilities?
Savery: Most schools are organised very straight. You have a principal, a vice-principal and the teachers. For a school with 600 students like the school I am at now, I prefer to have a principal, vice-principal, dean of students, two head of sections (primary, secondary), coordinators and a head of the American curriculum. Each has a role to maximise serving the student, pleasing the parent and the teacher. You get different perspectives and experience.

EDUAE: Do you think it is time for the UAE to offer a more servant leadership style in schools?
Savery: The UAE is a very young country. The fact that it is trying to find an educational identity is crucial. The UAE is not hanging on to one simple system, and that is not an easy job.

What the country needs is an educational system that will serve everyone.
The trap, however, is that it is very easy, when something looks difficult, to go back to what you know. The UAE has an enormous ambition for education, and they have achieved so much already. But if it is not willing to fail, it will not try something new. That is essential for finding your identity. No great discoveries came without failure.

EDUAE: What advice would you give to other schools looking at shared leadership?
Savery: I would open up very similarly to how I opened up the American National School. I told my teachers: “We are a new school, we are pioneering. I want you to try everything and anything, and I want you to fail gloriously.”

For me, that has always been my ambition for them, because when you work from the top down, there is a level of control that it is very intimidating. Teachers need to have the space to do something without asking permission first. I want them to know that I’m the one with the big shoulders. I’m the one that’s going to go ahead and take the fall, and I will support them.