The Role of the School Leader: A Servant Leader

-Robert K. Greenleaf

The Servant as Leader, by Robert K. Greenleaf, describes the key characteristics of a 21st century school leader.  

The foundation of servant leadership includes:

1. Clear vision and the initiative of the individual

2. A focus on building community support to move towards the vision

3. Influence that inspires others to go out and become servant leaders themselves

The educational leaders I met at the Burlington, Massachusetts iCon 2013 conference exemplify servant leadership.

Burlington High School is a 1:1 ipad school. The leadership team; Dr. Eric Conti, Patrick Larkin, and Dennis Villano, along with their team of teachers, openly share every aspect of how they were able to implement and continue to support this initiative. Their team is active on Twitter and also blogs about the kinds of technology they are using at their school to engage students and increase student achievement.

Specific examples of how the leaders in Burlington serve the needs of students, teachers, parents, and the community both in and outside of the district include:

  • Tours of the school to see a 1:1 environment in action
  • Free professional development for teachers led by teachers
  • Open communication forums for all stakeholders to ask questions and provide feedback
  • A strong IT infrastructure to support school issued as well as student-owned devices
  • A fiscally reponsible plan for technology that is supported by the community

The leadership team believes their job is to “put as many tools on the table as possible and not to take them away.” And their theory (which seems to be working) is that effective technology integration leads to a more engaged student, who in turn has the potential to achieve at higher levels. Dr. Conti stated that they “listen to what the teachers need, give them what they need, and then get out of the way.” This leads to a culture where teachers are empowered to be servant leaders themselves.

The teacher-led workshop sessions at iCon emphasized curriculum always comes first and technology is second. The focus on every workshop was not on the technology itself, but on how technology can be used as tool to:

The first student I saw when I went on a tour had his ipad out along with a textbook. In another classroom, students where watching a lecture on the ipad and were taking notes with a pen or pencil in a notebook. Bottom line; students at Burlington have access to all kinds of tools and their teachers know which tool is best suited for each individual student to achieve the learning goal.

Teachers are encouraged and supported by the leadership team to learn new tools, take risks, collaborate with students, emerge as servant leaders themselves and the result is a culture where “everyone is learning together.”

The most impressive workshop I attended during the conference was on the flipped classroom. The flipped classroom is a trend that I’ve been reading a lot about, but was curious to hear from a teacher who was successful at using this technique. The teacher clearly demonstrated how flipping has allowed him to:

  1. Spend more time in the classroom with individual students
  2. Create a digital workflow using Edmodo, Google docs, and
  3. More effectively differentiate instruction.

I went away with many inspiring ideas from this session that I have already tried in my classroom, and I’ve established goals for next year to start “flipping” from day one.

Screen Shot 2013-04-01 at 9.55.49 PM

Image credit: Apple in Education Profiles

At Burlington, Patrick Larkin said they’ve created a learning environment where you have to be careful in the hallways because if not you could end up “tripping over students who are  on the floor learning.” In other words, their students are learning anytime, anywhere, and access is not an issue.

Patrick also spoke about the district’s commitment to educating students on the proper use of social media and web 2.0 tools. Rather than ban access, the leadership team in Burlington believes in education. They model responsible digital citizenship through their blogs, Twitter accounts, and other social networking sites. They teach students valuable self-managment skills that they will need for college and in life.

The folks at Burlington said they are by no means perfect, and that if a student violates their policies that there are consequences. However, because of their commitment to educating students, they have seen fewer problems with abusing social media, so it appears their strategy of teaching and modeling appropriate use is working.

The last major area that struck me and connects to what I read in Servant as Leader, is the “constant support, collaboration, and professional development” offered by the technology team at Burlington, (which happens to include students!) Dennis Villano, Director of Technology Integration, led a session detailing the steps the district took to make their 1:1 initiative happen. Dennis stated that when the ipad arrived at Marshall Simonds Middle School the “students literally clapped, cheered, and gave a standing ovation.” Imagine a school culture where students are excited to learn and have fun at school?! How has the Burlington district achieved such a culture? I believe it is through their approach to educational leadership and the belief by the administrators that they are servant leaders.

After spending time at Burlington, I realize that what makes them different is that they saw the challenges associated with technology integration (infrastructure, teacher buy-in, community support, funding, etc.), but recognized the opportunities that effective technology integration could present to their students in terms of engagement and achievement and then worked as servant leaders to turn their school into a 1:1 learning environment.

Greenleaf writes that true transformation in our instituions, and in particular in our schools, can only happen with a servant as leader. One who will always ask, “what can I do for my students, teachers, parents, and community?” And not the other way around. The team at Burlington is certainly working to serve the needs of all their stakeholders and at the heart of everything they do, their focus is on doing what is best for the students. What they have done, just makes sense. They understand the learners of today, and they have listened and supported their teachers.

The video below, The Future Starts Now depicts educational challenges facing Norway and their society as a whole. The challenges run parallel to what is happening at many schools in the U.S. It raises the question; can the effective integration of technology really transform student learning and create a new culture of learning? I first saw this video months ago and I thought, “this can’t be done.” Since visiting Burlington, I realize that it can be done. School culture can be transformed, but it takes the work of a team of servant leaders, which is the type of leader I admire and plan to emulate once I begin my career as an educational administrator.

I’d love to read your comments and thoughts on what servant leadership means to you, and examples of servant leaders you have observed in your career as an educator. I’ve also included a link to the profile of Burlington High School featured on Apple’s website here:


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