Servant Leadership in the College Classroom

Is a good college instructor also a servant-leader?  Perhaps.  Servant-Leaders and Servant-Teachers have a lot in common.

Practicing Servant Leadership in the College Classroom

I recently published an article entitled Servant Leadership Basics on Suite 101.  I was motivated by the keynote speaker at a conference I recently attended.  The speaker, Dr. Kent M. Keith, immediately got me thinking about how servant leadership relates to college teaching.

I was able to chat briefly with Dr. Keith, and I mentioned my thoughts on this matter.  Basically, with a small tweak or two, there is no question.  Good college teaching, all teaching for that matter, is a form of servant leadership.  I choose to call it “Servant-Teaching.”  (Note:  I really thought I was on to something, but a quick Google search shattered my hope that I was about to coin a new term. 🙁 )

The Practices of a Servant-Leader

Much of Dr. Keith’s talk, as well as the breakout session he led, were addressed in his book The Case for Servant Leadership (2008).  In it, he identified seven behaviors that characterize servant-leaders.  I recommend you get the book.  It is a short, easy reader.  It typifies that old adage that good things coming in small packages.

Here are what Keith identified as “The Key Practices of Servant-Leaders”:

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Listening
  3. Changing the Pyramid
  4. Developing Your Colleagues
  5. Coaching, Not Controlling
  6. Unleashing the Energy and Intelligence of Others
  7. Foresight

Let me explain how these practices can be applied to teaching college students.


The Practices of a Servant-Teacher

With a bit a tweaking to Keith’s work, here are my seven key practices of the college Servant-Teacher:

  1. Being Self-Aware – (Sorry Dr. Keith, but I am a stickler for parallel construction.  I choose to make my list entirely of present participles. 🙁 )  Similar to what Keith stated, Servant-Teachers are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge proactively to improve their art.  They are also aware of how what they say and do impacts their students.  They know that a joke in poor taste or a sarcastic comment can alienate their students.  They know that just by the attitude they display they have a profound impact on their students and their learning.
  2. Listening – Servant-Teachers solicit feedback from their students in a variety of ways – quizzes and tests of course, but also techniques such as classroom discussions, one-minute papers, one-on-one meetings, and a variety of classroom assessment techniques (CAT’s).  They know that students will not always speak up, so they work at getting students to open up.  They know this requires building trust in the eyes of their students.  They know that the feedback they get will help them become better teachers.  They know that each student is different; each has his or her own needs.  They know that only by listening to each student can they begin to create a learning centered environment, which is a great segway to the next practice.
  3. Creating a Learning-Centered Environment – Keith used the term “Changing the Pyramid.”  The term pyramid refers to the hierarchical management structure that is prevalent in many organizations, one where the “boss” sitting at the top.  Changing the pyramid can involve tipping it on its side so information can flow laterally as opposed to up and down organizational silos.  It can even be inverting the pyramid so those formerly at the bottom, the front line workers, have a voice in directing the work.  This is exactly what it means to create a learning-centered, or learner-centered, classroom.  Students take ownership for their learning.  They are given a voice and help direct their own learning.
  4. Developing Your Students – A Servant-Teacher may practice Keith’s fourth item, which was “Developing Your Colleagues.”  However, students are not colleagues, at least not in the traditional sense.  It goes without saying that college teachers are there to help their students develop in terms of knowledge and skills.  But Servant-Leadership, and therefore Servant-Teaching, goes deeper.  The Servant-Teachers help students develop critical thinking skills.  They help them find the motivation that lies within.  They even, upon occasion, ignite a passion that their students will carry forward throughout their lives.
  5. Coaching, Not Controlling – Let me just say this.  Coaching is important.  It will be included on my next edition of 50 Roles for College Faculty.  I could argue that it is already there.  Three of the roles in my first version are synonymous with coaching – Cheerleader, Mentor, and Team Builder.  Now, let’s consider the “Not Controlling” part.  Adult Learners like to be treated as … well, you’ve got it … they like to be treated as adults, not slaves or prisoners.  My article entitled Community College Basics for University Professors touches on this subject.
  6. Unleashing the Energy and Intelligence of Students – That pretty much says it all.  If you require an explanation, then maybe you are in the wrong profession.  Sorry, just have to be honest.
  7. Anticipating the Future – Dr. Keith called it “Foresight,” which is a noun, not a verb.  (If I sound like I am being critical of Kent Keith, it shouldn’t.  If you chose to study his background, you will share my own awe and respect for this man.)  For college instructors, that can mean adapting and changing during the term.  However, the bigger picture is the future of their students.  Servant-Teachers are always taking that into consideration and doing their part to help prepare their students for what lies ahead.

Adjuncts as Servant-Teachers

Can you be a good college adjunct without being a Servant-Teacher?  Yes.  Heck, many tenured full-time college professors miss this mark.  Can you be a great college adjunct without following the Seven Practices of a Servant-Teacher?  No.

The adjunct who truly is a Servant-Teacher is a special educator.  Every institution of higher learning would be proud to have this part-time faculty member on board.  To those colleges and universities who employ such an adjunct, shame on you!  Why haven’t you given this person a full-time position?  😉

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

November 23, 2010


About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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