This afternoon I found myself contemplating a concept discussed in one of my students' papers this week: servant leadership.
According to my student's work, a servant leader is one who always puts the needs of the student first. S/he does not make decisions based upon his/her agenda of personal interests, but rather s/he bases her pedagogical decisions on the students' passions, interests and goals. In the ideal world, this leads to highly motivated students who belong to a community of engaged peers who support each other in the learning process. Great! Let's do it.
But I asked my student some questions. For example, how do you create a culture like this in your classroom to begin with? And what do you do if, despite your best efforts, students remain unmotivated? And keep in mind: unmotivated can mean a lot of different things. An unmotivated student might be one who is just not interested in the subject and therefore sees no point in doing the work. Or an unmotivated student might be one who has lost hope-he or she might want to do well, but she or he has gotten in a pattern of not doing well, so s/he gives up. Or an unmotivated student might be someone who is not used to mental work. He or she is not used to the idea that if it seems hard, then you're on the right track. Because if it seems hard to you, that means you are willing to dive in and use your mind in new ways to think differently and creatively. That can be hard to get used to you if you are used to a kind of learning where you ask a question and get an immediate answer.
So, back to creating that culture. I think that kind of culture is created when you ask a lot of questions, and when you reward asking questions. This takes a long time to establish in a classroom. When I teach college, it sometimes takes until the second half of the semester before students start to get this idea. In college, this is partly because classes don't meet as often, and students' time is divided between so many things on any given day. In tutoring, it still takes time, but it takes less time. By the second session with a student, she or he usually sees that a conversation shaped by questions -- from both me and the student-- does lead to a deeper understanding of the subject, whether the goal is acquired content knowledge, or form-based (as when I tutor writing).
So how does this relate to servant leadership? I believe that asking questions - especially open-ended questions-- is a way of focusing first on students' needs and goals. I always, for example, begin meeting with a new student by asking him or her about goals, if he or she has not made them clear to me already. I also ask students what they mean when they explain something, and they are often surprised by how much more they articulate, once they hear themselves saying it to me.
Many thanks to my student this week, who started me thinking about servant leadership.