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October 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 2

The Spirit of Leadership

Spirituality—it's the missing piece in the school improvement puzzle.

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Today, educators face the challenge of helping students connect with the ever-expanding, seemingly unlimited knowledge made possible by 21st century technology. Paradoxically, at a time when this challenge draws educators out of the school building into an interconnected world of infinite possibilities, the key to revitalizing schools may be found in nurturing the inner development of each educator.

The Search for Wholeness in Teaching

Many professions and corporations are rediscovering spirituality as an important part of professional development (Guillory, 1997). The medical profession, for example, has delved deep in helping practitioners search for personal motivation and deal with the inevitable emotional turmoil associated with illness and death.
It is somewhat surprising that education, being in the life-giving business, has so systematically overlooked teachers' inner selves and personal growth as a target for professional development. The culture of schools implicitly and sometimes even explicitly encourages a masking of the true self behind curriculum and pedagogy. Teacher training activities seldom take into account the teacher as a person.
Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach(1997) is rightly regarded as a prime source for spirituality in teaching. At St. Andrew's Scots School in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Argentina, we have used Palmer's ideas as a basis for staff to explore the deeper meanings and motivations within education. Although some people may react negatively to the wordspirituality, we prefer to avoid wasting valuable time in arguing over the nuances of language. The terms spirituality,personal development, and exploration of the inner self should be freely interchangeable.
Our nondenominational, K–12, bilingual school serves a diverse population of 2,000 students. We have made personal and spiritual development a cornerstone of our professional development efforts for the last four years, and we are gradually reaping the benefits in the form of an improved school climate and a stronger learning community. Through our experience, we have identified some of the most important themes in spirituality in education and learned some valuable lessons about what works best.

Lessons from St. Andrew's

Because of the deep nature of the issues at stake and the need for participants to trust one another, programs to develop spirituality cannot be approached effectively within the conventional parameters of general-purpose professional development. Our own program includes an annual residential two-day retreat for all staff, as well as special programs for leaders. In addition, we recently held a retreat for principals of more than 30 schools in the Buenos Aires area.
We find that fostering personal development in a school's adults makes a clear statement about what matters at the school and is a necessary step in the shared journey of educating the whole child—a journey that requires deep personal commitment.
Even though the retreats are optional for staff, we encountered initial reticence on the part of retreat participants. But with every year that goes by, the barriers have gradually lifted. In the days that precede these getaways, a feeling of positive anticipation runs through the school.

Remembering the Call to Teach

After they have spent several years in the profession, educators run the risk of moving from compassion to callousness as their original dreams of making a difference come up against the hard realities of day-to-day school life (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002). Low pay, scarce opportunities for advancement, an erosion of the social status of the teaching profession, and other difficult circumstances conspire to make many educators lose heart.
We usually begin our retreats by having teachers talk in small groups about their mentors—particularly those who influenced them to embrace their profession. For example, one of our teachers shared how her high school mathematics teacher took her under her wing when her parents were going through a divorce. This experience made a profound impression; her main reason for becoming a teacher was the desire to give back to her students in a similar way.

Forming Connections and Expressing Feelings

Most schools have the goal of becoming professional learning communities. Staff meetings centered solely on pedagogy and technique, however, do not enable teachers to form the emotional bonds that can truly cement such communities. Because many teachers have a deep desire to unmask the true self in a safe environment, it is important to create secure spaces for staff to share some of their deeper feelings.
One of the most successful and fulfilling activities in our retreats consists of laying out thousands of small pieces of paper that have virtues and positive traits printed on them. For a few minutes, to the sound of background music and without speaking, participants choose traits that they feel describe their colleagues, crumple each piece of paper, and hand it to the appropriate colleague, who pockets it for later private viewing. Despite our own initial reservations about how participants would react, we now regard this activity as one of the strongest bonding experiences in our gatherings.
Within this safe environment in which participants are freed from the usual professional and social constraints of the workplace, deep feelings of otherwise restricted affection emerge and become evident in hugs, implicit and muttered thanks, and other expressions of personal appreciation.
Also, despite the focus on spiritual and personal development, fun teambuilding events that run from just after dinner until late at night are a big hit at our retreats. They often result in some of the most memorable experiences of our gatherings, fueling good-natured exchanges throughout the year.

Modeling Behavior

The way adults in the school treat one another is a major influence on student behavior. By conducting staff activities that develop the inner self and create emotional bonds, we build stronger relationships among faculty. These relationships then spread out toward students in the day-to-day life of the school. Teachers who have become more comfortable with themselves are also more likely to give of themselves in their teaching—to reach out to students beyond the confines of instruction. Students invariably respond best to such teachers.
By making time in a busy schedule to support teachers' personal development, school leaders send a powerful message about what matters at the school. When we ask teachers to share their feedback at the end of our retreats, they express their gratitude (and sometimes, their astonishment) that the school has provided a space for personal growth. They often point out that the retreats have allowed them to relate to their colleagues at a deeper level.

Keeping the Focus Personal

The key to the success of any personal growth initiative is to understand that it must be approached differently from other types of training or professional development. For example, the effectiveness of such activities is almost impossible to measure quantitatively (which is flagrantly countercultural in this accountability era).
We learned the hard way that it is crucial to maintain a separation between personal and professional development. At an early retreat, we attempted to work on a "school creed," thinking that developing such a creed would give participants the opportunity to reflect on the school's strongest values. But participants interpreted this activity as entering the realm of strategic planning, and the result was a lower level of genuine contributions, to the detriment of the climate at the retreat. When an activity unwittingly trespasses into what can be perceived as school business, participants tend to switch to their professional mode.

Ensuring Institutional Openness

When a school opens up spaces for profound reflection, the result is often the recognition of wounds within the organization. If the school does not take steps to heal those rifts, the whole initiative may become divisive and self-defeating.
Therefore, it makes no sense to foster self-reflection among teachers unless the school as an organization commits to a parallel process of soul searching. Some of our activities have, indeed, uncovered hard truths about our school, which we have taken into account in reviewing some of our processes, including staff appraisal.

Shared Leadership

A major spinoff of our program has been the opportunity to identify potential leaders. Many activities at our retreats involve small-group reflections. When we started identifying leaders to coordinate these reflections, we found ourselves looking for those among the staff who best epitomized the emotional and spiritual components of our school mission statement, which calls for "nurturing students' intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual dimensions."
Thus, the alternate environment of the retreats gave us a different starting point for discovering leaders. It opened our eyes to the fact that the academic and intellectual traits that are conventionally regarded as the preeminent indicators of leadership potential sometimes emerge only after the person has been given the chance to exhibit those traits in a different environment. In our case, some staff members whose positive traits we might otherwise have missed have subsequently moved on to formal leadership positions. Others have become informal leaders who are strong reference points for staff and principals alike, helping to sustain a more humane atmosphere at the school.

A Whole School for the Whole Child

Our spirituality program at St. Andrew's Scots School continues. After four years, we are still far from accomplishing all our goals. But like the mother who tells her son as they walk on the road, "Stop asking when we're going to get there—we're nomads!" we have come to realize that it is the journey, not just the destination, that counts. The clearly discernible improvements in our school's climate have been worth the risk of straying away from "safer" forms of professional development.
Ernst Stuhlinger (1970), a rocket scientist who worked with NASA and helped develop the propulsive systems for the Apollo program, once responded to a nun in Africa who had questioned the resources spent on the space program by sending her the first color photograph of Earth taken by the Apollo 8 crew. He pointed out that even though the space program seemed to take us out to the moon, the planets, and the stars, its greatest benefit would prove to be allowing us to take the first good look at the Earth and fully understand the uniqueness and fragility of our terrestrial abode.
This can be an apt metaphor for our tumultuous and yet fascinating era—the best time in history to be an educator. Even though the 21st century is all about infinite external possibilities, our awareness of these possibilities points us toward our inner selves, reminding us to honor and nurture a transcendent dimension that has always been at the heart of education. Wholeness is the key to 21st century education, and it is what may truly make this a second era of enlightenment

Guillory, W. (1997). The living organization: Spirituality in the workplace. Salt Lake City, UT: Innovations International.

Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Palmer, P. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stuhlinger, E. (1970). Why explore space?[Online]. New York: Museum of European Art. Available: www.meaus.com/whyExplore.html

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