Schools as Communities: Some Guidelines for School Leaders

As school communities move towards becoming “communities of grace,” the question arises how this concept of community is to be reflected in the ways that leaders and boards deal with educators with regards to their contractual or covenantal obligations. Building community, also among educators, school leaders, and boards, is hard work. “It require tremendous struggle, and the answers to all the tough questions are in the struggle. The struggle, though, is essential because the children we teach will not care how much we know until they know how much we care” (Sergiovanni 32). “It seems that a school that is a true community is a group of individuals who have learned to communicate honestly with one another; who have built relationships that go deeper than their composures; and who have developed some significant commitment to rejoice together, mourn together, delight in each other, and make other’s conditions their own” (Sergiovanni 33). All the hard work of community building can be lost quite quickly if leaders and boards do not treat all their staff members with the same honor and respect that educators are expected to instill in their students.

It is a truism that all of us, educators as well as students, need to be held accountable. The question is how we can implement community values when dealing with those educators who may need to be confronted about underperformance, lack of professionalism, or poor relationships with students or parents. A climate of transparency and truth-telling as well as clear processes for “fierce conversations” need to be part of every workplace in order to ensure that issues are dealt with fairly, honestly, and respectfully.

Many new leaders come into schools where there are educators who have always done things a certain way and have not been challenged to grow because it was easier not to deal with their behavior. How does a school leader begin to deal with these educators? And how does a school community deal with the termination of a teacher?

If an educator needs to be terminated, it seems to me that the way this is done needs to produce the least amount of fear, sadness, and brokenness. Leaders and boards need to work out of the context of community building EVEN when the conversations or confrontations are difficult. Dates, deadlines, contracts need to be honored. If they are not honored, community is broken and the fear arises that any of the staff, including the principal, may be next. Mistrust and fear set in when boards and school leaders do not fulfill the promises that have been made mutually through contracts or covenants. In those difficult circumstances, it is essential that all parties have the best interests of the students in mind while dealing openly and honestly with the issues of the staff.

The Ontario Christian School Teachers Association believes that working with partner organizations (the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools and the Ontario Christian Schools Administrators Association) is one of the ways to develop a spirit of community in staff/administration/board relationships. Continued excellent communication and discussion at the board and administrator levels will model ways to deal with conflict at the educator level. What is important is the education of leaders and potential leaders on how to deal well with confrontation and how to encourage educators to continue to grow professionally. This includes regular supervision, evaluation, and encouragement for educators to plan their own professional development, especially for those educators who may be in some level of crisis.

As part of the move toward community, schools should consider adopting a general agreement for employment, which spells out clearly the ways that issues are dealt with in that community. This type of contract or covenant would never allow a teacher to be “left alone.” Representatives on staff could help a teacher through any difficulties that he or she may face, or the association could be called in for support as needed.

Schools based on a community model should also develop a dispute resolution process that would be followed when issues arise. This process would provide guidelines for providing fair treatment to all those involved in a dispute or conflict.

There should also be a clear process describing how a leader supervises and evaluates teacher work. Included in that process would be the expectation that all principals are properly training in staff supervision and evaluation. This would allow principals to encourage classroom educators in their teaching and their professional development and to hold them accountable in those areas. It also allows teachers to be “set free” to do what they are passionate about: working to be the best possible instructors of their students.

This is not intended to be a process that is paternalistic or top-down, but if servant leadership is the model that we are striving for in a Christian school community, leaders must serve our teachers and educators through care, compassion, listening, encouraging, enabling, and empowering. They need to speak highly of the classroom teachers in the school, in the community, and around the board table. A leader can neither ignore problems nor the wonderful work that the teachers and staff do each day. What do principals do in schools that are becoming communities? They preach and teach; they encourage; they help. But always they serve. A key question for school leaders is: How can you hold your staff accountable and do that positively, respectfully, honorably, and above all, gracefully?

School leaders have the legal responsibility to ensure that there are processes in place to deal with “growth” or “discipline” issues. These need to be written down, documented, signed by both parties and given timelines. Just as we hold our students accountable, leaders must hold their staff members accountable. If schools are truly to become communities of grace, strong relationships and work teams are encouraged and excellent instruction is expected. The culture of a Christian school community is one that supports those values. Leaders in the community should have high relational intelligence and should know when it’s necessary to find a new road to discuss issues. Discerning the “state of the staff room” and the morale of teachers are all ways for a leader to check the pulse or ask the question of how the school can become more of a community. For leaders, every interaction with the staff is an opportunity to encourage or an opportunity to discourage. A leader earns trust, respect, and collegiality through the hard work of building community. A leader needs to show that he or she is trustworthy, that promises are fulfilled, that people are respected, honored, and truly cared for. And that can be done in many ways including celebration, joy, laughter, food, fun, and games.

In a Christian school community, educators hold in their hands the hearts of their students, and school leaders hold the hearts of their staff in their hands. The leader is “the guardian of the human spirit.” Leaders have the power to manipulate and coerce. Leaders can choose to ignore serious issues, or they can encourage and inspire. Leaders can lift up the educators with whom they work and appeal to all that is good and honorable and holy. They can remind the people around them that as classroom teachers they hold their lives and callings as a sacred trust, that their best efforts matter, and that even their worst failures will one day be redeemed (Ortberg 123).

This is a vision that should be discussed among all educators and leaders in Christian schools. I also believe strongly that these ideas, when presented, will allow the truth, love and power of the Holy Spirit to reach out and capture us with their full potential. We have to examine our power structures and our contracts/covenants in order to become more fully the communities of grace that we wish to embody. Christian schools need to investigate good processes for dealing with disputes, conflicts, breakdowns in communication, and violations of contracts. All parties in the community need to be encouraged to seek out support and advice as issues are resolved and relationship are restored.

To lead and teach in a Christian school is an honor and an awesome responsibility. Our students are precious gifts from God. As we seek to learn, teach, and lead in a Christian school community, we do so as a community of grace. It will be incumbent upon the leadership of our Christian schools to “pull through” or to integrate these beliefs in all areas of the school. This means that as each member of the school community is dedicated to one other in faith and love, we accept the fact that we are in a covenant with one another where issues will be dealt with honorably, justly, respectfully, and in a timely manner. The community of grace that we build needs to hold true in the classroom, in the staff room, and in the board room. Only then will we truly be Christ’s ambassadors on this earth.

Works Cited

  • Ortberg, John. Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003).
  • Patterson, Kerry et al. Crucial Confrontations (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005).
  • Scott, Susan. Fierce Conversations (New York: Berkley Books, 2004).
  • Sergiovanni, Thomas J. Building Community in Schools (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999).