Wednesday, 23 May 2012 11:56

Leadership in Catholic Schools

Throughout the Gospels there are lessons to be learned either from what Jesus had to say and more often in the actions He took, and why and how He did what He did - examples are there for us all on the nature of the leadership that we can expect in our Catholic educational faith communities.

At the Last Supper, after Jesus had powerfully demonstrated the concept of ‘Servant Leadership’ by washing of the feet of His disciples, He responded to arguments about status by patiently explaining His view of leadership.

"But, he said to them, among pagans it is the Kings who lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are given the title ‘benefactor’. This must not happen with you. No; the greatest among you must behave as if he were the youngest, the leader as if he were the one who serves. For who is the greater; the one at the table or one who serves? The one at table surely? Yet here are am I among you as one who serves!” Luke 22: 25-27

The enormous variety of demands made on leaders in all schools, is further complicated by the expectation that our leaders will be able to expertly accomplish these tasks whilst also fulfilling the role of ‘faith leader’ to their local Catholic community. In a Catholic primary school in particular this will inevitably include the expectations of the local parish community where the headteacher may well be directly involved with such activities as the Sacramental Programme.   These complications are by no means restricted to our own country as Merylann Schuttoffel, writing about the difficulties of recruiting and retaining leaders for Catholic schools in the USA says: “the burden of administration; constant changes and developments in government policy; demands of accountability…  And the added difficulty in Catholic schools of recognising the faith dimension of education”

All headteachers, whether in community schools or Catholic schools would recognise the need to have a strong sense of purpose, which in a Catholic school is expressed in terms of ‘mission’.  In the increasingly bureaucratic world of school headship the challenge is to find a strong leader who can maintain a sense of mission against all the obstacles. 

There are definitions of leadership which are about preferred styles, behaviours, strengths and needs, but to be a Servant Leader necessitates looking outwards, to the individuals or the whole school community and putting their needs before one’s own.  We are not, in this case, thinking of the word ‘servant’ as a noun, but rather as an adjective, used to describe the function of leadership.  It is about serving and not about being servile – how things are done, rather than what is being done, which differentiates servant leadership from other definitions.  

Any good leader will ensure that effective management is in place which enables the work of the educational community to be accomplished successfully, and will seek out and promote excellence for all who learn and work there, but the challenge continuing to face leaders in Catholic schools today is to be what John Sullivan calls ‘Living Logos’, who “transmit meaning and values in all the seemingly mundane things they do.”.  As Saint Francis of Assisi instructed his followers “preach the Gospel. Use words if you have to”, or, in modern leadership parlance ‘walk the walk as well as talk the talk.’

But to continue to be effective our leaders also need to develop the capacity to reflect regularly, so that they ensure a strong, clearly articulated vision and the means to make that vision a reality, one which continues to be relevant to the community in which they work, reflects the real world, and acknowledges their own role and that of the school in the on-going mission of the church.

Albert Einstein said that ‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and rational mind is a faithful servant. The paradox of modern life is that we have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.’ A ‘Servant Leader’ will depend on both, but rooted in the teachings and example of Jesus will consistently bear in mind and base their actions upon the ‘sacred gift’ which results from reflection, prayer and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Geraldine Bradbury, former Diocesan Schools' Commissioner, Salford Diocese

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