So this one’s probably going to get me into quite a bit of trouble. I don’t like trouble. And I really don’t like to be IN it. But I’m feeling called to say this:
Principals and administrators, shepherd your flock.
Your flock is not your students. Your teachers will shepherd your students. Your teachers are your flock. And if you care for your flock then they will care for your kids, which is exactly what you need and exactly what you want.
Shepherding the flock is actually not hard to define. I’ll start with teachers who need to shepherd their flock – their kids. They should do an unscheduled pulse check on their kids once in a while. During the independent work time in a classroom, teachers go to the students’ desks and ask how they’re doing. Do they understand the material? Do they have any questions? Are they hungry because they haven’t eaten since the last school-provided meal? Of course, that shepherding also includes complimenting them on their cool t-shirt or new hairstyle, or acknowledging the new book they’re reading or the new handwriting style they’re trying. It’s not what they say to the kids as much as why. They’re showing their flock that they care about them and see them as people first, students second. Teachers who gently shepherd their flock see the young girl with tears welling up in her eyes and step into the hall with her to learn that she’s overwhelmed by the material, that she didn’t get her homework done because she had to babysit her siblings, and that she hates letting her teacher down. And great shepherds - after they understand - counsel and encourage.
Shepherds compliment their flock on progress. Kids love to hear how their teacher notices what strides they’re making. Or that their teacher notices them at all. Teachers can shepherd their flock by giving them random, private moments of affirmation – verbal or written. I had a prompting of the spirit one time to tell a young lady that I was proud of the way she was contributing in class. I wrote her a note on a Post-It because, well, high school. I just told her that I thought she was smart and that I appreciated the opportunity to know her. The last week of school I furtively watched her take that sticky note out of her notebook, where she’d kept it for six months, and put it in her purse (before she chunked that notebook in the trash). It mattered to her.
Teachers can shepherd their flock by giving them the amount of work they need to accomplish the learning and no more. Otherwise, it’s overload, and overload usually leads to a meltdown. Or worse.
Well that sounds like a passive-aggressive message to administrators. It is. Because all of my overachieving teacher friends are burned out. They’re trying so hard to please people and do it right, but they need their shepherd to tell them to simmer down.
Principals, name your top six teachers in the building. Write them down on a notepad. And then underneath their names, write all of the things that they’re responsible for. Cheer sponsor, sunshine committee, AVID site team, PBIS team, academic team coach, PTA liaison, FCA sponsor, morale committee, leadership team, campus team leader, grade level team leader, core subject team leader. And what do you see? If I’m right, your top six teachers are in charge of your top twenty programs. Coincidence? I think not.
Listen, first of all, it’s probably not your fault that these top teachers have a full-time schedule of teaching plus a full-time schedule of committees. Those overachievers set it up that way. They dive into teaching because they care for the kids, invest in the school, and believe in the programs. Plus - Brace yourselves, overachiever teachers. I’m about to call you out - they think they can do it all and do it best. So they say yes. And then again yes. If they didn’t volunteer for it, they at least said yes when asked because that’s their go-to answer and they’ll do the job justice. And so they say yes. Before they know it, they do everything. And they’re right. They can. For a while. But here’s what you need to be reminded of: They will burn out. And when they do, it ain’t pretty.
Paul, author of Thessalonians, was the shepherd of his flock, planting churches everywhere he went and then caring for them, sometimes in person and sometimes from afar. God can love and teach his people directly. Of that I am most confident. But he sent a shepherd for his people as a model of how to love and teach. So Paul, equipped with the gifts from His master, made a strong connection with each flock and loved each flock because they shared a mission. I can’t help but equate Paul’s love for his churches with educators’ love for their schools for that same reason. Yes, the mission is to teach, but more than that the mission is to love kids and equip them with the skills they need to do great things. The central focus of education is that – LOVE. If it’s not, you’re in the wrong business.
Back to Paul and his first letter to the Thessalonians. He writes to express his gratitude to them for doing their work, but he also addresses the areas where he’s concerned. Primarily though, he is just shepherding his flock. Check out what he says to them (The Message):
Get along among yourselves, each of you doing your part. Our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on. Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out. I Thessalonians 5:13-15
Can I please break this down?! It’s too good not to.
“Our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on. Gently encourage the stragglers.” As shepherds, we can see this as a necessity. It doesn’t promise that there won’t be freeloaders and stragglers. In fact, it acknowledges that there will indeed be freeloaders and stragglers. So “gently encourage” them. I’m going to just throw this crazy thought out there and leave it for you to discuss. Here goes: What if the work of the campus was more equally distributed, giving every teacher an opportunity to serve and connect with kids outside of the classroom? What if the under-the-radar teachers were asked to do a little more and the do-everything teachers were asked to do a little less? Is it possible that the under-the-radar stragglers would feel empowered? Appreciated? Noticed? And better yet, would they find that they enjoy doing a bit more because it offers them a chance to shine or connect with kids or share their gifts? And is it possible that the do-everythings would have respect for the freeloaders, even encouraging them along the way?
And then this part. Preach, Paul, preach. “Reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet.” Are you, shepherds, keeping your eyes open for the exhausted? And when you see them, are you reaching out to them and pulling them to their feet? The word “pulling” implies work. There is a great effort in the act of pulling. It doesn’t say, “Tell the exhausted to ‘Get up!’” And it doesn’t say, “Allow the exhausted some space” or “Ignore the exhausted and hope they’ll find their groove again over spring break or Christmas break.” It commands us as members of the same mission to “reach out” and “pull them to their feet.” When we help another “to their feet,” they’re able to continue on, but not until.
He follows with “Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs.” Different people have different buttons and you have to figure out which ones to push based on the individual, and that requires knowing your flock. Knowing them well. This takes time, and we always say that we don’t have enough time because we have due dates and checklists and time lines, but the irony is that we won’t even accomplish those things if we don’t shepherd our flock. My precious student Savannah was brilliant. I guess, technically, is brilliant. Past tense on the student, present on the brilliant. But I digress. Her writing was above college level and her intuitiveness when we read literature was wise beyond her years. She contributed to class discussions with enthusiasm, and I caught her many times helping her peers during collaborative learning. One of the stars, for sure. But she was a chronic skipper, and not the boat kind. She missed one or two days every single week, so her average was tanking. After ten weeks or so (Don’t judge), I carved out time for her. We stepped into the hall and I said this to her: “Savannah, you are one of the smartest young ladies I have ever taught. Your insight and creativity blow me away. I think you’re extraordinary.” Tears immediately welled up in her eyes and she just looked at me. For like, a long time. It got a little awkward, actually. I was going to go on, like I usually so stupidly do, and say, “But (that word! the killer of all dreams) your absences are killing you. Why do you miss so much?” But something (probably the awkward silence and the stare and tears), got me to stop. And then she said this: “You are the first teacher that has ever told me that.” WHAT?! Surely she didn’t sprout this wisdom and maturity over the summer. Surely she’s been this brilliant all along, but is it possible that her prior teachers focused more on the absences than on the gifts? When I walked away from her, I praised the Good Lord above for stopping the “but.” We have those kids in the room who are exhausted, overwhelmed, chronically absent, discouraged, underappreciated. Principals, too, have those teachers. And they need to be attended to as well. I don’t pretend to know the various ways to be attentive to each person, but you do. When you get to know people deeply, you do.
“And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other.” Tell me you don’t want to high-five Paul for these words! Fine, Paul didn’t say this verbatim. He said something more like, “See that none render evil for evil unto any man;“ which is also good. But The Message version is so much more applicable to public education. So much snapping!
“Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out.” Great are the administrators who shepherd their flock. Campuses and districts who have this sort of leadership style thrive. I thank God for the administrators who have believed in me and got to know me along the way. I can assure you, I wouldn’t have made it 19 years without them checking on me, coaching me, knowing me, loving on me. I pray that every teacher feels the comfort of a compassionate shepherd. For it is in receiving compassion and strength that we can dole it out.
If you dig into I Thessalonians 5, you’ll see that this text is preceded by the necessity of caring for your leaders, so hang tight, administrators. We’ll save that for another day.