The Role of Service in Education
Dr Nicola Brown | education magazine

There is a statement in my profile that I believe succinctly encapsulates my views on my current role as a school leader. It states that I ‘serve’ as a leader. As a leader in a Lasallian school, service is a central tenet of my practice and ethos. This means that I serve those whom I guide, mentor and support. Leadership is no longer well represented by the dominant, personality-driven model of strength and power. There are leaders of all kinds around us. As a greater diversity of individuals take on leadership roles the expectation of the perceived traits of our role models must shift towards a more virtuous character-driven model. It is still a truism that we should value resilience and determination but there are many leaders who display these attributes in the absence of empathy and humility. The result of such leadership can be catastrophic indeed: history shows us this. Leaders who wish to serve must first recognize that their fortitude and self-confidence must be guided by a strong moral compass to ensure a positive outcome for the wider community. It is not merely their success that is important.

All our staff members teach and guide our students towards an understanding that we should live by our Lasallian values of Faith, Service and Community. There is a consistent message in our practice that to help those around you is to help yourself. This provides the foundation for the moral compass mentioned above. We are all responsible for the culture in our school community.

Our students are encouraged to initiate meaningful projects and to view service as a way of showing gratitude. Gratitude and compassion being shown to others is not possible unless we can show it to ourselves first. Can we forgive ourselves for our perceived ‘failings’? If not, we cannot begin to truly engage in service. Service without our own gratitude and compassion might be better termed ‘charity’. This is linked to a view of the world as those who have and those to have not. This often leads to a power-dynamic that elicits pity but does not elicit change in the individual engaging in service. Service should involve consistent, continued support of and engagement with others. It should not be viewed as a single event or intermittent visits over a period of time. Relationships are formed during service that erode the power dynamic and reveal to us that we are all equal and deserve to be treated with respect. A person’s worth is not measured in money, influence, title or skin color. It is measured in action and conduct.

Young people are still becoming who they will be as adults. Their habits and experiences will influence who they mature into. Their brains are still developing and their environment has an impact on them in far-reaching ways. Studies in cognitive science, epigenetics and psychology are delivering glimpses of the flexibility in the formation of whom we are, and who we think we are, at our most basic level. For those of us in education this provokes exciting questions. What will happen to this young person later in life if I can teach him/her how to recognize signs that they might be feeling overwhelmed by expectations now? What might happen if we do not teach them to recognize the signs? What will happen if we teach them how to cope with the feelings of being overwhelmed? What might happen if we do not teach them how to cope? What if we teach them how to support someone else who is feeling overwhelmed by expectations? What might happen if we do not teach them how to support others?

We believe that teaching our students how to effectively engage in service leads to meaningful changes in their development. Our compassion and gratitude gives them the freedom to flourish and become truly wonderful people who will go on to improve the world. Our school motto is ‘Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve’ and we live by this each day.

About the Author

Dr Nicola Brown joined St Joseph’s Institution International School Malaysia as the founding Middle School Coordinator in 2016. She was then appointed as Assistant Principal before achieving the role of High School Principal in January 2018. Prior to this Nicola served as the founding Head of Sixth Form and the founding Head of Science at Epsom College Malaysia. Her previous international school experience was at Garden International School, Kuala Lumpur. Nicola has an honours degree in Chemistry, a PhD from St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School, London and a Secondary Science PGCE from the Institute of Education, London. Nicola worked in several independent schools in London, including City of London School for Girls, City of London School for Boys and Queen’s College, Harley Street. Prior to her appointment at Garden International School, Nicola was the Head of Chemistry at Channing School for Girls in Hampstead, London. Nicola’s particular interests are character development and the international student experience.

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