Network aims to bring servant leadership to Catholic schools

| January 30, 2014 | 1 Comment

St. Mark School principal Zach Zeckser remembers this past fall when a student at the St. Paul school suffered a compound leg fracture. When he returned to school in a cast, he was unable to maneuver the stairs to get to all of his classes on the second floor. Normally this would be a problem, but all of his teachers moved their classes to the first floor so he could participate and not fall behind.

Students brought him lunch and ate with him in a classroom because he couldn’t go downstairs to the cafeteria.

This simple good deed is really more than that, according to Zeckser. It is an example of servant leadership, a concept he is passionate about bringing to all Catholic schools.

The idea behind servant leadership is that a true leader is someone whose motivation comes from a desire to serve others, Zeckser said. The idea goes back to the 1970s when Robert Greenleaf, an executive at AT&T, coined the phrase in an essay he wrote.

“The servant-leader is servant first. . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first,” Greenleaf said. “Then, conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

Last year, as a religion teacher and campus minister at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in St. Louis Park, Zeckser started The Servant Leadership Network, a group of Catholic school teachers, staff and administrators participating in an effort to promote servant leadership in Catholic schools. It began as a group of high school employees meeting to learn about the idea and how to use it to better serve students.

When he took the job as principal at St. Mark this past fall, his first job at the elementary level, Zeckser decided that instead of inviting elementary and middle school employees to attend the high school network’s meetings, they should have their own. The first meeting was Jan. 22 at Our Lady of Grace in Edina.

The group is open to all Catholic school employees and will meet three times a year.

During that meeting, Zeckser talked about what servant leadership is and why it is important for Catholic schools.

“The Servant Leadership Network is designed to sustain individuals with a conviction in Christ-centered servant leadership so that they are better equipped to strengthen Catholic schools,” he said. “It’s so much more about how we do what we do, than what we do.”

Katie Williams, a seventh- and eighth-grade religion teacher at St. Ambrose School in Woodbury, attended the meeting because she already tries to bring the concept to her classroom and the 120 students she works with. Her assistant principal asked her to go and explore ways to expand servant leadership to the rest of the school.

“I jumped on board right away,” she said. “Through my teaching, through every lesson plan, every assignment and even discipline and correction, it’s done out of charity and out of love and really to serve them. It makes my relationship with them more loving.”

Williams said she will take some key ideas back to her school. “I love the idea of caring for those entrusted to you,” she said. “I think servant leadership can sound kind of overwhelming if we start thinking that we have to take care of everyone and serve everyone perfectly. But if we remember to serve just those who are entrusted to us and trust that others will do the same, it isn’t.”

The Servant Leadership Network is sponsored by the Murray Institute, a collaboration between the University of St. Thomas and the archdiocese. It supports the educational ministries of the archdiocese by sponsoring many opportunities for training and education for teachers and religious educators. For the Servant Leadership Network, the institute provides funding for substitutes so teachers are able to attend meetings.

“My long-term goal is that the Catholic schools in this country would be known as the place you go if you want your kids to be well cared for,” Zeckser said. “It is often times something that people cannot so easily name but something that they can feel.”

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Category: Catholic Schools Week