A different power
October 5 was World Teachers Day, with many events held to pay tribute to members of this noble profession.
But I think we also need to give special recognition to the teachers who agree to serve as school administrators. Often having to continue with their teaching, on top of caring for their families and doing postgraduate studies, faculty administrators are a different breed.
I want to share parts of a letter I am giving to faculty administrators in the University of the Philippines Diliman who will join me today in a formal investiture ceremony. Recruiting them to join my team was a difficult process, with many begging off because of existing commitments. I understood their reasons and said I would wait.
The ones who came on board were not people without commitments; they agreed in part to join my team because they saw it almost as a call to duty, almost like a religious vocation, but I also knew they accepted because they felt challenged, and felt they could make a difference.
I would have wanted to name all of them here, but there are more than 40 of these directors, handling everything from architecture to security.
Here is the letter that I’m sending to my administrators, which, published in the Inquirer, is intended as a tribute as well to all administrators in schools, in the Department of Education, and in the Commission on Higher Education:
I’ve said thanks to you many times, but today I want the thanks to be more grounded, accompanied by some reflections and advice, offered as a peer rather than as a “boss.”
You and I took on our jobs unprepared, in the sense of having to take on many roles for which we were not formally trained. Suddenly, we had to become bookkeepers and accountants, architects and engineers, lawyers, physicians (and I mean pediatricians as well as geriatricians), utilities workers, security guards (and detectives), guidance counselors, even marriage advisers. It sometimes seems we’ve taken on the country’s, if not the world’s, problems.
Perhaps the most daunting of the challenges has been the management responsibilities, and realizing we are managing, not just portfolios and accounts, but people.
It is tempting to go and take an MBA, or read management books. I am recommending something much shorter, which I’m attaching to this letter. This is John O’Donohue’s “For One Who Holds Power.” My first copy came from one of our deans, who gave it to me shortly after I was appointed chancellor. It is a moving piece that should remind us that being a faculty administrator is being a leader, someone in a position of power, one which must be held with great responsibility… and humility.
I did some research and found out John O’Donohue (1956-2008) had been a Catholic priest, known for his writings that are best described as mystical. The piece on power came from a book titled “To Bless the Space Between Us,” a collection of prayers of a different kind. God is rarely invoked, and I could relate to that, having seen the way that word has been trivialized.
The spirituality in O’Donohue’s blessings is powerful because it is so linked to life. There are blessings to greet and to end the day, blessings for our many transitions, from a new home or a new baby, to a death in the family. Other blessings praise the earth, our meals, even meeting a stranger.
In many ways, his piece “for one who holds power” incorporates many of the other blessings, almost as if he knew that faculty administrators would carry heavy burdens, each day a witness to all of life’s transitions.
When I gave his piece to one of our new vice chancellors, he immediately noted one passage: “May your soul find the graciousness to rise above the fester of small mediocrities.” And I am sure you can relate to that, the turbulence rarely coming from students and more often from demanding fellow faculty, and parents, threatening lawsuits and, with one parent, “Isusumbong ko ang propesor ninyo sa Inquirer.”
We have to guard against the temptation to respond with more negativity because it will consume both the aggrieved party and the administrator. Conversely, there is the temptation to give in to every demand, but recognize that we cannot please everyone, and there are some “people—haters gonna hate,” as the expression goes, who will never be satisfied, whatever we do.
In the Philippines, we must guard, too, against the strong tendency to join faculty and staff in their intrigues, “sulsul” in Filipino. We must rise above the fray and follow O’Donohue’s wise counsel to seek “a common ground for healing and truth.”
When I first read O’Donohue, what struck me immediately was a passage about how our work can be “flat and dull,” marked by “gray endurance.” O’Donohue challenges us, in such circumstances, to allow our imagination to evoke horizons. I’ll tell you how I go about the endless papers waiting to be signed: I don’t just skim through, but read them, sometimes adding a note of congratulations, encouragement, sympathy.
Our days (and sometimes, nights) will always be full, and rather than seeing that as tedious, look at it as a day full of new potentials, new discoveries. Undoubtedly, there will be times when we are overcome by fatigue, ready to throw in the towel, wondering if the sacrifice is worth it. Guard against becoming a martyr, and find not just solace but also strength in the time we still have for our families.
There is power in the decisions we have to make, from ordering new mattresses for the dorms, to formulating policies on food and drinks that can be served in our canteens. But even more importantly, the spirit of our decisions will set the pace for the people, and the institution, we work with. Graciousness and patience go a long way, but do not allow yourselves to be bullied either.
Guard against becoming too conscious of public image because then vocation gives way to ambition, and we end up seeking the company of other politicians.
Find time to be more introspective instead, away from the crowds and empty flattery, asking if perhaps we have left problems unsolved, asking if we are part of the problem and finding kindred spirits who can help us to find solutions.
No leader, no matter how powerful, can wing it alone.
Leadership requires us to tap the greatest of power that is found in humility.
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