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The Key to School Leadership: Love Those Hardest to Love

Wednesday, September 30, 2015 by Kole Knueppel

The Key to School Leadership: Love Those Hardest to Love

As the school year moves out of launch phase and picks up steam, it’s all too easy for us as teachers and leaders to get caught up in planning, programming, and logistics – the nuts and bolts of school. As we build relationships within the context of the school community, we also naturally begin to form opinions about the people around us. School can be beautiful in terms of relationship formation, but by the same token, school can sometimes feel as if it is the great clash of humanity.

For some of us, the combination of all of these factors can lead us down a path in which we begin to get caught up in the “daily grind,” completing tasks and fulfilling responsibilities as a definition of success within our day.

As Christian leaders within our school communities and classrooms, we must remember the distinctive and defining quality that Christ called us to. The words of Jesus to his disciples resonate:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Vibing off of Jesus’ command (and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), the apostle John wrote these words:

“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:11-12)

Since “no one has ever seen God,” our beautiful and joyful challenge every day is to be his representative, his ambassador to the world by loving those around us in powerful ways. I recently spoke to the ACE team about the concept we often invoked in the early days of a school turnaround in which I was involved – “confuse them with love.” Our goal as teachers and leaders is to be unexpectedly loving, carried out in such a way that recipients of our love or third party observers of our love say, “Wow. That is something else. That is something I haven’t seen before. That is not normal. That is something…other. That is something…supernatural. That is something I need to learn more about.”

When new or prospective parents visit our schools and classrooms, there must be a distinctive and visceral difference between our community and the one down the street. Visitors must be overwhelmed with the sense of love, joy, and happiness found within our walls. Erwin Raphael McManus in his book Unstoppable Force wrote that our Christian communities are called to be defined by an “ethos of apostolic love.” Yes! Yet in the grind of ministry, we can find ourselves sliding into normal, everyday, human thinking. It’s easy to get caught up in our own flesh and humanity and begin to develop linear perspectives regarding our relationships. “He did X and therefore deserves Y…” “She used a harsh tone with me; therefore, I won’t talk with her…” “I’m never meeting with that parent again…”

In humanity’s math,
1+1 = 2

In God’s math,
1+1 = 3
1+1 = 451
1+1 = 6,385

All teachers love the students who are easy to love. The students who are eager to see us everyday, who are excited to be in our class, who smile and wave to us in the hallway. Yet, when we aggressively engage the students who are hard to love, this is when God does amazing things. Jesus didn’t spend a lot of time with the rule followers, in fact he challenged the rule followers for being so consumed with the rules. Jesus passionately pursued the rule breakers, and the world has never been the same.

In our relationships with school parents, it’s our calling to love into difficult situations where love is absent. Where there is anger, hurt, resentment, the only antidote is unexpected and undeserved love. What does this look like in practical terms? The next time you walk into the school gym for a sporting event, don’t sit with your fellow teachers and leaders. Don’t sit with the parents who are happy that they have Joey in your class. Sit with the parents who are isolated. Sit with the parents for whom conflict has been a part of daily life. Use moments in which you have a personal choice to extend words of kindness. The more undeserving, the more powerful.

For some of us, we’ve mastered loving students who are hard to love; we’ve reached out to difficult parents as an extension of our school ministry; and we’ve engaged the broader community in an effort to extend the reach of the school. Though these areas can be challenging at times, through the power of the Spirit we carry this out within the context of our calling as educators. And yet, there is a final love frontier that God calls us to in the life of the school, one that can be the most difficult. We are called to love our colleagues – even the ones we don’t like. If we’re honest, we can often find ourselves sliding towards: “God, I know you called me to love my neighbors…Give me a new set of neighbors, and I’m all in.”

The next time you attend a staff meeting, sit with the people you don’t like.

The next time you go out for beers with a teacher friend, invite the teacher down the hall who has been a personality challenge for you.

Whether you’re a teacher or leader, make it a habit to circulate before and after school, particularly to check in with teachers who are struggling. “What can I help you with? How can I support you?”

To love others in undeserving ways is to model the love that God has shown for us. While at times this can flow naturally for us out of Christian love and happiness, there are times when we struggle in our flesh to carry this out. When these moments hit, remember Christ’s promise in his parting words to his disciples:

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”

The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Helper. Empowering us to do the things we cannot do in our flesh.

He lives in us. He walks with us. Forever. Wow. Praise God!

About the Author

Kole Knueppel

Kole Knueppel

Kole Knueppel serves as the Director of the Center for Transformative Educational Leadership , and on the faculty of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program. 

Prior to joining ACE, Kole was Co-Founder of Schools That Can Milwaukee, a non-profit aimed at dramatically increasing the number of high-quality urban Milwaukee schools through onsite executive leadership coaching, professional development, and cross-sector peer-to-peer sharing of best practices. Kole helped drive the growth of STCM from three founding schools to a network serving over 30 schools and nearly 15,000 students.

From 2008-2010, Kole was the Director for Wisconsin Lutheran’s Center for Urban Teaching, training future teachers and school leaders to be successful in Milwaukee’s urban schools.

Before joining the Center for Urban Teaching in July 2008, Kole served as superintendent from 2004 to 2008 at HOPE Christian Schools, where he led the expansion of HOPE from one campus with 50 students in 2004 to three campuses and more than 500 students in 2008. From 2001 to 2004 Kole led the revitalization of St. Marcus School from a low-performing urban school into a high-performing nationally-recognized model for faith-based urban education. 

Kole has a B.S. in English with a Secondary Education Certificate from Wisconsin Lutheran, a M.S. in Educational Administration from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is completing his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.