Educational Theories,  Teaching & Learning

Four Practical Steps for Servant Teaching

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I don’t know about the rest of you, but this semester feels different. It’s either the weather or because it’s a leap year… 

Oh wait! It’s because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Right. The overcast on the skies of our lives. 

As part of my duties as an instructional designer at CTL, I teach a course during the academic year. This semester, I taught a face-to-face section of ENG-1400. Much like you, I began my semester with a bit of apprehension; I had a plan for face-to-face and hyflex. We would meet one day a week and then supplement the other day with online discussion, videos, and other activities. But after a conversation with Rob McDole (CTL director, my boss, and a dynamite meat smoker) and some prayer, I realized that because I was high risk as an asthmatic, it might be best to go fully online. 

So what would this mean? I’ve taught ENG-1400 online before. One of the biggest pros of teaching face-to-face versus online is how much easier it is to build relationships with students.  How could I simulate that face-to-face environment that could foster relationships?  

Here’s some practical steps I decided to take which fit well into characteristics of servant teaching: 

1. Be transparent 

I never understood why, but there seemed to be an unwritten standard that, as an educator, you never admitted to making a mistake to your students. You are THE stoic authority, the sage. I always think about FDR, who would hide his wheelchair from the public for fear that it would show weakness. Praise Jesus, I’m not the president. And neither are you. I had to be willing to own up to my hardships, failures, and weaknesses. There have been several times that due dates have been wrong, links have been broken, assignments should have been changed/deleted. I’ve had to apologize. It just happened in my class session recently! I introduced a new paper that I had modified for this semester, but I had kept the old material published in Canvas. I asked for questions, and a student pointed it out to me. I had to eat crow, admit that I should have deleted that, get rid of it in front of them, and apologize. It’s important that your students see you as a human, a sinner saved by grace, who makes mistakes. Why do we hide that we make them?  

2. Listen 

This is taken straight out of the servant teacher model. Practice “unbiased listening” (Hays, 2008) with your students. Listen for issues, problems, areas of growth, concerns, etc. Make sure your students are heard and feel heard. This semester, I implemented Flipgrid into my course. I was already planning on doing so before switching my course to online, but I made sure to be more present after the switch. I have been actively engaging with students through it, listening to them and reaching out to help when something seems amiss. It’s amazing what nonverbal clues you can glean from a student when they’re discussing with audio and video and not hiding behind text. 

3. Be empathetic 

This goes right along with listening. I made it a priority in my class this semester to be gracious. If a student reached out and was struggling and wanted an extension, we worked something out. Yes, even if that student hadn’t been keeping up with previous work (GASP). I knew that with quarantine and isolation, it could be rough for students to keep up (in servant teaching, this is called foresight). When a student notified me they were going into isolation, I made sure to ask them to let me know if I could be of any help with assignments and content. Basically, I asked myself: is something I’m requiring in my face-to-face creating an obstacle for those in a remote environment like a COVID-19 quarantine? What can I do to remove those obstacles? 

4. Be aware 

Awareness is a trait of servant teaching that is a byproduct of effective listening and empathy (Hays, 2008). I wanted to make sure that my finger was on the pulse of my students’ well-being. This is something you can practice in your courses. If you see a student struggling or grades start to drop, reach out. Ask if they have any needs that you can fulfill. If not, what can you pray for? You can also build awareness through formative assessment during your lectures. I use a tool called Mentimeter that allows me to do live polling/quizzing during class. It’s an incredibly valuable tool. I also use it outside of our sessions as a way for students to drop questions for me to answer during our next session or via email or Canvas announcement if it’s urgent. But you don’t have to use a fancy app. You could give students any outlet to give feedback or ask questions. 

Implementing these concepts into my course this semester helped me be able to serve my students well, even in the middle of all the changes. While these ideas may seem basic, they go a long way in building relationships and helping students succeed. Next week, Haisong will be sharing about his experiences from this semester and how they intersect with servant teaching. In the meantime, if you have questions, please don’t hesitate to comment on this post or send us an email at  


Hays, J. Martin. (2008). Teacher as Servant: Applications of Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership in Higher Education.

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