The forces of globalisation bring new opportunities but also
new challenges. Societies that were in the past relatively
self-contained now face an invasion of products, services,
ideas and values from beyond their borders. This process brings
the erosion of some cultural and national traditions. In such
circumstances, societal leaders in various sectors must be
responsive to new agendas, and equipped for informed choices
and courageous innovations.
In the domain of higher education, one way to confront the
challenges is to blur disciplinary boundaries through collaboration.
The NUS core curriculum initiated in 1999 with a focus on
writing, history, biology, human relations and scientific
thinking is one bold innovation along this line (Shih, 1998).
The core curriculum attempts to create a common discourse
about social changes.
In a related vein, this paper explores the nature of leadership
from the perspectives of teachers in higher education. It
asks how leaders can be cultivated in the fast-paced era.
Who are the leaders and who are the cultivators?
I am inclined to regard our students as our leaders. As
their teachers, we shall fade out sooner or later, while they
will be the new blood that will make a difference to the future
of our society and world. Therefore, cultivating leadership
should be our serious commitment: instead of merely consuming
our energy through the chores of teaching and committee meetings,
we must invest in humanity by nurturing the younger generations
Curriculum innovation is certainly a prominent component
in the cultivation of leadership. Yet, across disciplines,
what matters is not so much the content of subjects as our
modelling of essential leadership qualities. These qualities,
I would argue, must be cultivated through our journeys with
Admittedly, this is not a brand-new, sparkling idea. When
preparing this article I read a quotation from John Schlatter,
published in 1993 (pp. 145–147). “I am a teacher...”,
he began. But:
Despite the maps, charts, formulas, verbs, stories
and books, I have really had nothing to teach, for my students
really have only themselves to learn… I am a paradox.
I speak the loudest when I listen the most. My greatest
gifts are in what I am willing to appreciatively receive
from my students…
Schlatter then proceeded (pp. 146–147):
A doctor is allowed to usher life into the world in
one magic moment. I am allowed to see that life is reborn
each day with new questions, ideas and friendships…
I am a warrior, daily doing battle against peer pressure,
negativity, fear, conformity, prejudice, ignorance and apathy.
But I have great allies: Intelligence, Curiosity, Parental
Support, Individuality, Creativity, Faith, Love and Laughter
all rush to my banner with indomitable support.
That perspective really gives me pause for thought and inspiration
in the whirl of this fast-changing and obsolescence-threatening
How does the educational environment relate to the
cultivation of leaders?
We teachers in higher education are generally recruited
on the credibility of our expertise in particular disciplines.
As we become more experienced, most of us become aware that
there is more to teaching and learning than the mere transmission
of knowledge. Teaching, in its most actualising form, is the
active interflow between teacher and students where teaching
and learning merge in harmony. Thus, we should focus our commitment
to build learning communities that are driven primarily by
positive teacher-student relationships.
Teaching by nature involves other modes of relationships
that are often assumed rather than addressed. Dimensions of
teacher-student, student-student, and teacher-teacher relationships
can be problematic as well as resourceful, stimulating and
inspiring. Much depends on our sensitivity in handling and
promoting them. Our students have independent access to various
channels of information and peer support in learning offers
a valuable resource yet to be harnessed.
Collegial relationships are among the most powerful yet
neglected aspects of learning communities. Of course, we have
to work together to build our curriculum with joint decisions.
However, when the focus is on the allocation of teaching responsibilities
and administration of course-implementation, the true potential
of collegial teamwork in teaching development tends
to be neglected. If we expect our students to strive for excellence
in learning to become dynamic leaders of tomorrow, it is vital
for us teachers to inspire each other to strive for excellence
in teaching and so build up our learning communities beyond
the classrooms. By learning from our failures and successes,
we will acquire deeper understanding of their meanings.
Concerning teaching development, some points for teachers
to consider include the following:
- Apart from meeting external assessments of our research
and teaching, what sorts of criteria should we develop to
assess our own progress?
- How do we build communities of reflective practitioners
who are willing to go beyond self- justifying pedagogical
actions so as to improve teaching effectiveness with a continual
search for higher goals?
- Through our teamwork, how do we teachers contribute to
the ethos of our learning environments for the nurturing
of our future leaders?
These questions have no ready-made answers, but they do
need to be addressed by the higher education community as
Can teachers in higher education model leadership
qualities for our students?
As teachers in higher education, what kinds of leadership
qualities do we wish to instil in our students? What is the
effect of our own modelling as teacher leaders? The work of
Parker Palmer is another source of inspiration to me. He succinctly
defines one form of leadership (1998, p. 156) as follows:
When we talk about leadership, we have a tendency
to contrast communities, which are supposed to be leaderless,
with institutions, which need leaders. But it is possible
to argue the opposite. Institutions can survive for a while
without a leader simply by following bureaucratic rules.
But community is a dynamic state of affairs that demands
leadership at every turn… This kind of leadership
can be defined with some precision: it involves offering
people excuses and permissions to do things that they want
to do but cannot initiate themselves.
In higher education, the essential quality of such community
leadership lies in our courage to initiate desirable changes
inspired by an understanding of teachers’ deep sense
of values. Grounded in such understanding, our modelling effect
can be powerful in the nurturing of leaders for learning communities.
During a recent visit to mainland China for a research project
entitled ‘Teacher Educators in Action Learning’,
I experienced a stimulating process of community-building
amongst teacher educators in schools of foreign languages
in Zhejiang Province. Key individuals in the project were
able to lead by example and to build on what people were already
doing. Working with these leaders showed me the power of synergies
in action research and the building of learning communities.
I was greatly refreshed by the energy and optimism of this
process. It is not a unique experience, and I am sure that
readers of this article have their own examples and experiences
of a similar nature.
The challenge and the solution go together as two sides
of the same coin. Forward-looking perspectives require teaching
professionals in higher education to be humble despite their
maturity and status. By opening up to learning, particularly
from the young, we will find new synergies and exciting ways
not only to cope, but also to thrive in the cross-currents
of global interflow and dynamic changes. As we are learning
to develop critical leadership qualities in being self-challenging,
giving and enduring, we are committing to model what we wish
to cultivate amongst our students—the leaders of tomorrow!
Palmer, Parker J. (1998). The Courage to Teach: Exploring
the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco:
Schlatter, John W. (1993). ‘I am a Teacher’.
In Canfield, Jack & Hansen, Mark Victor (Eds.). Chicken
Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open The Heart and Rekindle
The Spirit. Florida: Health Communications, 145–147.
Shih, Choon Fong. (July 1998). ‘The NUS Core Curriculum:
A Community of Scholars’. CDTLink, 2(2): 1.
Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National
University of Singapore.