I sometimes come to column topics in roundabout ways. The way to this one started with a recent study of power in student-formed, leaderless, peer groups (Tarr & van Esch, 2022). The researchers were interested in exploring the power that group members perceived in one another. They discovered a mediating relationship between power and humility. If group members with power were perceived as humble by the other group members, they performed better as leaders, and their peers gave them even greater power.
That’s a short description of a complex exploration, but it got me guessing that humility likely does the same thing for teachers. Teachers and other leaders have power conferred by their positions. The designated leaders in courses, teachers also derive power from their knowledge: “expert” power. Finally, leaders of all sorts may gain “referent” power from their social skills, integrity, authenticity, values, and other characteristics that make them attractive to others. Power is not inherent but conferred by others.
The study on power led me to work on humility (Owens & Hekman, 2012) that posits that it’s expressed by (1) accurate self-knowledge (understanding one’s strengths and weaknesses); (2) appreciation of what others can contribute (their strengths); and (3) teachability (openness to learning and getting feedback from others). The researchers induced characteristics from in-depth interviews with 55 leaders from a variety of fields. The Latin word humus means “earth” and humi translates as “on the ground,” which makes humble leadership “leading from the ground,” “bottom-up leadership” (p. 787).
Imagine assembling a group of faculty from different fields and institutions and generating a set of characteristics that described them. How many of us would list humility? I wouldn’t. To be fair, a huge power differential exists between faculty and students. The position grants faculty the power to control what and how students learn and then to certify that learning has occurred. Expert power grows out of knowing a lot about topics students know little or nothing about. The power teachers possess makes honest expressions of humility challenging, and faking humility has consequences.
When teachers say things like “We’re going to be using quizzes in this course to keep us up on the reading” or “We’ll be using Dropbox to submit our papers,” who’s “we”? The teacher is not taking quizzes, not writing papers, and not submitting course work to Dropbox. Pretending that students have a say when they don’t and that power is shared when it isn’t looks more like arrogance than humility.
Despite the difficulties, teachers can convey humility to students. Teachers, like students, have strengths and weaknesses. Actions taken in courses reveal both, but it’s a teacher’s weaknesses that students identify with most easily. When teachers ignore or deny personal deficiencies, referent power erodes. I remember no content from a religion course I took at the Christian college I attended, but I have never forgotten that the professor told us with a straight face that he hadn’t sinned in 20 years.
Students can teach us—probably not course content, but they have areas of expertise just as unknown to us as ours are to them. They can also make valuable contributions to the life of the course, which we ought to acknowledge and accept with gratitude.
If perceptions of humility increase the power students grant teachers, is that power teachers can harness to promote learning? Teachers don’t need more power per se; plenty comes with the position and the expertise it requires, but that’s not power students give to teachers. Does the power conferred by students when they perceive humility motivate them to take the course more seriously, to work harder, and to care more about the content? If students perceive arrogance in teachers, does it have the opposite effect?
Humility’s strong religious connections and occasional associations with weakness probably explain why nobody has studied or extensively explored it as a feature of teaching, but it has been analyzed elsewhere. Brooks’s (2016) study of character ends with a humility code. He asserts, “Humility is an awareness that your individual talents alone are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you” (p. 263). Doyle (2019) calls humility “the final frontier” because it’s hard to learn. He writes, “Humility does not mean self-abnegation, lassitude, detachment . . . with humility, we realize that we are all broken and small and brief, that none among us is ultimately more valuable or rich or famous or beautiful than another” (p. 59). In the final analysis, what we and our students share erases all that separates us.
Brooks, D. (2016). The road to character. Random House.
Doyle, B. (2019). One long river of song. Back Bay Books.
Owens, B. P., & Hekman, D. R. (2012). Modeling how to grow: An inductive examination of humble leader behaviors, contingencies and outcomes. Academy of Management Journal, 55(4), 787–818. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2010.0441
Tarr, E. K., & van Esch, C. (2022). Power to the people: The impact of student personal power on performance in teams. Journal of Management Education, 46(1), 43–69. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562920979119