How Teaching Servant-Leadership and Character Impacted One School

John Norlin · March 30, 2017

There are few people in this world who will disagree with you when you ask them if we should be teaching our students how to be more kind, patient, committed or humble, but it’s not everyday that you come across a school that builds their master schedule with one teacher whose full-time job is to teach students what solid character looks like. Inglewood Middle School is doing just that and has data to support the fact that it is changing their school’s climate and culture for the better and has seen a decrease in out of school suspensions by 90% since emphasizing the importance of teaching character-development during the school day.

Inglewood Middle School is one of twelve middle schools in the Lake Washington School District. Sally Rusk is a household name in the leadership world in Washington state because of the amazing work she has done at her school over the last decade. She is the leadership teacher at Inglewood and has been teaching leadership for seven years now. She is changing lives every single day because of her passion to teach students about the importance of character and helping them focus on building relationships in their school, homes and community through an intentional leadership curriculum.

When Sally first started teaching a traditional activities-based leadership class she struggled to fill two classes, one each semester, for her leadership class. That all changed when Sally began teaching a character-based leadership curriculum six years ago. When Sally first began teaching students about servant-leadership her classes began to quickly fill. She found that students were hungry to learn more about it. With a supportive administrator, Tim Patterson, they began to give Sally more and more classes of leadership because they saw the difference that it was making on a day to day basis. She now teaches three introductory leadership classes each semester and one advanced leadership class each semester. It is her full-time job! She would tell you that if her leadership class was still about putting on activities and making posters she would not be seeing these numbers. Kids WANT to be the best versions of themselves, and leadership allows them the opportunity to practice doing just that. She also credits an increase in numbers because the program became open to ALL types of kids, not just the stereotypical “perfect” leadership kid.  

How does teaching students about the principles of servant-leadership each and every day impact an entire school you might ask? Here is some data compiled from Inglewood Middle School...

In 2009 Sally began teaching leadership and the school operated under a traditional “Leadership” model which focused primarily on putting on assemblies and events. In 2011 they removed the cap on the number of kids who could take leadership which at the time was 45 students. You can see her numbers quickly took off from there. She now has about 32 kids in each introductory leadership class each semester and 38-40 students in her advanced leadership class each semester.

hello-i-m-nik-743251-unsplash.jpgIf you then take a look at the suspension rate at her school in the graph below, her principal will say it directly correlates to the number of students taking leadership as their numbers dropped drastically as soon as more and more students were learning about the importance of strengthening their character and putting the principles of servant-leadership into action on a daily basis.

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The incredible part of this story is that this drop in suspensions also took place in a time when Inglewood was being reconfigured from a junior high to a middle school and their population grew by 20%. These types of transitions typically lead to increased disciplinary infractions, but Inglewood did not see this typical pattern. Inglewood’s out of school suspension rate has dropped by 90% since Sally began teaching a servant-leadership based class.

Lastly, her principal, Tim Patterson, added “In 2007 I expected to have 2-3 meetings a day with upset parents.  This school year I have had 3 meetings with upset parents. Leadership helps to build trust with our parent community, which dramatically reduces upset parents.  Leadership was the start of the positive spiral.”

It all started with one training, which led one teacher on a mission to make teaching character a priority in her building and has created a school that is focused on teaching the whole child.


John Norlin

John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.