The Transformational Power of Poetry: School Leaders, like Poets, Are Required to Rise above the Fray of the Everyday to Inspire and Encourage the Human Heart

By Richardson, Lystra M. | Leadership, March-April 2004 | Go to article overview

The Transformational Power of Poetry: School Leaders, like Poets, Are Required to Rise above the Fray of the Everyday to Inspire and Encourage the Human Heart


Richardson, Lystra M., Leadership


Remember your favorite poem from high school or some other critical period in your life? Why is it that decades later it still stands out in your mind? One of the reasons is because some aspect of that poem resonated with you at an emotional level. In the same way that particular poet used words and images that touched your heart, you too as a school leader can touch the hearts of your staff and students.

Since schools are primarily about people and relationships, school leaders, like poets, are required to rise above the fray of the everyday to inspire and encourage the human heart. The use of poetry--or even of some techniques of poetry--in school leadership not only lends itself to effective use of time and enhanced communication, but also serves to fulfill the human need for inspiration. Poetry can be used to attend to the soul and the spirit, to uplift and to inspire.

It is widely known that poetry is a powerful art form that evokes emotion, inspiration and even awe. Likewise, leadership is a powerful and influential position that evokes emotion, inspiration, and at times awe. It is not by chance that memorable leaders are often remembered for what they have said and how it inspired others. People in almost every walk of life desire to be inspired by their leaders. In schools this is no less so, and school leaders can tap into the power of poetry to provide inspiration to those they lead.

The power of poetry

The power that poetry has displayed over time and across cultures speaks to a common need of the human heart and soul: The need to be inspired; the need for meaning. Poetry allows us to experience strong spiritual connections to things around us and to the past. The nature of poetry is such that it can exalt, uplift and inspire whatever and whomever it touches. As such, it has much to teach us.

As one of the oldest art forms, poetry has successfully looped its way through the triumphs and tragedies of human civilization, connecting various strands of humanity from one generation to another, one era to the next and one heart to another. Referring to poetry, Hillyer (1960) makes a simple yet profound statement: "With this key Mankind unlocked his heart."

Can this seemingly archaic art form have relevance in contemporary society? Certainly. We all understand that the tasks of school leadership go beyond the supervising and teaching of academic subjects. School leaders fulfill a much deeper purpose and meet profound needs in staff and students: The need for belonging, for stability and for meaning. To meet these needs, leadership must be inspiring and connect on an emotional level.

Quite often poetry helps us make sense of otherwise meaningless experiences. In other words, it enlightens us and gives us insights into our own existence. It allows us to bring order and meaning to what are otherwise construed as random or mysterious experiences. School leaders can find and utilize the value in poetry for themselves, their students and their staff members.

Beyond the explicit use of poetry, techniques of poetry such as metaphors, refrains and imagery (Richardson, 2003) can be used to take advantage of the power of language to transform communication, create meaning and cultivate a culture of care and attention.

Poems as reference points

Some of the practices listed above--for example, regularly reading poetry aloud over the intercom to start the school day--can serve to resonate with the hearts of students and teachers alike. The poem could serve as a reference point throughout the day.

In one school, the principal has done exactly that. He says the results have been transformational. Students, teachers, cafeteria workers and custodians would stop him in the ball to say they liked the day's poem. Often, they would slip him one of their favorites. The overall impact is that it made the school principal appear more human and the school more humane. …

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