A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

There she was, doing the job she had come to hate most in the world, de-feathering and “drawing” (also known as “gutting”) a chicken. The process involves plunging the chicken, head first, into a pot of scalding hot (but not boiling) water for a few seconds to soften up the feathers and kill any lice or fleas.

Then, holding the chicken by its feet, she would pull out its feathers one by one. The smaller “pinfeathers” that were impossible to pick out by hand were either removed with small pliers or singed with a match. She worked without gloves, which meant that her hands got cut up and sore from the scratch of the quills.

It’s the smell though, that is the most memorable part of the experience. It is a smell you never forget. She would do it in the scullery, the small room just off the kitchen, reserved for such unpleasant tasks.

She was the scullery maid, cook, and housekeeper, all rolled into one. There was a time when the family had six female servants working in the house, but they had downsized to just one: my mother.

The path that led to the scullery

She had completed her “O-levels”, which meant she had the equivalent of a grade 10 education. Her only real job experience had been as teenager, working as a maid in a hotel owned by an aunt and uncle in Blackpool. After coming to Canada, she had a few odd jobs here and there, but mostly focussed on being a wife and a mother.

At the age of 40 she became a single mother, with no job experience, a grade 10 education and no family of her own in Canada. She did the only thing she felt she could do: she went home to the U.K. and looked for a job — any job — that would help her get back on her feet.

She took the job of a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family living just outside Tunbridge Wells, in Kent, the year after our family had broken up. She was a Welsh immigrant with family in Kent and, flew with me in tow, “across the pond” from Canada to the U.K. where she could be close to her family. She would spend a year or so putting her life back together. She spent the year working as a servant.

Life in the servants’ quarters

The house and grounds were impressive, with both flower and vegetable gardens, livestock and barns and other buildings across the property that housed equipment and animals.

There was one other servant on staff, the gardener. He lived with his wife in a separate house on the property.

The staircase leading up to the dormitory looked much like this.

We lived at the main house, in the servants’ quarters. There was a separate entrance that led into a large working kitchen. There was a set of narrow, spiraling stairs leading to a dormitory-style bedroom upstairs, lined with six single beds, one for each of the staff.

The space was set up for single girls who would have followed a strict hierarchy, starting with the scullery maid, leading up to the main housekeeper. There was no space or place for small children in the dormitory.

But given that my mother was the only female staff at the time, the family allowed me to have one of the other beds. I had strict rules that I was never, ever to go into the main section of the house.

With the exception of one time, when the lady of the house invited me to see the main rooms and the her husband showed me his study (under the watchful eye of his wife, of course), I never saw the rest of the house.

Our life was confined to the female servants’ quarters. There was an area of the house reserved for a butler, as well. But by that point, there was no butler and no need for that section of the house to be open. That, too, was closed off to us.

I thought the servants’ quarters were O.K. though, especially since there was a small sitting room off the kitchen that had a T.V. There was no cable for us, of course, but that didn’t matter. Every night after supper had been served, the dishes were washed and the kitchen was spotless, my Mum and I would snuggle up on the little settee and watch a program on BBC before bed. My favorite was “Dr. Who”, but we also liked shows like “Are You Being Served?” and other British comedies of the era.

Every night, we watched one show and then headed up stairs to the dormitory. Mum’s day began at 5:00 a.m. each day with preparations for the day, cleaning and getting ready for breakfast to be served at 6:30 a.m. Looking back, I can not imagine how tired she must have been on a daily basis. But I don’t remember that about her.

I remembered that she worked. And worked. And worked.

Attending a private British school

At the time, I had no knowledge of where my other three siblings were. I knew they were in Canada, but didn’t exactly know where. My life, as a six year-old Canadian girl living in England, was a mix of excitement and culture shock.

While my mother worked in the house, I was sent off to school. I went to a local school that most Canadians and Americans would call a “private school”, though in England, it would have been known as an “independent school”. It was not a particularly high-ranking school, as I remember, but it was the best Mum could afford. She was adamant that I not attend a state school. She was emphatic that the level of education in the private schools was better.

The uniform consisted of a white button shirt, that had to be perfectly starched and pressed, a grey tunic dress and a tie. I had no idea what to do with a tie, so my mother would carefully tie it for me every morning for the first few weeks. I remember those moments as being intermingled with commentary such as, “I know you don’t like this uniform, but it’s a privilege, young lady. A good part of my hard-earned money goes to paying for this school. You’d best quit your grumbling!”

If anything was drilled into my head in that year, it was that education was tantamount. It required sacrifice on her part. My part of the deal was to approach school as if it were a sacred privilege, and honour the experience through a rigorous rituals of daily disciplined homework and respect for education.

Pluck and guts

The phrase “to have pluck” or “to have guts” means to be courageous or to be brave. I suspect my Mum didn’t feel particularly courageous as she was holding the chicken by its feet, plucking its feathers, as the first step in its preparation.

After the plucking comes the drawing of the fowl, which means to eviscerate or disembowel it, removing its guts and if appropriate, de-bone it. That sounds disgusting, but it was nothing compared to the process of de-feathering it.

She came to hate those days when she’d be brought a freshly killed chicken from the barn and had to prepare it for supper that evening. She hated it even more when guests were invited and there may have been up to four chickens to pluck and gut, before starting to cook the actual meal.

I remember one such Saturday clearly. She was muttering under her breath about in the scullery when I came downstairs first thing in the morning. I went to the scullery and asked, “Are you OK?”

She looked up at me, with tears in her eyes and said, “Whatever you do, child, don’t be like me. Don’t be a servant. Get an education and have a better life. Whatever you do, don’t pluck chickens to earn a few cents.”

She turned back to her fowl and kept working. Both literally and figuratively, she had pluck.

Servant leadership: Easy to talk about

In educational leadership the term “servant leadership” is used often in certain circles. Scholars such as Robert Greenleaf talk extensively about it.

This leadership model resonates deeply with me, but I also wrestle with it. It makes sense to me on a soul-level that we are here to serve… to serve our students, our communities and each other.

But there is a niggly. My mind goes back to that day in the scullery… To my mother’s tearful plea that I get an education and “not be a servant”. To her, being a servant was the worst and lowest possible job that anyone could have that was still considered an honest living. It was the only job she could get at the time, given her education, lack of experience, lack of a personal network and skills.

My mind wanders to the thousands of immigrants in Canada, the U.S. and other countries today who work as taxi drivers, janitors and factory workers, because it is the best job they can get to feed their families.

A life of servitude

It isn’t unlikely that immigrant parents in “serving” jobs are saying the same things to their children today that my mother said to me almost forty years ago. They want a better life for their children… one that offers them freedom from servitude, oppression, living in poverty and loneliness.

The difference, I think between being the kind of servant leader that Greenfield and others talk about in their work and the kind of servant that my mother actually was, is choice… and freedom. The “desire to serve” is easy to talk about when the reality does not require plucking and gutting freshly killed animals. A life of servitude means that you do not the option of declining or refusing to do tasks you find distasteful or reprehensible. You don’t do the tasks because it is the “right”, or “just”, or moral thing to do. You do them because if you didn’t, your employer would impose harsh consequences that could cost you your livelihood.

That time in our lives was about  survival. It was not until years later (decades, actually) that I realized that there is a certain shame that comes with survival. There is a desperation that simmers underneath… a gagging need to hope for something better, and an unspoken fear that the dark days will never end.

This is an era of my life that I have disclosed to few people, until the past few years. The truth is, I was ashamed of it. My mother was ashamed to be a live-in maid. She was ashamed to have us live in servants’ quarters and not have a proper home of our own. We eventually came back to Canada and life got better. But the scars of shame remained for many years.

The time we spent living in Kent was deeply formative for me in terms of my values and life direction. Every single day I was reminded of the value of education and how important it was and that it was worth almost any sacrifice.

I am cautious today, when I talk about servant leadership, cognizant that models are sometimes just that — models we work from to build something of our own. In North America particularly, I think we are almost obsessed by the idea that the power of positive thinking can help us overcome anything. I don’t entirely disagree.

The reality is that having the choice to live one way or another, work and act in a certain way, is driven partly by our own psyche and partly by our circumstances. When the circumstances get better, so the psyche can thrive, too. But before we can thrive, we must survive.

The irony, for me, is that despite — or perhaps because of — her fierce reluctance, my mother ended up being a living example of a servant leader, but not because of a job title. She never really had “a desire to serve”, at least not professionally. Deep down, she was a most reluctant servant, keeping up the formalities and appearance of being a good servant, which is, of course part of the job.

What about you? Whom do you serve? Who serves you? If you work in literacy or teach English to new immigrants, is their life more about survival on a day-to-day basis? Do they work in serving professions, harbouring a deep hope that it will lead to a better life for their children? How do circumstances shape us — and our students?

I continue to think deeply about what it means to be a servant leader. For me, my life as a scholar started in the scullery.

Resources on servant leadership in education

Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership

Servant leadership – Training ABC

Servant Leadership: The Leadership Theory of Robert K. Greenleaf  by Carol Smith

Exercising Servant Leadership by Olivier Serrat

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


5 Responses to A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

  1. Thank you for this excellent example, Sarah. Although my early youth reflects some similarity to your own, the lack of a term “servant” for my parent’s jobs prevented me from the same perspective. Now, I am an advocate for servant leadership principles who struggled to understand the objections to the term, “servant”. Thank you for clarifying.

    On a side note: I will share a reference to this post in my Spring 2012 edition of the Servant Leadership Observer. Keep up the great work!

  2. Courtney H says:

    Yes, thanks for sharing, Sarah! I have some concerns about “servant leadership.” I still have more to learn about it, but it seems to me a little paternalistic. If you are choosing to serve, are you not coming from a place of priviledge? Who would choose servantship after a lifetime or generations of servitude? I guess it boils down to your definiation of leadership more than anything….thanks for the food for thought!

    • Thanks for the comment, Courtney. It really resonated with me. The notion of “servant leadership” in educational leadership circles is hugely popular. Yet, from what I have studied (and like you, I still have more to learn), it seems to offer a romanticized or idealized version of “serving” and does not adequately address the oppression or shame associated by those who do not choose servitude, but rather have it chosen for them due to circumstances… I’m glad I am not the only one with questions. Thank you…!

  3. Alia says:

    Sarah, once again, thank you for sharing this part of your life.

    When I think about the way I talk about serving and service, it is clear that I use these words in a very broad sense. For example, I work in an area where I support clients and their needs. Therefore, I am in a service organization. Even in that sense, I often struggle with being at the whim of a client versus setting my own agenda based on what I think they need. This example is far removed from your own. However, I think that some of the same themes are present in both.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks for the comment, Alia. You are right when you say that “service” has a multitude of meanings. In a commercialized world we talk about “goods and services” meaning “tangibles and intangibles”. Thanks for bringing in a modern-day, corporate perspective.

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