Those of us in education often think of leadership as the domain — if not the burden — of the privileged few. Individuals who sit on comfortable perches, such as heads of school and other organizational leaders, are tasked with the responsibility to guide and inspire their charges and advance the institutional agenda. The rest of us are simply here to teach.
In truth, whether we enjoy a large central office on the main floor or a corner classroom in the school basement, we are all leaders. Every teacher who enters a classroom is given the opportunity and privilege to lead. As teachers, we must select instructional content and determine what it is that our students need to learn. This includes the moral, ethical and social-emotional components of learning in addition to core content. We also determine how the information and skills are to be taught — whole class, cooperatively, flipped, etc. — when it will be learned, as well as numerous other considerations.
But leading in our respective domains is about more than what we teach and how we teach it. It’s about setting a tone and managing the weather.
“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” — Haim G. Ginott, “Teacher and child: A book for parents and teachers” (1975)
Ginott’s message is very powerful. It expresses the opportunity that we have as teachers to create an environment where students and their ideas are respected and valued. It emphasizes the importance of protecting student safety, physical, as well as emotional. It reinforces the fact that we, as classroom leaders, set the tone in every regard.
Even more than our roles as instructional leaders, teachers have an obligation to lead by example. As a father of five school-aged children and a former teacher and principal, I can attest to the amount of learning — positive as well as less desirable — that children do by observation. Teachers must be so very careful to be exemplary role models, to set a high standard and keep to it, even when we have an “off” day or are working through personal challenges. Sometimes it is both tempting and ostensibly acceptable to lash out at a child who is misbehaving or allow ourselves to get pulled into a power struggle with a student, on the pretense that we cannot relinquish control of the class. Remember that education is often as much about what we choose not to do or say as what we actually express.
One other area that it far too often undervalued is our role as leader amongst colleagues and with parents. As a former principal, I cannot begin to estimate the power of peer influence. There is no question that so many agendas were cemented not by me and my administrative team, but by individual teachers.
One particular conversation comes to mind. We had been working for some time on instituting a PBIS program in our school to enhance student behavior. While the staff as a whole was on board, one teacher remained resistant. At a faculty meeting, he used the opportunity to loudly question something that had already been accepted by the staff. Before I could open my mouth another teacher jumped in. “Why are you challenging this? We already agreed to it! Let’s move on.” There was nothing that I could have said that would have been more impactful than her words.
We also have a tremendous opportunity to teach and inspire parents. Weekly newsletters, orientation, conferences and special events give us a soapbox on which to tout the value of communication, active parenting, healthy eating, sleep, etc. You have no idea as to how many parents seek guidance and are willing to learn from the same people who engage their children.
Leadership may not be something that we signed up for when we started taking classes in education. However, it is an unavoidable component of the job and perhaps the most rewarding. Think of yourself as a leader. Recognize the power that you have every time you plan a lesson and greet a child. Appreciate your ability to influence faculty meetings and school agendas, and help parents become the very best parents for their children. Recognize that every day brings new opportunity to engage and inspire, and the tremendous responsibility that comes with such opportunity. Be a leader, today and every day.
“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” — William Arthur Ward