Teaching as Leadership
Some might dismiss the idea that ‘all teachers are leaders in the classroom’ as management piffle designed to convince the world that there’s more to teaching than tea breaks and long holidays. Suggesting that a 22-year-old NQT is somehow a ‘leader’ the instant they step in to a classroom is, perhaps understandably, ignored by many critics. But after setting aside my own instinctive mistrust of the phrase, I have come to believe that there is more than a grain of truth to this (admittedly a bit cheesy) rhetoric.
Last week, I blogged about relationships. As a teacher, your aim should be to get 100% of pupils to be ‘with you’- i.e. they are inspired to work hard for you because they trust you. But what specific actions can we take to ensure that every single kid is ‘with you’? What does that actually look like in the classroom?
‘Leader’ Teachers Read the Room
The best teachers know their classes inside out. They can read an expression on a kid’s face and instantly have an idea of what might be going on, and know how to fix it and get the kid back on track. Because great teachers put the time in to building strong relationships, they are in a better position to be able to respond appropriately when kids aren’t really on board with the lesson.
Despite our best efforts, it can sometimes be very difficult to get every single kid in the room to buy in to you and your subject. In some lessons, you’ll feel the ‘buzz’- you’ll know that every kid is working hard and trying to please you. But other times, the lesson might feel a bit flat, or you might feel that a few kids aren’t quite as ‘on board’ as you’d like them to be. Of course, kids will be kids, and there are some things that even the most inspiring teacher will struggle to overcome. But if you think about teaching as ‘leadership’ in the classroom, you are forced to consider how you might be able to influence every kid to be as engaged in the lesson as possible.
As a teacher, you are the person who is managing everyone in the room. You are in charge of what they do, what they spend time practising and thinking about, and, to an extent, how engaged or interested they are, for the duration of each lesson. With this in mind, you need to be thinking constantly about what’s going on in each kid’s head, pre-empting issues and reacting to them in the moment. The best teachers spend the lesson trying to gauge each pupil’s mood and buy-in, continually asking themselves, ‘are they with me?’. Their minds move at a million miles per minute, considering the pupils’ behaviour and quickly coming up with strategies to get them back on track as quickly as possible. For example:
–Robert looks a bit miserable today, so I’ll tell a quick joke to get him back on track: “Are you alright Robert? I know you’re loving the lesson really, so try to show it please”.
–Fiona isn’t making as much effort as usual, so I might have a quiet word with her whilst everyone else is writing. (whispers) “Come on Fiona, I need your hand up for every question, yeah? After this exercise I want you back on top form, okay?”
–Ben looks a bit sleepy, so I’ll ask him a quick question to make sure he stays alert. “Ben- What did I just say about Lady Macbeth? Can you repeat it for me so I know whether I said it clearly or not.”
-Maria looks a little down. I’ll chat with her after the lesson. Maybe I’ll email her Head of Year, too, just in case. “You okay Maria? You’re usually so brilliant in English. I was sad that I didn’t give you lots of merits today like I usually do.”
-Ahmed looks exhausted. I know his mum had a baby recently, so he probably isn’t getting much sleep. I’ll catch up with him at break time. “Ahmed- how’s it going? Baby brother still pooping and screaming every five minutes? Hey – do you fancy joining the homework club? Might make life a bit easier for you- bit of peace and quiet. What do you think?”
If you know your kids well, you are able to judge each situation. Some kids won’t react well to being put on the spot in front of the rest of the class- others will rise to the challenge. Some kids won’t mind a bit of a joke, but some might be upset by it. You have to know them really well and understand what motivates them in order to use the best strategy in every instance. Importantly, none of this is possible without knowing the kids really well. Knowing what motivates every single one of them- getting the best out of every child- that’s the key to great teaching.
Teaching as leadership
As much as I instinctively disliked the expression, it is in fact very useful to think of teaching as a leadership exercise. You are trying to get all your pupils to do something really difficult. You’re trying to effect change, to get them to go further than you ever expected, and to achieve things that they don’t yet know they are capable of achieving. Just like any good leader, you play to each person’s strength, encouraging and deflecting, prompting and reminding as necessary until you have them all with you.
The best teachers understand that kids are human – that they will have good days and bad, and that they need encouragement and guidance from their teacher. If you can read the room accurately, and respond to issues appropriately as they crop up, you are leading them. And if you lead them well, they will succeed more than you- or they- ever thought possible.
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