Students look to teachers for leadership. The teacher is the person in charge—the course’s designated leader. That’s hardly revelatory, but how does leadership inform our practice? Do we think reflectively and critically about our roles as leaders? With a new academic year about to begin, perhaps it’s a good time to revisit the leadership we’re providing and ask whether leadership leads to learning.
Power and leadership are inextricably linked. Teachers have the power to make students do things. It’s not absolute power, because most of us are well-acquainted with those students who don’t deliver on our requirements. They don’t come to class, they miss deadlines, they do poor-quality work, and they don’t seem to care about learning anything. If grades and failure don’t motivate them, we have few other options. Teachers are powerless when it comes to forcing learning on students.
Most students do take our leadership and the power that comes with it seriously. They are forever asking what we want, ostensibly so they can deliver it. Their feeling that they need to please us is a good reminder that the distribution of power in the teacher-student relationship is not equal. Students may object to a grade or to what they perceive as unfair treatment. But even if evidence is on their side, they don’t get to change things. We decide, and they pretty much have to live with it.
Teachers use power legitimately when it advances learning. Assignments prescribe encounters with the content from which students can learn. Teachers legitimately require completion of these assignments. But if teachers require actions that have nothing to do with learning, they use their power illegitimately and compromise the effectiveness of their leadership.
At extremes, the appropriate and inappropriate uses of power are easy to see. I have a copy of a syllabus that prohibits the use of “pink” highlighters while offering no rationale for the prohibition. But many of the ways teachers exert power are in a gray zone, not black or white. Often examples involve seemingly trivial items (“staple papers at a 45-degree angle,” “ball caps off during class,” “no gum chewing”) that probably don’t matter—unless there’s some cumulative effect on students’ willingness to follow a leader who uses power for reasons unrelated to learning.
Without followers, leadership is a moot point, and that’s true in courses. So what kind of leadership effectively leads to learning? I’d vote for leadership by example. The teacher is there showing (not saying) how effective learners master the material—asking questions, looking for evidence, challenging assumptions, admitting errors, showing excitement for learning, and never, ever being satisfied with how much they know. That’s content leadership; it shows students the way to learning. There’s also classroom management leadership: setting reasonable rules with solid justifications; impartially applying the rules; setting standards that apply to everyone, including the teacher. There are deadlines for the students and for the teacher, and missing them requires more than apologies. Good leaders listen with respect. Teachers hear out students even when their opinions are uninformed, their beliefs are at odds with the evidence, and their questions are not relevant. Trying to fix all that is what teaching is about, and it begins with listening.
Inspiring leadership also leads students to learning. Teachers inspire when they’re with students in the struggle to learn, searching for the example that makes the idea clear, trying different explanations, showing how again and again, noting even small signs of progress, and transforming failure into powerful learning opportunities. Teachers inspire when they believe in students—sometimes more than students believe in themselves. Leadership celebrates student accomplishments both individual and collective.
People follow good leaders to places they may not ordinarily want to go. Teachers take students to new ideas and information that may be at odds with what the students thought was true. Teachers put students in situations that demand skills they are just learning to execute. Learning can be a frightening experience, but it’s less so if you’re with a leader who’s got high expectations but also has your trust.
When teachers stand tall, reach down and stretch out, they connect students to learning. That’s leadership, and it flips the switch of understanding.
This article first appeared in The Teaching Professor on August 12, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.