The Teacher as a Leader: Which Qualities Make a Teacher a Leader in the Classroom?
Anna Vilhanova with Beate Walter, Slovakia
Anna Vilhanova (Slovakia) had been an Erasmus exchange student at Erfurt University from April 2006 to February 2007 taking some English and German as well as methodology classes. She has finished her teaching degree and intends to work as a primary school teacher back at home.
Beate Walter has a degree in English and Russian ( equivalent of an MA) and a teaching qualification for both languages similar to PGCE. from Leipzig University, Germany. She has been working as a teacher for English for more than seven years at Erfurt University, Germany, offering different skills-based (mainly Academic Writing) and exam-preparation classes on different levels (intermediate to advanced) as well as CLIL (language and content) classes such as learning styles and EAP classes for students of Media Studies and History .
Background by Beate Walter
Reflections by Anna Vilhanowa
Inspired by the Creative leadership course with Adrian Underhill at Pilgrims in July 2006, I have introduced issues of leadership to my classes and encouraged the students, most of whom are enrolled on teacher training courses, to look at the ethics of teaching. Using extracts from the leadership competence framework that Adrian provided, combined with other relevant material from literature (e.g. extracts from Matthew Dickerson (2003) "Following Gandalf"). I challenged the students to reflect on their future role as leaders in the classroom. This is one example that I have shared with Adrian who suggested offering it to HLT for publication. Anna has agreed and asked me to take all necessary steps.
When I started to study English and German language and literature to become a teacher, one of my fellow students told me: "I am looking forward to teaching children. I love and enjoy this job very much. However, I do not feel like a leader. I am not that kind of person. I’d rather follow and be led by others than lead those who I have in my care."
However, being a teacher is inevitably connected with leading others. We simply cannot separate these two positions. For this reason I would like to look closer at some essential qualities that a teacher as a leader in his or her profession should possess. I would like to analyse them from my own point of view as a student who plans to become a teacher of foreign languages.
First of all, I think this specific kind of leadership in the classroom requires some innate qualities of teachers that constantly need to be developed and enhanced. For example, it is very important for students to perceive their teacher as a positive personality carrying an inborn charisma of leadership and encouragement. I have personally always enjoyed those teachers most who radiated encouragement, inner balance, contentment, and a joyful attitude to life. These teachers usually win their students’ hearts easily. This way no pressure or force (internal or external) is needed, because the students are naturally attracted by teachers’ behaviour and attitude to life. Moreover, these teachers show their personal and moral qualities more by deeds than by explaining and talking about them theoretically. A teacher’s genuine personality or authenticity can serve as a good example for his or her students. As a result, they will be attracted to emulate it spontaneously.
At this point it must be mentioned that a good teacher-leader should build students’ trust in him or her, so that they can feel safe and secure with him or her. Students need to be convinced that they can rely on him or her, and that they can come to their teacher with their problems.
Looking closer at the teachers’ personality, their psychological competence as part of their personal qualities plays a crucial role in dealing with students, their parents, or colleagues at school. Every teacher should be a good psychologist, able to react appropriately to different situations that may require his or her empathy. In order not to hurt anyone’s feelings, or discriminate one student in favour of another, a teacher has to consider various situational aspects before his or her move or decision is made. At the same time, teachers usually have to give reasons for the measures they have taken. This happens, for instance, when they grade students’ performance, when they comment on their students’ knowledge level reached, or when they need to solve some problems or misunderstandings in the class. There are many different situations varying all the time, which require new solutions and measures or ‘action logic’. This is also why the profession of a teacher as a leader is so demanding and difficult.
Furthermore, leaders just like teachers always work and come into contact with different people. When problems, misunderstandings, or complications in communication arise, they as leaders in the classroom are in charge of solving them. They are constantly exposed to situations where they have to use their ability to deal with students or parents and their difficulties. Here it is necessary to talk openly and to show the willingness to jointly look for a solution. At the same time, the psyche of teachers needs to be strong enough in order to overcome and manage stressful situations like these. This is the main reason why teacher-leaders should possess social and communication skills. Even if any critical comment or remark from the side of students, parents or from the school board come up (justified or unjustified) , teachers should be aware of their own shortcomings. Openness to self-criticism is usually highly appreciated among students, because it is much more difficult to admit one’s own fault than to deny and to claim that everything has absolutely been done in a right way.
As far as communicating and dealing with students are concerned, teachers have to remain objective and unbiased. Although it is hard to put human affections and preferences aside, the students need to feel that they all have been treated in a fair and just way. Teachers must be aware of the fact that the power that they hold in their hands is a very sensitive and fragile thing. It must be used very sensibly in order not to discourage, hurt, or even discriminate anyone.
Another important characteristic of teachers in the position of leaders, which needs to be considered, is their ability to form their own opinions and attitudes or values which they should be convinced of. Their importance lies in the fact that it is usually at school where one of our first opinions are shaped. Pupils and students often observe the teachers’ way of thinking. If they are attracted by and agree with it, they usually try to follow it eventually. With respect to this point, the significance of a specific teacher’s vision cannot be neglected. So, every teacher has to keep in mind what he or she wants to achieve with his or her students. At the beginning of each school year he or she has to set specific goals which should be fulfilled not only in the course of that year, but also at the end of each lesson.
The ability to take responsibility for others also belongs to the important characteristics of each teacher-leader. While teaching, teachers are responsible for their students who have been entrusted to them by their parents and society as a whole. The teachers are their guides who teach them how to learn and how to live. They can point out ways that are there for them to take. As a result of the influence of their own teacher personality, they should also help their students to grow to maturity. However, this does not mean that the teacher should decide for his or her students. Rather, the students have to decide on their own way. They should learn to take on responsibility for themselves as long as they are with their teacher.
The last but not the least significant feature of teachers who lead their students, which I would like to point out, is creating a partnership between teachers and their students. This can only happen when both sides base their relationship on freedom and equality, which arise out of equal rights and duties. Neither the teacher, nor the students ought to feel inferior or superior towards each other if their partnership is intended to last. On the one hand, having such a teacher-partner brings a lot of positive results for the students – for example, they do not need to fear their teacher. On the contrary, they can see their partner and friend in him or her. They also know that they can freely express their own opinions and thoughts without having to fear that these could be rejected or ridiculed (if the teacher really exercises his or her power from the position of the superior one). On the other hand, creating such a relationship with students might be dangerous for teachers themselves, especially for those who have just started their teaching profession. Students like to use this situation in order to find out how far they can go. This is also why such a partnership requires a basic condition: teachers have to be able to maintain their own natural authority and respect of their students. Teachers who prefer to be friends and partners of their students choose a more difficult path. However, it is still much more appreciated by learners and sometimes even more enjoyed by teachers themselves.
In conclusion, teachers should be aware of the importance of their role as leaders in their teaching position. They cannot separate these two tasks from each other. They should always keep in mind that the development and enhancement of their personal, psychological, social and moral qualities form the basis of a successful teaching leadership.
Please check the Leadership course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Building Positive Group Dynamics course at Pilgrims website.