Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Teacher as a Leader

A person who wants to make something of his life needs to take action. He initiates action when he feels confident about himself. It is important for him to understand what action can produce a desired outcome and to have the confidence that he can actually produce the desired response. This belief that the capability to act in the desired manner exists in him is the result of the relationship he shares with the leader.

When I think of such a relationship, what comes to my mind as the most powerful example is the relationship between a teacher and a student.The impact that a teacher can have on students has always left me amazed. It has led me to believe that a teacher can be a very influential leader in a student's life if the relationship between them is characterized by certain qualities.

Carl Rogers, a famous humanistic psychologist, in his ‘Client-Centered Therapy' used the terms ‘empathy’, 'non-judgmental attitude' and 'unconditional positive regard' to describe the relationship between a therapist and a client. The leadership process between a teacher and a student can be understood in the light of these qualities. The quality of 'empathy' is the building block of the relationship as a student feels understood by his teacher. Pagonis in his article on leadership talks about the importance of the leader being empathetic. When the teacher gives feedback about behavior instead of a judgment, a student drops his defenses and develops insight into his weaknesses.The more non-judgmental the teacher, the better he is able to create an environment of openness and receptivity for maximum learning to take place.Through his empathy and non-judgmental attitude, the teacher helps the student clarify his values and goals in life. Zaleznik also talks about the role of sensitive and intuitive mentors in the development of leadership. Teachers can be these mentors who are not only leaders themselves but who develop their students into leaders too.

Therefore, individuals who find themselves in such a positive relationship with their teachers have great confidence in their ability to make changes, to remain committed to goals, to overcome difficulties, and to exercise control. Those who lack confidence in their own ability to influence things lack the motivation to even make a try.

However, there are many teachers who can have a very negative impact on the student .A teacher who is not empathetic and does not try to look at the student’s perspective, leaves him emotionally untouched. To add to it he may be judgmental and label the student, in which the student might find himself trapped for life. A teacher who treats him worthy of regard based on his performance, may leave him to question his value as a human being.


  1. I like how you emphasized empathy in leadership practices.

    At the schools I previously taught at, the main motto was "Rules without relationships create rebellion". It's not only students that need to feel that someone has a genuine interest in them before they can take a teacher/leader seriously.

    Also, I think you are right on about positive relationships and how it can empower students. I can't remember who told me, but he said that people with successful careers have had mentor(s) guiding them along. Who wouldn't benefit from that attention?

  2. What an interesting post! I think the teacher-student relationship is a great analogy for leadership. I liked how you brought up the role of empathy and positive regard for the student. I think this can definitely be transfered to adults as well. No one wants to work for someone that doesn't believe in them or value their work. And on the flip side, I imagine that most people will be much more motivated to do a better job (like a student at school) if they are in a positive learning atmosphere.

    I also think that the role of communication between a teacher-student relationship is extremely important. The student relies on the teacher to assess their work and give feedback and the teacher relies on the student to apply and transfer what they have learned in class. I think this really goes back to some of the articles that we read for class today that talked about how leadership is made up of leaders and followers.

    You wouldn't be a very effective school if you only had a bunch of teachers.

  3. Teachers really do have a tremendous impact on how a student thinks about him/herself. The leadership from both the teachers and the parents help to form the student's self-image and, like you said, it is important that both exercise empathy in the relationship.
    It's easy for some teachers to forget to be empathetic toward students at times because they are human too, and sometimes may feel like they just aren't getting through to the student. For instance, my little brother was a trouble maker as a child. Teachers' initial impression of him were, "oh he's so cute!" but after a few weeks they were thinking more along the lines of "oh he's such a distraction!" As his older sister, I noticed those teachers who exercised empathy toward him, and my parents noticed too. Even George, my brother, seemed to make an attempt to behave for the teachers that were willing to forgive him. I did not recognize it as a leadership trait back then, but I see now that good leaders can develop good followers in part by smartly extending empathy to gain a sense of referent power. This is not meant to sound manipulative, because acquiring referent power is almost unintentional, but may occur when the student recognizes that the teacher-with the power to give detention or other punishment-is choosing to be empathetic instead.

  4. Your post has reminded me of an experience I had in the first grade. At this point my mother was running a day care service out of our home. Because of this I had always been in a very educational setting with my mom constantly challenging me to learn something new. The summer before first grade I spend months perfecting how to sign my name in cursive.

    In the first week of classes I desperately wanted to show off to my new teacher that I knew how to sign, something the rest of the class would not learn for years. As soon as the teacher, Mrs. Partika, saw my signature she ripped the worksheet out of my hands and tore it into pieces while yelling at me for being different. I did not dare to use cursive again until the formal instruction in the fourth grade and still, even today, occasionally find myself struggling to remember the correct form for certain letters.

    While, at least in hindsight, I can fully appreciate that she may have wanted each student in the class to follow the same writing standards I can't help but think there are much better ways she could have gone about correcting me. Her harsh technique quickly turned me off of something I really loved. It also prevented me from ever attempting to go above and beyond in an educational context for many years. Mrs. Partika may not have realised the damage she was doing but, as someone in her position, she should have been able to recognise the power she held and how, with just a little empathy, she would have been able to stop me from using my cursive while still expressing that it was a valuable skill.

  5. Wow, what an insightful point you make Shilpa! As a former teacher and a current tutor, I see this influence that teachers can have over their students. The one thing I would venture to stray from your point is view is where you say "a teacher who is not emotionally empathetic...leaves him emotionally untouched". I think it may be possible that a non-empathetic teacher could actually influence a child moreso than an empathetic one--the difference is non-empathetic would be a negative impact. Children are constantly watching, gathering information, and trying ever so hard to fit it into their schemas. Empathetic or not, the way a teacher acts to the child is registering. I only wish more teachers were aware of the non-academic influences that they can have over their children. There is such thing as self-fulfilling prophecies and they are made true in too many classrooms across this country.


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