Sunday, 11 May 2014

Five lessons for leaders from the classroom

I am a primary (elementary) teacher by trade and that I am passionate about education is no secret to anyone who knows me (or in some cases people who have just met me!) I am also passionate about leadership so here are five classroom teaching truths that I believe relate to leadership outside of the classroom.

1. People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care (John C. Maxwell
Students don't really get impressed by their teachers incredible intellects or indepth understanding of a given topic until they know that their teacher cares about them and their learning. Teachers who work on connecting (not being a best friend but connecting) and getting to know their students a little usually find that teaching the subject content is a whole lot easier.
As a leader you can impress us with all your qualifications or even better all the statistics that show what a brilliant job you did in your last role but really if you want us to buy what you are selling then you need to show you care about the people that you work with. This means finding out about your team, what makes the individuals tick and who they are as a person. You do not have to be mates but establishing a connection does make a difference, it makes people feel worthy and develops a sense of belonging.

2. Catch them being good  
Have you ever witnessed small children sitting on the mat and the teacher turns to the class and says "I like the way Johnny is sitting nicely"? If you haven't then what tends to happen is Johnny sits just a little straighter and has a beaming smile because he has been noticed and acknowledged positively and the majority of the rest of the class sit a little bit straighter too. This is because we like to be acknowledged and when we know what success looks like we can emulate it.
The culture you create around acknowledgement can have a huge influence on the people that you work with. Find out what makes your people feel appreciated and then appreciate them. In my experience of leadership, being an employee and teaching, I have found that most people will work for a sincere thank you.
And beware of how you deal with it when things don't go right, sometimes you might look at excluding certain people to 'punish' them for letting the side down or not meeting expectations... the problem there is that when I am excluded I have no incentive to adhere to the norms of the group. It is like when a student is excluded, we have to be very mindful about reintegration to avoid them sabotaging our established culture.

3. We usually live up to the expectations people have of us 
There is a fair bit of research (refer to pygmallion effect for a starter) about teacher expectations and student achievement. In one study a group of students were divided in two classes, one teacher was told that their class were high achievers and the other teacher was told that their class were low achievers. As the time of the study progressed it became evident that the students results reflected the expectations of the teachers. There is some controversy with this research but further studies exploring this and self fulfilling prophecies support the general premise, and it makes sense.
If you expect your employees or colleagues to fail they will feel it, it will erode their self confidence and it is so much more likely that they will fail. If you expect your employees or colleagues to perform well, not only will they be invested in seeing that they do their best but so will you. You will notice how they are getting on, you will be more receptive to helping them and they will be more likely to come to you for support or advice.
In a classroom the teacher is aware of the curriculum and it is their role to help communicate these aims to the students in a way that is engaging and creates ownership. The same applies for leaders in organisations, you job is to communicate the aims and goals in a way that encourages your team to get on board and work to make it happen.

4. You create the climate
There is plenty of evidence to support that teachers are a defining factor in student success. When those children walk into our classroom we need to set aside our own grumpy moods and drama, we focus on their needs and treat them with respect. We ensure that they have the tools and resources they need to learn. We provide timely feedback and support. We work with our students to create a culture of acceptance, challenge, celebration and connection. A negative climate of blame and shame creates risk adverse learners who become nervous about making mistakes or disappointing their teacher.
As a leader you are a defining factor in the success of your employees or colleagues. The environment you create will dictate employee satisfaction and likely impact on outputs too. It is more than being seen to do the right things, that is showmanship. Authentic leadership means you will do the right things because they are right for your people, fit with your values and those of your organisation. Blame and shame creates a negative climate that strangles innovation and out of this world success or fantastic learning-laden failure. If you are having a bad day, that's OK because you are human too, just remember it is not everyone else's fault and if you do screw up, own up and apologise.

5. Your job is to give those who you work with wings to fly 
As a teacher my job is to do what I can to create opportunities for the students in my care to do great things. It is my role to help them identify their talents and gifts. It is my role to support them in their growth. I work to make sure they know I believe in them. I need to trust them and support them whilst letting them struggle and experience some failure as well as success. I help them set goals and support them on their path to achieving them. I am committed to helping my students develop a healthy growth mindset rather than a fixed one (see Carol Dwerk's research for more information on this)
Do you believe in your team members? How do you let them know that? What opportunities do you provide to your team members that allows them to stretch and discover their talents? Do you allow your team members the opportunity to explore and improve their skills and talents? Imagine what an impact this could have on a team.

I know this might sound idealistic, naive even, but I sincerely believe in people focused leadership inside and outside the classroom is the way forward. Leaders, or people of influence, come in all shapes and sizes and varying positions and roles so this may relate to some other aspects of our lives outside of organisational leadership as well.

Do you think sort of leadership could work in your workplace or community group? Have you seen examples of this in your experience?

What would you add to this list? I welcome any comments, suggestions or questions.


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