A Culture of Trust Deepens Talent

If you, like me, are a child of the ’80s, it’s likely that you will remember the many public service announcements that were aired over and over, especially during Sunday morning cartoons. We kids were exhorted not to take medicine that looked like candy, we were warned about “Stranger Danger,” and we all knew to “Stop, Drop, and Roll.” But there was another, more ominous PSA that has stuck with me for years. It featured a father confronting his son over drug paraphernalia found in the child’s closet. The father kept pressing the son as to how this could have happened. Eventually, the son yells at the father, “You! I learned it by watching you!” And the scene ends.

The message could be applied as well to our schools. The patterns a school’s administrators establish vis-à-vis our teachers is then copied by our teachers and used as their behavior towards the students. If we set a tone that hinges on blind conformity, that culture will play out in the classroom as well. Likewise, if we establish a system of rigid micro-managed routines with our faculty, we should only expect our teachers to establish rigid micro-managed routines with their students. If, on the other hand, we give teachers a meaningful voice in accomplishing their learning objectives, we could reasonably expect to see our faculty giving students a similar voice in their own learning.

John Maxwell, an international expert in leadership practices, created a model of how leaders are “made.” These are his 5 levels:

  • Position. People follow you because they have to.
  • Permission. People follow you because they want to.
  • Production. People follow you because of what you have done for the organization.
  • People Development. People follow you because of what you have done for them.
  • Pinnacle. People follow you because of who you are and what you represent.

This model, which has been used in a wide range of organizations, can be very effective in developing talented adults—teachers and future administrators—as well as with talented students in the classroom. After all, our teachers are the leaders of their classrooms, and our students will grow up to become future leaders.

Universally accepted as a first step to establishing a well-run classroom is that students must follow classroom rules, procedures and expectations. Best practice is to involve students in the establishing of those rules, with the teacher ultimately leading that process. In this case, that would refer to Maxwell’s first level of position.

The next level, permission, refers to the leader creating an environment where the team members follow the leader because they want to, not because they have to. Maxwell maintains that while position is a critical first step in eventually becoming a true leader, it must be followed by permission. When a teacher runs his or her classroom by fiat, students might comply or even obey for a time—but unless that teacher learns how to move on to the next step of permission, they will not grow as a leader and will ultimately stagnate in the classroom. At the same time, the students won’t grow either; they will remain forced to do what the teacher tells them to do and will not develop the critical skill of thinking for themselves. Both teacher and student are missing out on so much of the growth potential that could be in store for them.

Intrinsic motivators, please?

As adults, we have likely been in work situations where we have been told what to do and how to do it. With the right set of motivators—attractive salary (positive) or tight job market (negative)—we would likely comply with the expectation. One might rightly assume that a high salary might be a continued motivator, but a review of the research by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (Harvard Business Review) has shown the opposite. The newness of the high salary will wear off, and just like a hit of dopamine fades, the high salary earner will begin searching for more as the weight of essentially having no input to his day-to-day tasks begins to take a heavy toll. But in that case, the worker has the option of looking for a new job.

Children, on the other hand, typically do not have this kind of mobility. For the most part, they go to the school of their parents’ choosing, and even within that school, children are typically not given the choice of which class or teacher they are assigned to.

In light of the reality that students do not have much freedom (if any) as to which classroom they find themselves in, the field of education has increasingly become focused on ways to give students more voice in the way in which they learn. Rather than relying on extrinsic motivators, such as gold stars and honor roll designations (positive) or detention and red Fs (negative), we have begun to look for ways to intrinsically motivate student learning. Such an initiative will likely founder when we fail to foster the intrinsic within our teachers. How can teachers change the way they motivate students and model this mindset if they themselves are stuck in extrinsic factors and not self-motivated through positive means?

To refer back to Maxwell’s leadership model, administrators grow as leaders when their teachers want to follow their lead. When an administrator gets stuck at level 1—position—the teachers follow out of fear, not any intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation only takes hold once the leader has satisfied the requirements of level 2. Typically, this happens only through developing positive relationships with the faculty.

So too with the teacher/student relationship. A teacher who is always using threats of phone calls home to ensure compliance is stuck in level 1. Students in this situation might complete their classwork, but they are not engaged in their learning and the odds of them retaining much of the course content is low. For the learning to really stick, the students must be motivated intrinsically, which requires a teacher to advance to level 2. This, of course, requires teachers to actively develop their relationships with students.

It is important to note that level 2 must follow level 1. A teacher who doesn’t rely on his position at times (“That’s how we do things in this class”) will not be able to grow to a level 2 leader. The teacher who builds rapport on a foundation of “position” will more likely see success in both dimensions.

“What” OR “How”

Like other fields, educators seek to establish standards of practice for our profession. However, administrators often impose overly strict guidelines on teachers’ work. Despite the presence of multiple accepted styles and systems within our field—lesson plans, pacing guides and curriculum maps are all examples of deliverables, even if we don’t actually use business school jargon to refer to them—they are often expected to be produced in very specific formats. Applying that formula to the students, do we really want to see 23 identical dioramas of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”? Or do we want students to personalize their work and present it in a way that is meaningful to them and shows that they grew as a learner as a result of the assignment?

If we expect teachers to be intrinsically motivated, we have to ask ourselves the following question: If I want a member of my team to complete a task by telling them “what” I need done and also “how” it should be done, am I helping them grow and become an even better professional educator, or am I treating them like skilled labor?

Talent Growth

Administrators are responsible for the education and growth that occurs in their schools, of faculty, junior administrators and students alike. But ultimately, they are most responsible for their own growth, because if an administrator gets stuck on one of Maxwell’s levels, it gums up the works and everyone below them on the school’s food chain can no longer move up either.

So how does this all work? Perhaps by taking a step back. By empowering our teachers—and while empowering is very buzzword-y, all it really means is to trust. To trust that our teachers are just as professional as we are, and to trust that they do in fact know what they are doing, and even if they might format their lesson plans differently than we might, to trust that their way is okay too. More, to actually give weight to their choice, by looking at with fresh eyes and seeing, perhaps, that their way might actually be better. Not objectively and universally better, but better for them.

By doing this seemingly small thing, the administrator has accomplished so many goals:

Developed a positive relationship with this teacher by noticing her good work. This teacher will then likely, even if unaware of it, spread that positive relationship around when she shares this good feeling towards the admin with her friends on the faculty.

Shown the entire staff an openness to new ideas and a willingness to take whatever they have to offer seriously.

Shown that the phrase “we have always done it this way” has no place in the school, and that change can be good.

Reinforced to the teacher that he is trustworthy, and in turn, the teacher can take that good feeling of trust and place his trust in his students.

Allowed for more creativity from the students themselves, simply by believing in the teacher and telling her that.

Doing something as simple as this—and doing it multiple times—can help an administrator move through Maxwell’s steps 2, 3 and 4 quickly, just by engendering these feelings.

Step 2: Permission. People follow you because they want to. People follow a leader who helps them feel good about themselves, who confidently demonstrates trust in them, allowing them to make their own good decisions.

Step 3: Production. People follow you because of what you have done for the organization. This administrator has creating a positive atmosphere in the school. A school’s culture and the feelings that permeate the halls often come straight from the admin office, and each admin team has the choice to cultivate a positive atmosphere of collaboration and joy, or one of rigid demands that can suck the life out of a hallway.

Step 4: People Development. People follow you because of what you have done for them. An admin who allows teachers to take the reins and try new things, whether they ultimately work or not, creates a following of loyal teachers. And a cadre of loyal teachers will ultimately enter their own classrooms with a spirit of allowing students to find their own way and their own creativity as well.

Step 5, aptly named Pinnacle, is the product of a lifetime of continuously working with others and helping them along their own leadership journeys, and is what we should all aspire to. And if you are lucky enough to work for a leader who has made it to step 5, be sure to take many minutes to soak it all up. Ask all of your questions because a level 5 leader is looking to create more leaders, not just more followers.

Joshua Wise
Deepening Talent
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership