Teaching Through Classroom Leadership

Teach Better TeamBlog, Engage Better, Lead Better, Manage Better

In This Post:

  • The need for a culture of leadership in your classroom in addition to traditional classroom management practices.
  • The need for more authentic, leadership-oriented professional development.
  • The big differences between managing and leading students.
  • Why creating relationships with students gives you greater influence and ability to lead in your classroom.

There are 6 words that will change your classroom “management” forever.

“You manage things, you lead people.”  There it is…mic drop. You’re welcome (insert Duane Johnson singing my favorite song from Moana here).

The concept seems incredibly easy to understand, like a common sense ingredient in the recipe of leadership. It’s necessary for a team to achieve its goals, but how often is it done well? How often is it done at all?

Fortunately, I have had a few amazing principals and coworkers who exhibit it just as the phrase explains. However, I have far more experience with managers than I do leaders. My guess is that you do to.

Think back to your first job. Maybe it was an overbearing micromanager pestering you about a break that lasted 2 minutes longer than the lawfully designated 15. Or the teenage shift supervisor chewing your hind end for forgetting to change the paper towels in the ladies restroom. 

Most of us can think back to a manager or supervisor who only ever paid attention when something went wrong, otherwise they paid no attention at all. You were employee A318454 and that was about as personal as they would get. 

As long as they watched, you performed. The minute their attention waned, so did your performance.

That’s because employees don’t follow managers. They follow leaders. The better the leader, the more willing people are to follow. If this is true for adults, why wouldn’t it be true for students in your classroom? 

If people follow authentic leaders, students will follow an authentic teacher that is leading their classroom and not just managing it. Click To Tweet

Shifting Classroom Management to Classroom Leadership

There needs to be a shift from classroom management to classroom leadership.

It may seem like I’m mincing words, but I truly believe that if you adopt the principle “you manage things, you lead people” into your classroom practice, you will  see a shift in student success and a decrease in disruptions and serious behavior issues. I did in mine.

I believe leadership is a missing piece in many teachers’ skillsets. We are so overwhelmed with managing data, behavior issues, instructional best practices, test scores, motivating students, and more. Leading the students isn’t even on our radar.

I do, however, assert that there is one thread woven between every aspect of a teacher’s day, from students to administration. That is classroom leadership.

Preparing for Classroom Leadership

During teacher prep programs across the United States, future teachers learn the importance of classroom management. It optimizes time on task and minimizes disruptions to the learning environment.

There are entire Master’s level college courses and professional development workshops dedicated to effective classroom management and its proper implementation.

I agree that the current classroom management model allows us to optimize our instruction. Clear expectations, policies, and procedures will undoubtedly limit distractions and allow us to proceed as planned.

But that is not enough. Consider my story…

When Classroom Management Fails

I was confident in my classroom management ability and even considered myself to be mildly above average at implementing the classroom management structure in my classroom. Administrators throughout my career mimicked those sentiments on my evaluations. 

Despite my successes, when I switched from teaching 5th grade to 8th grade, I began to question my abilities and even my future in that assignment. 

For the first time, I was faced with questions about my classroom management skills.

Why weren’t processes and procedures enough to prevent disruptions and distractions in my classroom?

How was my ‘incentives and consequences’ structure failing me?

Why wasn’t I getting through to this particular set of kids?

Was good classroom management enough?

After a frustrating year riddled with behavior incidents and poor student performance, the answer was a loud and resounding NO!

But I hadn’t changed my approach at all, so what was the issue?

My classroom was a textbook exemplar of Harry Wong’s The First Days of School. I even received an accomplished rating on my observation that year. But on most days in my classroom, I felt like nothing was working.

Assignments weren’t turned in, tests failed, behavior issues shut down my class on the regular. I was frustrated and I couldn’t “classroom manage” my way out of the teaching abyss I was in. And I couldn’t figure out why my students weren’t performing like I wanted. 

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Shifting My Mindset

One day during the summer after the worst year ever, I was talking with a friend whom I regard as a highly successful savvy businessman. I told him about my year and how I might need to make a career switch, secretly hoping he would make me a job offer I couldn’t refuse. It was that or head back to teaching 5th grade. 

Then he said, “If your students aren’t following you, maybe it’s because you’re not leading.”

At first, it came in like a finger to the eye!  A businessman with zero teaching experience just schooled me, a guy with a Master’s degree in Education, on teaching America’s youth.

My response was natural and ego driven. I shared that I had done everything expected, attended high level collegiate courses and professional development.

But this is the root of the problem.

Once I was able to check my precious ego, I conceded to his point. I have only been managing my classroom. Not leading it. I was caught up in numbers, processes, and evaluations, but low on the priority list fell the very reason I became a teacher, to help students learn.

Yes, my class had rules. But it lacked the relationships and the authentic leadership required for my students to want to follow.  

In order to have influence over someone you must maintain a certain level of rapport with them.

I now understood that relationships are the cornerstone of influence. So my mission was clear that next year.

Start building better relationships with my everyone in my building: students, colleagues, principals, and support staff. 

Implementing Classroom Leadership

That year, I started with a renewed sense of purpose. My intent was much more purposeful. I committed to authenticity with all my students and faculty, showing them that I was genuinely vested in their success.

I engaged with my students and let my guard down. We joked and had serious conversations. They saw more of who I was and I expressed genuine interest in their lives and success. I even broke the cardinal rule of teaching, and I smiled before December! They were my priority and I made sure they knew it everyday. 

I shifted my focus from my rigid, management-driven classroom to one that was more of a structured family atmosphere. Relationships were at the center of the culture of leadership I built.

I kept the processes and procedures in place, but allowed for flexibility. In fact, I purposely started the year off far more rigid than I intended, so my students saw my flexibility as out of character and appreciated my willingness to bend the rules. I danced daily between rigidity and flexibility, and it garnered trust and respect from my students. 

We occasionally veered off classroom plans, and I encouraged students to chase their interests in parallel topics outside of our standards. I regularly shared stories about myself in middle school and about my adventures (or misadventures) in parenting. Many of the students then shared their own stories. I had begun the process of developing great relationships with many of my students. It was amazing. 

As the weeks progressed, a series of inside jokes developed. They would make comments while in the halls referencing our jokes and stories from my classroom. 

Each class had a list of words that I had mispronounced, goofy stories I had told, or nicknames we had for each other. These would elicit a smile when I’d hear them referenced in the crowded halls. The inside jokes created a bond with my students that established a family culture. 

Discipline in Classroom Leadership

Unlike past years, if a student was acting out or their academic performance was slipping, I didn’t rush to discipline or just deliver the failing grade. I sought to understand what was going on, completely different than the authoritative person I was the years prior.

In a genuinely concerned way I asked, “Is everything ok? I know you’re capable of better than this, what’s going on?”

On nearly every occasion, I got an apology and the issue was corrected almost immediately. If I received a, “Why do you care?” I reaffirmed my belief in what they were capable of and why it was important that they gave me their best. 

Why Classroom Leadership?

While effective classroom management is paramount to successfully running classroom affairs, the addition and implementation of a classroom leadership approach is the cornerstone to having a successful classroom and fulfilling career. 

It took a successful businessman with zero teaching experience to open my eyes. The principles of leadership transcend environment and apply to children as much as they do to adults.

If people follow authentic leaders, students will follow an authentic teacher that is leading their classroom and not just managing it. 

Teaching through leadership = Teachership

Classroom leadership formula:

Rules without relationships = Rebellion 

Relationships without rules = Chaos 

Relationships + Rules = Results 



Mike has been teaching for 14 years in the Columbus area. He has taught both 5th grade 8th grade Social Studies & Math. Mike has a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and he received his Masters in Middle Childhood Education from THE Ohio State University in 2006. Prior to his teaching experience he worked in Information Technology for a company in Dublin, OH which gives him a unique perspective in the classroom. Outside of school Mike coaches jiu jitsu at a local gym and for THE Ohio State University Jiu Jitsu club. Mike is passionate about helping students develop accountability, take ownership for their choices, and helping to foster a drive to succeed and lead both inside and outside of the school. When he’s not teaching or coaching Mike enjoys spending time with his wife, 4 children and 2 four-legged children.