Leadership challenge of a lifetime, from the classroom

Note: I originally published this article on LinkedIn.

Through my life, by accident or design, I’ve found myself repeatedly in a role of leadership. It may have been as a patrol leader in Boy Scouts, serving on the board of a local organization, or as executive editor and publisher of a newspaper or media group.

I love the study of leadership and am fascinated by what motivates people to excel and to follow someone throughs one trial or tribulation.

I thought my time leading newspaper organizations was preparing me for the big time. They were periods of crazy disruption and upheaval, and changes came, it seemed, daily. Oddly, it was just preparation for the greatest leadership challenge of my life.

The classroom

I spent some time a few years ago trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I was in a state of upheaval, hitting from a variety of personal and professional directions. Eventually, I became a teacher. Specifically, I teach high school.


On day one, I walked into a room facing about 40 high school seniors. They did not want to be in the room nor in the class. They did not want to hear what I had to say or what knowledge I offered.

Motivation and engagement hovered somewhere around nil.

With six or seven groups of these, and well over 200 students total, how the heck am I supposed to get through and meet the objectives for the class?

Classroom management

In the education world, classroom management, as the name implies, is the process teachers follow to ensure their classes run smoothly with minimal interruption and minimal behavioral issues.

It is a unique skill set that is not necessarily teaching, but certain is parallel to teaching. After all, you can’t teach if a class is out of control.

But management isn’t leadership. And I took a different view of my “classroom management” approach.

One day, talking to a friend, he told me he thinks it is a matter of time before I move into administration. He said that I’v always found myself “in charge” and he thinks the leadership bug will raise its head. I told him that every day I lead a couple hundred people toward important objectives that will help them, their families, and their communities.

That’s leadership. Management is important but it falls short.

The leadership challenge is not to rely on a system of rewards and punishments necessarily, but rather to create an environment where the students wish to participate. If a good employee wants to be with the company that employs him, he’ll work harder.

The same applies to the student. My leadership challenge is to create that environment where students want to be present, be engaged, and learn.

Classroom leadership

When I was an executive editor and publisher, I felt I had one primary job. That was to tear down any barriers to success my staff might encounter. Whether the challenge was internal or external, I felt it was my duty as a leader to get the barrier out of the way so the team could focus on writing, taking pictures, or selling ads.

Same with the classroom. There are many barriers to learning:

  • Language barriers (some of my students do not speak English).
  • Learning/intellectual disabilities.
  • Equipment/IT issues.
  • Basic knowledge (this is where teaching comes in).
  • Distractions – cell phones, sleeping, etc.
  • Outside issues – hunger, family issues, etc.

The list goes on, but as the classroom leader, my responsibility is to provide an end run around those barriers so the students can be successful. This is no different than my role leading a business unit in Gannett Company.

It’s a bit more though.

I provide a vision for the class. I set objectives that need to be met. I develop and implement a plan to meet those objectives.

Isn’t that leadership?

Teachers aren’t leaders?

A colleague told me she’d like to either head or sponsor one of our school groups (yearbook, etc.), coach, or perhaps become lead teacher. This was so she can gain some leadership experience.

This was perplexing to me because as a classroom teacher, she has a variety of people in her room who have a wide range of talents, skills, abilities, and needs. She takes those people, mixes it all together, and sees to it that certain objectives are met.

Isn’t that the epitome of leadership?

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