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Leadership in the Classroom

A classroom is a group of learners. Generally speaking, learning groups have at least two basic objectives:

  1. to complete learning tasks;
  2. to maintain positive and effective relationships among group members.

Leadership consists of actions that help the group to complete its tasks successfully and maintain effective working relationships among its members. For any group to be successful, both task-leadership actions and group maintenance-leadership actions have to be provided. It is important to note that a) any member of a group may become a leader by taking these necessary actions (i.e., the teacher is not necessarily the leader), and b) the various leadership actions may be provided by different group members (i.e., the teacher may decide to share various aspects of leadership with class members).

Teachers should know that, generally, groups function most effectively when leadership tasks are shared among group members. However, most students are accustomed to being in classes where the teacher plays all of the leadership roles; if you want students to play some of these roles, you must give them permission to do so, and perhaps guidance in how to best take on these roles. When teachers neglect leadership and do not provide leadership themselves or invite students to take on leadership roles, students may themselves elect to play informal (and frequently inappropriate) leadership roles in the classroom, simply to pull the individuals together as a group.

Leadership is a set of skills that anyone can acquire. Responsible leadership depends upon

  1. flexible behavior;
  2. the ability to diagnose what behaviors are needed at a particular time in order for the group to function most efficiently; and
  3. the ability to fulfill these behaviors or to get other members to fulfill them.

To participate effectively in a group, especially in a leadership role, one must be able to:

1. Communicate

Communication is the first step in cooperating with others. There are two basic categories of skills -- sending and receiving. Some essential skills are the ability to:

These skills are ones well known to teachers as important classroom skills. They are skills needed by any leader, in any situation.

2. Build and Maintain Trust

Acceptance and support are essential in building and maintaining trust. Acceptance is communicating to others that you have high regard for them. Support is communicating to others that you recognize their strengths and believe they are capable of productively managing their situation.

Underlying all significant learning is the element of trust. Stephen Brookfield (1990) proposes that those playing the role of teacher in a learning group must pay attention to the balance between two important characteristics that make teachers more trustworthy in students' eyes: credibility and authenticity.

3. Manage Conflict

Since participation in a group will inevitably produce some conflicts, it is essential that members of learning groups have the skills required for managing controversies constructively, including the ability to:

Johnson, D.W. & Johnson, R.T. (1991). Learning together and alone. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Brookfield, S. (1990). The skillful teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  • Prepared by: Susan Wilcox, Instructional Development Centre, Queen's University

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    Last updated June 24, 1997

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