Classroom Leadership: From Control to Influence

On a bitter mid-December, the staff lounge has become a den vipers, ready to lash out at students. So, I enter the Ed Tech Echo Chamber hoping to find a little empathy. I spend a prep period on a Twitter #chat, frantically crafting pithy statements about student autonomy. As I tweet and retweet, I find myself trying to sound more radical regarding how amazing learning can be when teachers get out of the way.

Then something snaps. The balance is off. The paradox is lost. I pick up my students from PE, convinced that any form of teacher intervention is an act of coercion. So, I let go, naturally. I pull away. On some level, it works. We have patterns and rituals that allow it to thrive. However, students pick up on my body language and they check out.

A few students get bored and start talking. Another student begins creating paper wads that he plans to launch at fellow students. This might be okay. After all, they're learning. They're asserting themselves. They're . . . what am I kidding? 

I step in and calmly ask the students to stop. They listen. I redirect them to their projects. It works. I walk around the room answer questions. I re-engage. I ask questions and start a dialogue.  The reality is this: I am the leader. I set the tone. It is both my role and my responsibility to be bold. I don't need to ask permission to have students stay quiet when I talk. Students are not adults. They need guidance and there is nothing wrong with being the person who guides them.

The Problem with Control

Looking back on it, what I think people in the Ed Tech Echo Chamber felt was the gnawing sense of powerlessness they had felt at students. Many were marginalized by controlling teachers who wielded authority through fear and bullying. It is not entirely different from the people I know who cringe at the word "father."

Controlling begins with the notion that the process matters more than the person. It is a self-centered process, where a teacher designs structures to make it smoother for the leader regardless of how it feels for the students. In my worst days, when I have been a controlling teacher, the impetus has been fear: fear of failure, fear of chaos, fear of what other teachers will say, fear of my students not performing well, fear of the unknown.

So, I micromanaged. I controlled. I snapped at kids for small things. I nagged. I set up punishments and rewards so that I could manipulate the class into behaving. I was tired and wornout and scared and my students suffered as a result.

Oddly enough, in those moments when I became controlling as a teacher, I lost all control of my class. Students fought back in tiny, passive-agressive gestures. Some checked out entirely and gave up trying. Others spoke up to me defiantly, like wounded tigers with nothing to lose. I cringe when I think of the students I hurt with my words.

Moving Toward Influence

In those dark moments when I became controlling, the only solution was to apologize humbly, ask forgiveness and move into a place of influence. My natural inclination in restoration was to become timid as a sort-of penance for being sarcastic or snapping at a kid. I would wear and emotional sackcloth and bow my head and pay it off with a noisy classroom.

But that's not the answer. The only solution is to move back into a place of influence. Slowly, by being bold and speaking up and following through, I can earn my students' trust. I can build back the relationship and paradoxically, the result is a class that looks very "in control."

When I switch back into an influence mindset, I am able to listen better to students and provide guidance for them rather than push them around through a system I've developed. I can know them on a personal, relational level and through mutual respect, they let me into their world.

What This Looks Like
  • You are the leader of the class. This means you help guide the norms, the rituals, the lessons, the feel, the ethos and the climate. You are the one who must be direct with students when they step out of line and you are the one who initiates the conversation of restoration afterward. 
  • Being in charge also means you are the one who needs to change when the class is screwing up. It's your job to reflect and to modify and to work toward finding solutions. True, it will involve bringing students into it. However, you set the tone for the community you develop.
  • Teachers need to build a relationship with students. It goes beyond simply the beginning of the year interest surveys. It requires teachers to pay attention, to be intentional about knowing who they teach as much as what they teach. 
  • Trust is always critical. If a teacher breaks trust with a class, the response needs to be a humble apology rather than manipulation and rationalization. 
  • Influence takes time to develop. A classroom will not be a thriving community on day two. 

John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. September is always the hardest month for me, and it's not about knowing their names--I try to do this before they even set foot in my classroom.

    It's about knowing them as people beyond the classroom--and that takes months.

    1. I agree . . . though I admit it happens faster in self-contained than in departmentalized classrooms. When I had 150 students, I had time when there were certain students who were little more than strangers.

  2. You put "Controlling begins with the notion that the process matters less than the person." I wonder if maybe you meant that the process matters more than the people, but I may be interpreting it badly.

    I love the message here. Understanding, acceptance, and trust are all so important and at the same time so nuanced. It's not about sitting back and watching it all happen, but being a part of it.

    One of the things that I believe teachers are afraid to do is just say yes to things. I assign a presentation, I require them to do something visual, with suggestions like a Prezi, a video, etc. Then, a student comes along and throws out a suggestion that I may not completely understand. Do I say no just because it's not in my wheel house?

    As long as we are achieving our goals and building mastery, the means don't matter as much.

    1. Thanks for the correction. Man, I need to start proof-reading posts.

  3. I like how well you acknowledge the amount of time it takes to build relationships and create the atmosphere in your classroom that allows for students to be engaged and ultimately thrive.

    I hear so much about students taking ownership and learning what they want (if I hear the phrase "guide on the side" one more time I'm going to scream), almost to the point where I want to ask certain people if the teacher has any role in learning aside from being a warm adult body in the room.

    Your message here is more ... precise, I guess is the right word. You cannot walk into a class in August and September and think that things are going to be innovative right off the bat (you saw that coming). And even if they are, there are 180 days in the school year and that's plenty of potential for things to go south.


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