Developing a leader-follower dynamic in the classroom


Most of the educators that I know have a routine that they follow at the beginning of a new school session. These routines have been refined over the years and typically ensure that the right balance between setting expectations and encouraging involvement are set early on.

I’m a big believer that students and teachers enter into a leader-follower influence relationship in the classroom. By this, I mean that the individuals in the group influence each other in ways that could be classically identified as demonstrating leadership or followership as a social process. These interactions occur depending on the context and the situation that exists at that time.

Not always are students the followers, mind you. Anyone that has been inside a classroom that is embracing the exciting opportunities that technology provides will have seen instances of students leading the learning – more often that not they have the expertise that the teacher does not!

Encouraging students to embrace this type of situational leadership is fundamental to the development of their collaborative skills. As educators, the moral imperative is that we continually strive to enhance the learning of our students. The question that I pose now; is your classroom routine enabling students to develop a sense of self that is consummate with your objectives?

A research article that I came across recently, looked specifically at the role of follower self-concepts in the leader/follower relationship (available here). The authors of this discussion highlighted some fascinating points:

  • The relationship with the leader is a lens through which the entire work experience is viewed. How you go about establishing a relationship with your students at the beginning of the school year could have lasting effects on how the students view school – particularly if they are new to the environment.
  • Initially, followers construct their self-concepts not only based on information communicated to them by leaders but also on subtle affective messages communicated outside of conscious awareness. The initial interactions that you have with your students will assist in the development of their self-concepts of what it is to be a leader or a follower in your class. Be aware that body-language as well as words can impact this important development.
  • Follower self-concepts are powerful determinants of follower behaviour and reactions to leaders. Think about how your students behave and relate to you. Does this reflect a poor self-concept of what it is to be  a follower in a classroom environment? Do you need to work on redefining this relationship in your interactions with students? Could poor behaviour be mitigated by tasks that encourage students to take leadership opportunities and to see you demonstrating effective follower behaviours?
  • It is unlikely that followers can be simultaneously focused on more than one level of self-identity (individual, interpersonal or group). Does this explain why Year 9/10 students can be so difficult reason with individually? They are – particularly at this age – so aware of their identity as a part of a group that they sacrifice the ability to manage individual and interpersonal-level relationships.
  • Leadership results from a dynamic and reciprocal interaction between followers and leaders that involves leader behaviours, follower perceptions, and resulting outcomes. Self-concepts are powerful interpretive structures that guide and make sense of such interactions. The key to these statements is that leadership is dynamic and reciprocal. If, as educators, we hold true the moral imperative stated earlier, then we must acknowledge that how we interact with students may profoundly affect the development of key skills such as how to become an effective leader and how to become an effective follower in the classroom.


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