Leadership lessons from the language classroom
Monday, November 25, 2013
This is the third in a series of articles about the "gap" identified on the lack of recent and regular writing on leadership in language education, especially compared to writing about other areas, such as teaching methodology, technology, etc.
Those first two articles laid the foundation for the next few, which are going to focus on how we can apply what we have learned as classroom language teachers to our leadership and management roles and responsibilities.
It is interesting to see that a keyword search of "classroom management" on Amazon.com brings up about 20,000 hits, but only around 2,000 for a search of "classroom leadership." It is possible that we are more comfortable with the notion of classroom management than classroom leadership. Whatever the reason for the 10-fold difference in the two searches, over the last 20 years, I have found that much of what we learn as classroom teachers can be applied outside the classroom.
Suzy Fox, Paul Spector and around a dozen colleagues and co-authors, in their book "Counterproductive Work Behavior" (2004, American Psychological Association) note that this kinds of behavior: "encompasses a spectrum of actions that harm employees or organizations. These behaviors include bullying, emotional abuse, revenge, retaliation, mobbing and aggression. They can range from severe, systematic, abusive bullying to milder, ambiguous episodes of workplace incivility."
Although workplace bullying used to be thought of mainly in terms of bosses bullying employees, or bullying between employees, it is now becoming clear that some staff bully not only their colleagues but also their bosses. I will address dealing with workplace bullying in a later article, but for this article, I want to focus on the more general disruptive behaviors of some staff in some language teaching organizations (LTOs) that make life difficult for everyone, especially those in leadership and management roles.
Not getting distracted by the disruptors
A recurring example of "transferable skills" from the classroom relates to the people in LTOs who spend a great deal of their time and energy trying to disrupt positive developments while undermining those in leadership roles. Having worked in many LTOs in many countries, I have yet to come across an LTO that does not harbor at least one such individual, and in most cases, more than one. The rule of thumb seems to be that the larger the organization, the more of these individuals there will be.
There are many possible reasons for such behavior, but most seem to come from unresolved issues that have little or nothing to do with their adult life and work. As Fox, Spector and their colleagues explain, one of the most powerful causes of these disruptive behaviors appears to go back to early childhood experiences.
For example, individuals who feel they did not get the attention they wanted and needed as a child will often behave disruptively as adults to get the attention that they still crave. In such cases, even negative attention, for example, being scolded as a child for bad behavior, can be felt by the child to be better than not getting any attention at all.
These early childhood experiences can translate into a variety of disruptive behaviors as adults in the workplace. For example, unhelpful and unnecessary interruptions in meetings are a common example of the adult version of the childhood behavior, as is constant complaining about relatively minor matters.
These kinds of attention-seeking behaviors can be a disheartening and depressing drain on the time and energy of everyone, especially those in leadership and management roles. But what can be done when administrative and/or teaching staff behave like this?
One set of answers can be found in how we, as teachers, respond to students who behave like this in class. Step back and ask yourself: What do I, as a teacher, do in my classroom when these kinds of things happen such?
First, we try to understand where these behaviors are coming from, then we make a conscious effort not to get so distracted by the disruptors. When I was responsible for a university English language teaching unit of 35-40 people in Hong Kong, there were three or four staff who regularly exhibited such behavior. In interacting with those staff members, one of the things that struck me was how easy it is for as little as 10 percent of our staff — or our class — to take up to 40 to 50 percent or even more of our time and energy.
It is important to understand the underlying causes of these disruptive behaviors, but whatever the cause, the damage done to relationships is the same. Both in class and in the workplace, morale is dragged down, tensions rise and rifts are created.
In both situations, it is all too easy to end up ignoring those students in our class or those staff in our LTO who quietly and consistently do what needs to be done, to the best of their abilities. They ask for help when they need it, focus on the tasks at hand and work together positively and professionally. However, unless we are careful and conscious, these students and/or staff can become "invisible" because the attention-seekers can take so much of our time and energy that we can, inadvertently, do a great disservice to the rest of our class/staff.
Behaviorism makes a comeback
Just being aware of the similarities between this kind of disruptive behavior in the classroom and in the teaching workplace has helped me to transfer what I learned in the former to what I needed to do in the latter. I found myself regularly reflecting on what I did in the classroom to help me understand what I needed to do in the meeting room.
These reflections led me back to behaviorism, which I had studied in my undergraduate educational psychology ("ed psych") courses. John Watson's (1878-1958) and B.F. Skinner's (1904-1990) behaviorism has fallen out of favor in recent decades, but since 2007 — the year I went back to Hong Kong as the director of a university ELT unit there — behaviorism has been making a major comeback.
For example, the International Association for Behavior Analysis now has around 30 state and regional chapters in the U.S., which have held more than 30 annual conferences in the U.S. and Canada. In 2013, the UK Society for Behaviour Analysis was founded.
According to writer Kendra Cherry: "While behaviorism is not as dominant today as it was during the middle of the 20th century, it still remains an influential force in psychology. Outside of psychology, animal trainers, parents, teachers and many others make use of basic behavioral principles to help teach new behaviors and discourage unwanted ones."
I should add that the reference to animal trainers, together with parents and teachers, might strike readers as an odd juxtaposition of examples, but having done all three, I can see the similarities.
What would I do if this were happening in my classroom?
Applying what I had learned from nearly 20 years in the language classroom, I was able to develop strategies for managing such behaviors in the administrative setting. For example, not giving the attention-seeker the attention he/she wanted, as this would have just reinforced the disruptive behavior and made the situation worse. Also, talking with him/her individually, rather than in-class or in-meeting, helps de-escalate matters and defuse tense situations by discussing the issues in a more private and less public domain.
Taking a behaviorist approach may be somewhat controversial and may or may not be appropriate in your context and in your situation. But they key point here is to ask yourself, when faced with a challenging leadership or management moment: "What would I do if this were happening in my classroom with my students?"
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