Good Teachers, Great Teachers and the Fundamental State of Leadership

October 26, 2010 / General /

By Robert E. Quinn

I recently had the opportunity to interview 12 public school teachers.  These were not ordinary teachers.  These were teachers selected because they produced high scores on value added measures.  This means that the children in their classes made more measurable progress than children in average or poor classes.  These were teachers who make a measurable difference.

The teachers fell into two groups, good and great.  Five of the teachers were good in that, over four years, their scores were well above average in at least two of the four years.  Seven of the teachers were great.  Their scores were not only at the very top of the measurement scale, they scored at the top of the scale in at least three of the last four years.

With me were five experienced observers.  They were taking notes.  Only one of them knew the scores of the interviewees.  At the end of the interviews, the other five of us had to predict which of the two groups each teacher was in.  In 11 of 12 cases the group predicted correctly.  In the twelfth case we missed by one vote.  These data suggest that we were able recognize the difference between good and great teachers just by listening to them talk about teaching. It will take months to fully analyze the data.  Here I will mention just one hypothesis about one possible difference.

The Similarities

There was something common among all 12 value added teachers.  All of them had a sense of calling.  They were doing what they love.  They have had a desire to teach since they were young.  At the center of this calling is a passion to unleash the potential in their students.  From their own experiences, they know that people can change and they hunger to help everyone experience success, even the most disadvantaged or resistant students.

A Difference

Because they are all driven by a sense of calling our 12 interviewees were all inspirational.  Yet they were not all the same.  We could differentiate between the good and the great.  I am sure there are multiple answers.  Here I want to posit one.

Great teachers live in lift, or the fundamental state of leadership. In particular, they embody external openness, or adaptive confidence.

Gandhi is often quoted as follows, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  This well known statement is seldom explained.  In our interviews we began to get a sense of what it might mean.

All of the value added teachers hungered to transform their students.  They all wanted their many fearful and resistant students to stop living in excuses, to instead empower themselves and become life-long learners.  While the good teachers wanted this outcome they did not always reach their students.  Some students successfully resisted.  The good teachers naturally felt frustrated by this and offered rational explanations as to why they were unable to always succeed.

The great teachers reported less frustration, more success and more confidence.   Instead of offering explanations of why they sometimes fail, they talked of how they succeed.  They spoke from a state of total commitment.  They spoke of continuous self-reflection and learning.  They relentlessly pursued the goal, assessed their progress, improvised, reflected on their practice, refined what they had done and then tried again.  In other words, in trying circumstances, they never stopped changing.  They never stopped learning and developing.

One example was the man with the highest scores of all.  He instantly captivated us, held our complete attention, and gained our admiration.  We felt his authentic commitment to transforming his students.  He shared many stories of inventing new practices in real time then endlessly refining them.  Some seemed like creative genius, and they were, but they came from a process of intense reflection.  He gave examples of how he approached his students with sincere requests for feedback and got it.  He described innovations that were less than successful and how he apologized to his students and held himself totally accountable and promised to perfect the experiments in the future.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a student in his class.  His commitment and authenticity gave him enormous moral power.  He was an interpersonal magnet.  How could I not listen to such a teacher?  How could I not be engaged?  How could I not begin to see the possibility in myself and find the courage to commit?  In the presence of such greatness, how could I not do the things necessary to unleash the greatness in me?  He was an attractor of transformation.

As I pondered this, I had three insights.

  • First it struck me that this man was living in a state of constant, purposive change.  He was the change he wanted to see in the world.  He was living in the condition to which he was trying to lift his students.
  • Second, that desired state is a state of infinite adaptive capacity.  No matter what negative jolts he might encounter, he would adjust and creatively learn his way to what he needed to do to accomplish his goal.  That is what he wanted for his students and he was demonstrating that very capacity.
  • Third, the state of infinite adaptive capacity is the lift state.  It is the fundamental state of leadership.  Great teachers know what result they want to create and live with purpose, they continually clarify their values and live with authenticity, they are other focused and live with love, and they are externally open and learn in real time.

When we study great teachers we find great leadership.  We find people who have learned to live in the fundamental state of leadership.