In my six years of teaching, I had plenty of colleagues who carried on non-stop private conversations through every faculty and department meeting they attended. The very educators who brought down the wrath of God on misbehaving or inattentive students became pouty, apathetic, or downright antagonistic when another adult had the gall to suggest that there was something these individuals needed to know or had yet to learn.

I know this mindset well, as I possessed it for a time:

“What does Vice Principal Smith know? He hasn’t been a teacher for 10 years…”

“I wish they’d let me get back to my classroom—I have so much to do and this is useless.”

“How could a consultant, who has never taught, possibly give me any advice about education?”

To be sure, some of this anger and indifference is well founded. I cannot count the number of faculty meetings I sat through where the principal read aloud (verbatim) from a schedule that affected 1/10th of the school’s population. But to focus on this smaller point is to obscure a larger one: as much as we often hear that we lack good leaders in the education world, I believe the bigger problem is that we lack good followers.

Very few people have the privilege of holding a role in life in which they are consistently leaders, always laying out an agenda to be executed by those around them. Instead, most of us hold a more nebulous position—we are leaders of some and followers of others, and these roles change over time. Teachers are the perfect example of this—student achievement in the classroom requires great leadership on their part, but that leadership must be informed and supported through the following of administrative guidance, research-based standards of practice, community desires, and expert advice.  Yet while educational literature is rife with treatises on leadership (one of my primary introductory packets to Teach For America in 2004 was called Teaching as Leadership), there is little talk of following.

So what are the characteristics of a good follower, and how will they make a difference in education? With the help of the comparatively sparse followership literature[1], I’ve compiled this non-comprehensive list:

  1. Good Followers are Open-minded. Too often in education, we assume that the best ideas for student achievement are contained in our own heads, or at the very least within our own dogma. We must be willing to adjust our approaches based on the advice, feedback, and new sources of information we receive.
  2. Good Followers Disagree and Commit. Even good leaders will make decisions that their followers may not always agree with. This is perfectly reasonable, and followers should feel free to communicate that disagreement to leaders. However, once a decision has been finalized, followers must commit to act upon it as if it was their own. Refusal to act upon a decision prevents evaluation of the decision’s effects further down the road. This is the piece that I and my colleagues most often struggled with as teachers. It was easier to poo-poo a new administrative initiative about backwards planning for a million little reasons, than it was to buy into this initiative and change our ways.
  3. Good Followers are Active Listeners and Collaborators. Listening to and participating in a conversation requires full attention and critical, collaborative thinking. The non-stop responsibilities of most jobs (especially teaching) can also function as excuses to mentally (or even physically) check out of one’s listening responsibilities. Grading takes precedence over listening to a department head, lesson planning replaces one-on-one time with a mentor. I know—I’ve been there. But I also know that listening and participating in collaborative opportunities is an important part of creating school culture and promoting practices that improve student achievement. It is through this collaboration that decisions are made and tested, and that leadership is held accountable.

With support from UPD’s Bob Pipik, Nick Goding, and (former employee) Dustin Odham, Highland Park High School in Topeka, KS has taken advantage of a federal grant to install a collaborative process of student and classroom data evaluation. Every progress report and grading period, teacher teams meet to examine trends in student attendance, grades, behavior, and test scores, both within their classroom and throughout the team. Students who are at risk are identified and intervened with as a team or individually using a “Student Tracker” created and molded through an iterative process of teacher and administrative feedback. This approach has led to a narrowing of the achievement gap between African American and White students, and has improved student test scores overall by almost 10 percentage points. And all of this has come as a direct result of attentive and excellent followership. It is true that school administration wrote the grant and initiated the data evaluation process (and for that they should be praised), but it was the school’s teachers who approached the process with an open mind, contributed to its functioning through collaboration with leadership, with outsiders (UPD), and among themselves during the teacher team meetings, and they have remained committed to its functioning for the past two and a half years.

It should be obvious that we can’t all be leaders all of the time, but that doesn’t mean we must resign ourselves to lives as desk jockeys, pushing paper for the man.  While my examples throughout this blog are based at the school level, the call for good followers is a universal one in the field of education (and beyond). Equity and excellence in public education will require that most of us make a commitment not just to lead, but to follow. From teachers to bureaucrats to consultants, we can shape and challenge our leaders, and the world around us, through our openness, our commitment, our action, our honesty. It’s time that “follower” stopped being a dirty word.

[1] See Kellerman, Barbara. Followership: How Followers Are Creating and Changing Leaders. Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge, MA. February 18, 2008 as a prime example of the emerging field.