UNDERWOOD: Learning leadership as a substitute teacher

-A A +A

By Rick Underwood

Every adult should be required to volunteer as a substitute teacher for one week a year. While this is impossible, such experience would be an eye and mind opener. As a performance consultant and leadership coach, I am have been amazed at the lessons learned as I occasionally serve as a substitute teacher.

Although my experience is not in the Shelby County schools, I am certain that the lessons would be the same. Therefore, I thought this might be a good time to share some of those lessons as a new school year gets under way.


Lesson 1

Most teachers demonstrate a positive belief in students. Rather than assuming students are lazy and don’t want to learn, they communicate the opposite attitude. It is clear that this attitude sets up a positive feedback loop in which students “feel” that they can learn and be successful. These teachers help set “stretch goals” in their interactions with their students and believe their students want to learn and grow. Moreover, they use a combination of challenges, positive feedback and consistent consequences to help students stay on track.


Lesson 2

Good teachers set clear expectations about behavior and work. Many administrators and teachers spend significant time at the beginning of school making sure all students understand how they are to act. One second-grade teacher even has her students write a behavioral constitution for which they agree to abide by and for which they hold each other accountable. The students are reminded frequently about their agreement to live by the stated expectations. Good behavior is rewarded and unacceptable behavior brings previously agreed upon consequences.


Lesson 3

Outstanding teachers and leaders are innovative and creative in the ways they engage their students. They understand that students come from different home situations, have different learning styles, and vary in their strengths and weaknesses. Teaching plans are designed to engage each individual student.

Moreover,  students who struggle with behavioral problems, regardless of the origin or cause, are carefully tracked with behavioral charts and special interventions developed to help each student improve and be successful. Teachers and leaders use all of the senses to create good learning environments.


Lesson 4

Great teachers and leaders know that “it takes a village” to raise and educate young people to become responsible citizens. Therefore, they take a lot of initiative to meet and get to know each student’s parents and work tirelessly to keep the lines of communication open so that everyone is on the same page when it comes to behavior and educational expectations. Problems are anticipated and addressed proactively. These teachers sincerely seek a partnership with the parents or guardians of each student.


Lesson 5

Effective leaders and teachers care about their students. Students of all ages know when their teachers care about them regardless of the teacher’s disciplinary style. Students naturally work harder for a teacher they sense cares about them as a person. Conversely, students look for shortcuts, create problems, and don’t work hard in the learning process if they feel their teacher does not care about them as a person. This is one of the reasons substituting is so difficult. There is not time to build a relationship.


Lesson 6

It is easy to spot a teacher who is truly committed to educating young people versus one who is just doing a job to get a pay- check. Given the enormous challenges including   lack of appreciation and respect for the job by many in the public as well as oftentimes  inadequate compensation, it takes commitment that grows out of a calling to be on the frontlines  of education in our schools today.


Closing thoughts

I guarantee that any citizen who has the courage to spend a week working in one of our schools will be impressed and challenged by what can be learned. I salute and congratulate our teachers for a job well done. We must remember that these compassionate, competent, caring professionals are training the generation that will lead our country into the future.


Rick Underwood is minister at Hempridge Baptist Church and a performance consultant and managing partner of the Leadership Management Institute. He can be reached at nextlevelinstitute@insightbb.com.