I Like To Be In Charge

I like to be in charge. More specifically, I like to be in control. I want to be the person driving the car, and I certainly want to be the one holding the television remote. I’m pretty sure my wife loves this about me. Or maybe I should say I wish my wife loved this about me.

Everyday, I work with teachers who also want to be in control. I can’t speak for suburban communities, but in the inner city, the term control is synonymous with power. In city schools, we seem to really care about showing who has the power in the school. Principals show their power by writing teachers up for anything and everything. Teachers show their power by throwing students out of class, giving out lots of F’s, and choosing to teach what they decide students should value. Students show us their power by not coming to school, not doing their homework, and choosing not to engage in class. We’re all so consumed with showing everyone else how much power we have, we lose sight of why became administrators and teachers to begin with.

Power and control is also evident in daily instructional practices. When I first learned to teach, I was an incredibly entertaining lecturer. I made sure every question, idea and discussion point came through me. It was my way of holding the television remote at my job also. Today, when I’m working with new teachers I use the image of a ball of yarn. If the yarn is unraveling every time everyone speaks, where is the yarn? In my early classrooms, an observer could have followed the yarn easily; from me to a student, back to me and to another student and back to me…

It took me several years to learn that learning was much better when the yarn symbolically moved from student to student to student and only seldomly came through me. I see this struggle in action every day when I’m in classrooms. Because we don’t really trust that students want to engage in our classrooms, we make sure any questions, answers or ideas are vetted through us; the instructors. The beautiful struggle that occurs when students are challenged with a new idea, or hear something from a peer they hadn’t ever considered, rarely occurs because of the implicit need to be in charge. Ultimately, almost every lesson is actually about power and control, rather than student learning, and the result is the teacher is in charge and the students are disengaged.

Yesterday, I thought about this classroom struggle for control when I began preparations to paint a bedroom. My wife is eight months pregnant with our second son, and we’re setting up the new baby’s bedroom. Now if you want instructional change to occur in your inner city high school, then I’m your guy to call. But I’m not who anyone would call if work needs to get done around the house. I try hard, but I’ll never be confused for a handyman or contractor. But painting is the one job around the house I really do well. I’ve painted every room, and I take pride in the task. So when my four year old and my wife said they wanted to paint with me, internally I balked. Out loud I said, “Sure, sounds great”, and then I began plotting ways to make sure they couldn’t help. I wanted to be in control and do it myself. My son was sure to paint the floor, and while my wife is perfectly capable, I just wanted to do it. But then I thought about the yarn, and I tried to imagine the benefits of us painting as a family… and I couldn’t come up with any. I wanted control. Every couple of months this happens to me. I have to look in the mirror and face the reality that I seem unwilling to make a choice that I ask teachers to make each and every day.

So I changed my painting preparations. I put more painters’ tape around the room than I ever would have before. I covered the entire floor with plastic, and taped it down so drips wouldn’t get on the rug, and I led us in a family painting cheer before we began. And you know what? It was great. Not only did we prime in half the time it would have taken me to do it myself, but we had so much fun. My son painted like a champion and followed every direction, and my wife, despite feeling huge, awkward, and uncomfortable, got to participate in the preparations for the baby’s arrival. I could tell that actively participating as something more than the incubator, meant so much to her. And the price was twenty extra minutes of preparation on my part.

There are so many necessary ingredients for good instruction to occur. But we often spend all our time focusing on materials, certifications, access to technology and class sizes. In inner city schools, our students enter our classrooms with so much baggage. For me the first day of school was and still is filled with the promise of incredible learning to come. For many of our students, the first day of school is filled with the promise of more frustration, disconnection and failures.

As leaders, we must model with our teachers the contract of trust, shared learning, and collaboration we want to see in classrooms across our schools. If we want teachers to give up control to their students, school leaders must create and live aculture where failure is not only accepted, but desired for learning to occur.

It’s easy to lose sight of our intended outcomes. I still want to hold the television remote, because I like to be in charge. And my wife, because she loves me, is willing to look past this character flaw. But when I considered painting the room, I lost sight of the goal. Because I’m busy, I thought of room painting as a task to check off the long To Do List. We do this in classrooms all the time. I need to get through the content, to get to the next piece of discrete content. But painting a bedroom, and teaching kids is so much more than checking off content or tasks from a checklist. We’re changing our family, and it is and will be a mess. My son is shifting from only child to older brother, and that’s going to take time. Our family routines and rituals will all dramatically change. In a classroom, learning done right is never clean, and it never happens quite the way you expect it to occur. There are drips all over the floor, it takes so long, and frankly it’s a mess.

Some teachers love the mess, and know inherently how to create this culture and climate in their classrooms. But not everyone does. As leaders, we set the tone. Speaking for myself, I can’t set a meaningful tone, if I’m not living my beliefs myself. This afternoon, we’ll have Family Painting Part II. It’s sure to be messy, and not exactly what I want, or how I want it. But the room will be beautiful in the end, and years from now, we’ll remember the process more than we remember the outcome.

Isn’t that what really matters?

CC Images:

Remote by kevinthoule

ball of yarn by chatirygirl

Paint by maury.mccown

Ingredients for dinner by Pingu1963

This is cross posted on my blog, Growing Good Schools


  1. Bill Burkhead said:

    Eric: good stuff! My kids are now 13 and 12 and it seems like yesterday when they used to help me, without monetary promises, with yard work. I remember initially getting frustrated when the nice neat piles of leaves I created were re-raked and strewn about by the kids. Although they were “helping” it took me another 2 hours to clean up. By allowing them to help and not complain about the mess they made- I gave up some control, but created some outstanding family time memories!

    I recently sat down with a teacher to discuss ways to improve his already outstanding unit on Global warming. Students presented projects with options of power point or presentation boards. I asked him if he considered having students make videos, or even documentaries modeled after Al Gores. He responded that he did not offer the expanded use of technology because he wasn’t comfortable using it. I simply responded “let the kids teach you and invite me in when they do.” His eyes lit up and he proceeded to tell me last time he allowed the kids to “run with it” he had some unbelievable products, including a girl who wrote and illustrated her own elementary children’s book. He left the room excited to provided students more opportunities, therefore, releasing some of his control. I told him the new wave of education is where the teacher is the facilitator and cannot possibly know everything. I look forward to entering his class again this year when students have unlimited opportunity to showcase their talents.

    February 20, 2011
    • Eric Juli said:

      Thanks for the comment Bill.

      Isn’t it amazing how students far exceed our expectations when we let them run with an idea? It’s our parameters, our thinking, and our limitations that slow down students and their ideas. I believe the culture our students need begins with the superintendent. He/She must empower principals, so they in turn empower their teachers. Teaching and learning is so beautiful when done in a collaborative culture of learning.

      As an aside, my father told me he had kids just for the yard work help-so I’d better get my son out there and trained for leaf raking.



      February 20, 2011
  2. John Ebner said:


    Great information. At a recent conference, I attended a session on having the students as mentors and teachers to other students and teachers. As an Elementary Technology Specialist, I am well aware that many of the students in my computer lab are extremely versed in technology. I’ve always tried to get my students to understand that we are all teachers and learners.


    February 20, 2011
    • Eric Juli said:

      Thanks for your comment John.

      When I attended Educon a few weeks ago at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, I learned of their student teacher program, where high school students are co-teaching sections of a course they’ve already successfully completed. I also once saw a video of a New Zealand Kindergarten/1st grade class leading a professional development session on whiteboards for teachers in their school. Students are ready to lead us, we just need to have a school culture that welcomes student leadership.



      February 20, 2011
  3. Mike Lewis said:

    I’m lucky enough to work in a school where I don’t feel restrained by power and control exerted from administrators or students. However, I do tend to feel like my decisions for my classroom can make some of my colleagues feel uncomfortable. I try to model trust that they’re decisions are in the best interest of their students and for themselves.

    I can’t imagine how difficult my life would be if I had to worry about my students and my administration. This profession is never going to be easy but I appreciate hearing your thoughts about your decision making process.

    I won’t give up the belief that the climate you speak of can exist in all public educational settings. My question is: What can teachers do to model the idea of cohesion without compromising their beliefs, such as you did while painting?

    February 20, 2011
    • Eric Juli said:


      I also believe a climate of trust, care and collaboration can exist in all classrooms in every school. I think it’s tougher in inner city schools, but far from impossible. When teachers like you share your successes with your colleagues, it encourages others to try what you do. Ultimately trying something new, like letting a four year old paint a bedroom, or giving up control in the classroom, takes a leap of faith. I believe it’s up to leaders, teachers and principals, to create a culture where that leap is supported, whether it’s successful or not.

      Thanks for the response,


      February 20, 2011
  4. Jordan Wolfe said:

    Great post! I think you hit the nail on the head about the role of power and control in the classroom, and how it can hinder participation and students owning their education experience. Power and control work as a race to the bottom the same way that trust and empowering your students can work as a race to the top.

    February 20, 2011
    • Eric Juli said:

      We’re so consumed with standardized test results, and plowing through our day, or week or semester, that we lose sight of the joy of what brought us into school to begin with. I love when a student surprises me, with a funny comment or an insight. But to get there, each classroom has to be a place where learning can occur, absent power and control as the guiding factors in the classroom.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts,


      February 20, 2011
  5. I recently conducted a DISC retreat with the Waverly-Shell Rock school administrative team to identify behavioral preferences and tendencies based on the DISC model. It was a powerful experience for the team to learn why they might drive each other crazy and how they might capitalize on their differences. The superintendent has also used DISC assessments/profiles as part of the hiring process for key positions to gauge the candidate’s goodness of fit with the current admin team and the district’s goals.

    The W-SR superintendent & I have co-presented different versions of DISC workshops with School Administrators of Iowa, and at the North Central Association’s Conference on Accreditation and School Improvement.

    February 22, 2011
    • Eric Juli said:


      Thanks for leaving a comment.

      I’m not familiar with the DISC model. It sounds like it’s relevant for leaders building a team and purposefully not surrounding themselves with only like-minded people. Are there any applications for teacher and student interactions in a classroom?



      February 23, 2011
      • Hi, Eric,

        Thanks for the response.

        You’re correct – a DISC workshop is very useful with both established and evolving teams. DISC assessments and resultant reports are written at a 9th grade reading level, but I’ve found them best interpreted and applied by an adult respondent. Teachers certainly could apply lessons learned about their behaviors when interacting with students, as well as with parents.

        If you’d like more information on the relevance of DISC for school leaders, I can put you in contact with superintendents for whom I’ve conducted workshops. Email me at angie@angiechaplin.com. I can also email a sample DISC report for you to see the breadth and depth of information the leader learns about his/her behavioral tendencies.

        Take care,

        February 23, 2011

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