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When we assume the role of teacher in a school and school district, we are granted several formal powers upon which we can draw. Because we represent the institution, we have the power to administer campus policies, uphold formal standards, and enforce institutional rules. In addition, our role as a teacher empowers us to establish classroom rules, create structures, develop procedures, assign tasks, evaluate progress and performance, determine grades, and perform other actions.

However, formal sources of power, as strong as they may be, have limits; relying too heavily on them can, in fact, undermine our effectiveness and even work against our goals of inspiring students, creating a positive learning environment, convincing students to persist, and positioning them to find meaning in their learning. Meanwhile, today’s students are less likely than previous generations to grant status and give deference to educators based on the formal role those educators play and the power granted to them by the institution.

Gaining the compliance, cooperation, and commitment of students today requires understanding, developing, and tapping a second set of powers. These powers are less formal and more relationship based, but they are ultimately far more powerful than the powers granted by the institution.

These informal powers come naturally to some people and are more challenging for others. Most of them can be developed with time and practice, even when they initially do not feel natural. Others may fit best for teachers with certain personalities and preferences. The truth is that we do not need to employ all these sources of power at once—or ever, even. The key is to be ourselves and tap the powers that fit who we are and how we choose to engage with our students.

Let’s explore five sources of influence that are not granted by our position, yet they have the potential to stimulate learning, build strong relationships, and even ignite lifelong aspirations for our students.

The first is credibility. Credibility comes from a deep knowledge of content, lived experience, and teaching expertise. Teachers with credibility can break down learning tasks, provide useful hints, and share effective strategies. They are quick to provide real-world examples and make interesting and useful connections. In doing so, they may share personal experiences and add meaningful context, and they can provide clear examples and explain implications related to what students are learning.

The second power is culture building. Teachers who tap this power create a sense of belonging for all students by cultivating mutual respect, establishing clear norms, and demanding inclusivity. Students in their classes often feel as though they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Students may even feel as though they are part of a team that supports everyone’s learning. As a result, students experience less isolation, reduced conflict, and strong connections.

The third informal power is charisma. Teachers who tap the power of charisma project confidence, passion, and energy. They often seem bigger than life and are the leaders whom students naturally want to follow. These teachers often have a rich sense of humor and may be fun-loving and playful. They demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence. Of course, not everyone may be a performer, but being authentic, optimistic, and confident can go a long way in building charisma.

The fourth source of informal power is connections. The power of connections can be seen in strong positive relationships with students and others, relationships typically based on caring, knowing, helping, understanding, and supporting students. These teachers believe in individual potential and are strong advocates for students’ needs and interests. Meanwhile, they are attuned to emotions, needs, and hopes. Careful listening is a central source of their influence. Consequently, they can more successfully navigate challenges and manage conflicts.

The fifth source is creativity. Teachers who tap this source of informal power are flexible and adaptable, quick to adjust to unique needs of students. They offer choices and other opportunities for students to experience empowerment, and they respond to the unexpected without losing sight of important goals. They may be skilled at improvisation, and often, they find humor in the absurd and ridiculous.

Without a doubt, success as a teacher requires the support that comes with formal, positional power. However, formal power is rarely enough to sustain our success. It is our access to our own informal influence that allows us to find sustainable success with students and nurture their learning in the face of inevitable challenges.

Thought for the Week

Are we being honest with our students if we claim neutrality on important, difficult, and complex issues?

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