Teaching and Leading Positively, Part 2: Where Change Can Happen

January 22, 2013

By: Robert E. Quinn

Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

This six-part series, “Teaching and Leading Positively,” explores the goals of teaching positive leadership: not merely to serve as an instructor conveying the theories or practices drawn for positive organizational scholarship, but to prompt lasting transformation in the way our students work and live. Serving as this kind of catalyst requires full engagement on our part. We must live from the positive leadership framework, allowing our students to learn by our example, each other’s, and their own.

The movie Freedom Writers is about a teacher named Erin Gruwell. She enters an impoverished school and eventually learns how to connect with her students.  She reaches extraordinary levels of performance, and her students change. At one point, she reflects on her teaching and she says, “I finally realized what I’m supposed to be doing, and I love it. When I’m helping these kids make sense of their lives, everything about my life makes sense to me. How often does a person get that?”

Her comment is reminiscent of statements I’ve heard from many top-level public school teachers. Teaching is not their job. It is their calling. When they are teaching, they are helping students make sense of their lives. The impact of doing such work loops back to the teacher, and the teacher finds increased meaning in his or her own life.

As someone learns to teach or lead in a transformational way, the activity becomes self-reinforcing because the teacher or leader is also being transformed. I find this in my own work, and awaken to it with every class session.

Yesterday was the first day of my new MBA class. We meet all day for five Saturdays. The syllabus is long, carefully written, and signals many of the ways this class is different. The first thing I did was put up a question. “How will you be different at the end of the semester?”

There was a long pause, and then the answers—meaningful answers—started to come. I later asked another question, and a student spoke about spending his life trying to measure up to his brother. It was very authentic moment, and I called attention to that authenticity.

Others, too, recognized the power in his words. As the day went on, the collective authenticity increased:  I could see people making sense of their lives and changing in real time. At the end of the day, a couple of students approached me. They both told intimate stories of confused life direction and asked if they could make an appointment with me to talk privately.

As I drove home, I felt a sense of awe. I was helping my students make sense of their lives, and doing that makes sense of my life. As I pondered this thought, another thought came to me. When I am teaching with the intent to change lives, I transcend my own ego.

During the period of teaching, I am intensely focused on what the students are saying, what their needs are, and how I can minister to those needs. It is an act of selflessness, and I am filled with love. Because I am filled with love, the room is filled with love. Because it is, change can happen, even in a university classroom.