Debate Magazine

Preparing the Followers of Tomorrow

By Stevemiranda

Last year at PSCS, I approached the desk of my administrative assistant to have a brief conversation about sensitive information. A student was sitting nearby.

I said to the student, “I need to have a private conversation here, would you mind giving us a few moments please?”

The student responded, with not a hint of attitude, “Why? I was here first. Besides, you shouldn’t keep secrets from students.”

“The information I need to discuss is private and it’s personal,” I said.

I went on to explain that, as interim school director, I had a very important job and that a lot of people were counting on me. While it’s true that we value openness and candor as a school, there need to be some limitations to protect people’s privacy.

I suggested to the student that she could be an effective member of the school community by recognizing the importance of my role as interim director, as well as respecting my status as an elder.

I reiterated: “I need to have a private conversation here. Would you mind giving us a few moments please?”

The student smiled and said, “OK.”

* * *

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was teaching the student about “followership.”

I’d never heard this word until a friend sent me an article titled, “Good leaders need good followers. Some tips on ‘followership.’”

The author writes,

The truth is that leadership, however inspired or effective, is but a part of the whole. The other half of the equation, the other side of the coin, the yin for the yang, is good followership. What in the world is that? Paul Beedle, a Unitarian minister, describes “followership” as:

“The discipline of supporting leaders and helping them to lead well. It is not submission, but the wise and good care of leaders, done out of a sense of gratitude for their willingness to take on the responsibilities of leadership, and a sense of hope and faith in their abilities and potential.”

Beedle signals his awareness of a problem, at least in some quarters, with the whole notion of being a follower: that it means “submission.” It does not. Good followers are active, thinking, engaged, responsive. They think for themselves. And they value the role leaders play in helping organizations and institutions to be healthy and effective.

* * *

The article correctly points out that schools are quick to trumpet how they’re preparing the “leaders of tomorrow.” But the question then becomes, who is training the followers? And what kind of followers are they training?

As a society, we say we’re preparing young people for participation in a democracy by teaching them about the words in the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. But traditional schools do this in an environment in which students have such little agency that they actually need explicit permission before they’re allowed to use the bathroom. As Alfie Kohn has written, “High school is excellent preparation for participation in a totalitarian state.”

A thriving democratic society needs great leaders, but it also needs great followers. Remember, good followers are active, thinking, engaged, and responsive. They think for themselves. And they value the role leaders play in helping organizations and institutions to be healthy and effective.

We can create schools that produce both great leaders and great followers, and I don’t think it’s that hard. But it will require a radical redefinition of the relationship between teachers and students.

(Join the discussion at www.facebook.com/reeducate. Get updates at www.twitter.com/reeducate.)


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