Build Followers, Not Fear

  • Posted on: 19 May 2014
  • By: Tina McCoy

One of my favorite authors, Thomas Sergiovanni, wrote about the concept of 'followership'. He expressed the idea that without followers, there are no leaders. This begs the question, 'What is a follower?' From my perspective (and in the context of education), followers are professionals who think critically and choose to align themselves with a leader in order to fulfill a mutual cause or achieve a collective goal. Well, the age of accountability has been really hard on followers... the people who do the real work of educating our students.

Please don't misunderstand.  There is nothing wrong with accountability.  Internal accountability; collective accountability; reciprocal accountability; mutual accountability... all these are good and necessary for schools to refine their practices and find ways to provide better instruction and improve outcomes for students. The problem with accountability in education today is that is it something that is 'done to' schools and teachers. Rather than reinforcing the idea that the keys to school improvement are within the schools themselves, the educational accountability of today assumes that people must be driven. Educators are not followers under this paradigm. They are not dedicated professionals who have collective power to transform education.  They are underlings who must be managed, directed and controlled. They are not accountable; they are held accountable. They wait for the carrot or the stick, which will dictate how they must move forward.

If this sounds like an exaggeration, think again. The accountability system that has evolved (and continues to evolve) has been slowly changing the way people think, and not for the better.  I was recently at a presentation where a speaker was explaining to a group of school district leaders the new system of accountability that will be instituted in our state under a potential waiver that has been submitted to the federal government. He had a chart projected onto a large screen, and was explaining the targets for test scores (and how they must improve) for the next several years. After a few minutes the inevitable question came up: What will happen if we don't make the targets?

Of course, that question was bound to come up.  People want to know what will 'happen to them' and their organizations if they don't make the grade.  It's a reality of the era we live in.  I don't blame anyone for asking such a question, given the current educational climate.  However, when was the last time you heard someone ask, "What will happen if we do make the targets?"

What would happen?  Imagine if student achievement was significantly improved for all students, including those in the subgroups that are under high levels of scrutiny.  What would that be like? Higher levels of literacy, greater access to and progress within the general curriculum, more students with the ability to think critically and creatively and more students well prepared to enter competitive fields. In short, more opportunities and brighter futures for our students, who can grow up to make the world an even better place to live in.  What will happen if we DO improve?  That is the question we should be asking ourselves.  That is the question that can inspire us, and keep us going during challenging times.  

Without followers there are no leaders.  Those who would be leaders, must rise above the stick and carrot mentality that pervades education today to nurture and grow an empowered followership: dedicated professionals who are committed to working together to build a brighter future not because they 'have to', but because they desire to. Respectful, collective accountability must be strengthened, while external methods of control must be put in their place. Leaders must tap into the power and energy of their followers before more great teachers leave the profession for good. 

What will happen if we do improve?  Answer that question, and a vision for followership will unfold.