An Ode To Not Being A Leader…Or A Follower

Why Do You Need to Be A Leader?

not a leaderOh wait…you don’t!

One of the most overused terms in education today is the word LEADER. When you think about leaders in your schools who are they? How many of them hold system wide titles of LEADER?

-instructional leaders

-student leaders

-administrative leaders

-curriculum leaders

-lead learners

My experience is that some of the people in the education system who are labelled as leaders are not really leaders at all. Rather they fill a role of disseminating information and top down educational pedagogy to the masses (teachers) in an effort to create a homogenized system. For some educators, this is rich nourishment for the teaching soul which provides direction on how to best teach their students. If you happen to be a member of this particular group I think that is great. So long as you objectively question what best practices are being shared and adopt only those that will best serve your students.

There is however another group of educators out there (of which I am a member) who find the number of ‘leaders’ identified in our system and the expectation that everyone should be a leader to be somewhat problematic. My concerns are 3 fold:

1) Most leaders are not selected by their peers and often do not reflect the experiences and identified areas of need deemed important by many educators. This results in people being placed in ‘leadership positions’ who are not truly leaders of the people they have been selected to lead.

2) The pressure being placed on teachers and students alike to ‘be a leader’ (in the educational mold) is counter productive. There are many like myself who are not interested in being what the system deems as being a leader and does not feel comfortable placing those expectations on students. Susan Cain’s  book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, discusses how society has placed negative labels on introverts and artificially elevated the importance of being an extrovert. I have many students over the years who have crumbled under the pressure of being bullied into being what they are not, in the attempt to make them fit the current narrow definition of a leader. 

3) It is OK not to want to be a leader…or a follower! Using Twitter, PLC’s, interaction with colleagues and engaging students voice, I am able to work collaboratively with the world around me without the power based (inconsequential) label of leader.

I do not want to be led by others and I am not interested in being an institutional leader. Rather I want my students and I to learn to make personal connections with anyone and everyone who can help us accomplish all of the things we wish to accomplish. I have no time or energy for labels, succession plans, hierarchies etc.

In the end, I just want to work with anyone who can help me achieve my goals, help my students achieve their goals and assist anyone who can use our help or expertise.

So please, when you come to my classroom, check your ‘leader’ label at the door. We are all working, learning and sharing our talents which each other.


If you have any comments I would love to hear them.


How I Run A No-Grades Classroom

no grades picture   by Mark Janke

Many people question how a no-grades classroom can work, how can a teacher run such a class and still complete report cards? What is important to remember is that there are many ways to run a no-grades classroom, this piece explain how I do it and how it has benefited my students.

First I do assign the students grades, they just don’t see them. just like every other teacher I have a mark book filled with numbers that attempt to represent my students learning. While I may not personally believe the number helps my students learn (in fact I find it a hindrance), I do ensure that I am doing what is expected of me as a teacher. In my class students are given marks/numerical grades whenever they ask for them. It just so happens no student has asked me for a grade since early October.

My classroom is built upon an inquiry based learning model with student/teacher created success criteria and teacher feedback (I continue to try to attempt more peer and self feedback). It is our belief that all students need to focus on how to improve their skills and develop pride in their work. This pride must come from inside, and not be based on a number assigned by a teacher or peer. Students tell me they love the freedom they enjoy to explore topics and areas of interest yet they also feel the burden of having to take more ownership over their own learning. They agree however that the occasional stress they feel with driving their own learning is far less than they felt when receiving numerical grades. The students explained to me that after seeing a numerical grade they were unlikely to read any comments.

As a class we focus on providing feedback on specific skills we deem to be important. We use the feedback rubric (posted below) as it provides success criteria for the assigned task, an easy to read/follow format and specific feedback on student/teacher created indicators. If a student receives feedback in concerns box it means they have not yet achieved the expectation (which would correspond to a level 1 or 2). If the expectation is highlighted or checked they met the expectations (level 3). If they receive feedback in the mastery box they have exceeded the expectation which would generally be a level 4. Using this method the students have a general idea how they are doing based on the location of the written feedback and the nature of it. And yet there is no grade, level or numerical assessment.

science epic fail pic

I have seen many of my students flourish using this tool and by eliminating numerical grades. Stress has decreased, focus on improving specific skills has increased which has resulted in improved work and greater confidence. I can’t imagine going back to the assigning of grades. That being said, I do record them and make them available to any student who wishes them.

If you would like to know more please feel free to ask.

All the best,


Can Throwing Out Grades Help Students with a Mental Health Illness?

You bet it can!

It also helps nearly all of our students reduce personal levels of anxiety. Don’t take my word for it, here are two examples of how my grade 7/8 students this year are experiencing a no grades classroom for the first time.

eliminate grades

Student A is an above average student who routinely works hard to produce her best work. Last year she would routinely worry about what grade she would receive on completed work. Often asking me to look at her work ahead of time and provide a preliminary grade so she would know how much more work she needed to do to achieve a higher grade. When she occasionally submitted lower level work for her (as well all do at times) she would begin to spiral out of control with worry about failing.

This year, without grades she is a much happier/positive person and is now finally enjoying the learning process. Recently we talked about how this year was different than last year and she told me it all comes down to not having the pressure of grades. Several times last year she came to me stressed that she lost marks (in this case 10%) on her writing piece (she got 90%) and how she could get to 100%. This past week she laughed about how much pressure she felt to get a certain grade and how she hated school because of it. Without grades she now focuses on the feedback provided and is finally able to celebrate the good that she is doing and focus on improving her skills to be ready for high school next year.

Student B is a hard working student who has academic and anxiety challenges. She explained to me that she was dumb. That it took her longer to complete her work than the ‘normal kids’ and that her grades proved that she is simple not smart and never will be. There is nothing that makes a teacher feel worse than to hear these words…you all know what I mean. She began this year with a high level of anxiety and little hope for her learning future. Her challenges with anxiety began to spiral out of control and led to some significant challenges.

After spending a significant amount of time working with her to understand the nature of her fears we realized it led back to her perception of her peers and the crushing finality of grades. Removing grades from the equation resulted in a fairly quick change in her feelings. As she expresses to me, I can now see past the number as there isn’t one. There are things I can do really well, but I did not know this before. I still struggle and get frustrated by things like math, but now I can usually get it by working hard.

In the span of a couple of months, Student A and Student B have reduced their anxiety levels about school in general, developed a more open mindset about learning in general (especially at school) and are much more invested in the learning process.

Elimination of grades = decreased anxiety

Elimination of grades = increase in positive self-esteem

Elimination of grades = focus on mastering skills, not achievement of a number

Elimination of grades = a more open mindset to learning

***Any students who wish to know their numeric grade on an assignment may simply ask me and I will provide it. No one has asked in the past 6 months.