The Parallels Between a Teacher and a Leader

Taryn Akiyama
April 2, 2015

A classroom full of curious eyes stare back at me. I am the first American they have ever met. I am shorter and barely older than they are. I do not have teaching certification or a relevant degree. And yet, I am their English teacher. But as I have come to realize, I am also – in a way – their leader.

This year I am fulfilling a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship at a public university in the small town of Bolu, Turkey. I had a two-week orientation in Ankara during which the Fulbright Commission held myriad sessions on English language training. But once in Bolu, I was, for the most part, on my own in a new country and continent. I teach two classes for the English preparatory program in the School of Foreign Languages. In addition, I conduct after school speaking clubs for university students as well as professors.

After graduating from Claremont McKenna College, I was unsure how I would apply what I learned from taking the Leadership Studies Sequence and working at the Kravis Leadership Institute to real life. But as it turns out, I have found that many of the leadership concepts have been applicable to my Fulbright experience. In fact, I have discovered multiple parallels between being a teacher and being a leader.

You have followers that count on you.

If leadership is defined as an individual motivating a group of people to achieve a common goal, then arguably I am a leader and my students are my followers and our common goal is to learn English. I am in charge of motivating my students to learn English so that they pass the English proficiency exam and graduate from the English preparatory program. If I fail to lead properly or if they fail to take the initiative, they will have to repeat the year again and I will be held accountable.

You need to gain followers’ trust.

This has been particularly tricky for me due to my ripe age of 22, only a few years shy of my students’ ages yet a decade younger than professors in my speaking clubs. Despite not having teaching certification or an English degree, I have gained my students’ trust because I have proven my expertise. I possess expert power most of all because, unlike my Turkish colleagues, English is my native language so I have the advantages of innately knowing English pronunciation, inflection, and idioms.

You need to be confident and knowledgeable.

As a teacher, I need to stand up every day in front of a class and prove that I am know what I am doing. English is my native language, so evidently I am fluent in it. But to teach a language is to go beyond just knowing it. As a teacher, I need to be knowledgeable on not only what the correct grammar is, but also the reasons why. I need to be able to answer all my students’ questions and give them helpful answers in a way that they can understand.

You need to communicate effectively.

One of the most common phrases I hear is: “Teacher, I don’t understand.” While some of the students have a solid foundation in English, others have a minimal grasp on the language. I thus need to communicate in a way that makes it clear for them to understand (especially because I cannot translate to Turkish), such as through talking slowly, using more basic vocabulary, making lots of gestures, acting out scenarios, and drawing illustrations.

You need to possess emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is necessary for identifying when my teaching is working, but it’s even more important when my teaching is not working. After five hours of classes each day, students’ attention begins to wane. They become less talkative; they stare out the windows; they play on their phones; they put their heads down; they let out sighs. I need to have the emotional intelligence to recognize these signs and to detect student sentiment.

You need to respond to followers’ needs.

Beyond being cognizant of students’ needs, it is important to be responsive to them. I need to recognize that learning is no longer occurring and I need to change something. At times it is more productive to stop the course book and play an engaging game instead in order to maintain student attentiveness and to make English fun. After all, it is ultimately not about my teaching; it is about their learning.

You need to problem solve effectively and creatively.

Sometimes when introducing new games and activities, things can go awry and it is important to know how to adapt. Sometimes my students look at me with utter confusion on their faces; other times they look completely uninterested. So I need to hone my problem solving skills to either figure out another way to explain the activity, or scrap it completely and make up something else on the spot.

You need to inspire motivation.

This is by far the most difficult challenge that I have faced while teaching in Turkey. The majority of the students are only in this English preparatory program because they are forced to, not because they want to. It is hard to keep spirits high when these Turkish students have to think in a foreign language for twenty-four hours a week. But I do my best to be very enthusiastic and energetic in class and to prepare them for success in their academic career.

All in all, it has been a rewarding albeit challenging Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship thus far. I am surprised and pleased to find that I am able to apply many of the leadership concepts that I learned from the Leadership Studies Sequence and the Kravis Leadership Institute to my Fulbright experience. Learning about leadership has enhanced my teaching ability by providing a framework through which I can set goals and assess my performance. Since graduating from Claremont McKenna College, I have transformed from a “leader in the making” to — in my own small way on the other side of the world — simply, a “leader.”


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