Cult of Pedagogy Search

Lessons in Personhood: 10 Ways to Truly Lead in Your Classroom


Can't find what you are looking for? Contact Us

Listen to this post as a podcast:

This post was originally contributed to Cathy Rubin’s blog, The Global Search for Education, on the Huffington Post. 


They are watching.

Every moment students spend in our rooms, amid the business of the day, the paper pushing and content coverage, amid the set-up and tear-down of projects, they hear everything we say. About ourselves. About the world. About them. They watch how we handle ourselves when we are pressed for time and when we receive gifts and when we screw things up.

So yes, deliver your curriculum. Yes, provide rich, hands-on, authentic learning experiences. Offer rigorous academic challenges. Raise the bar. Coach and guide. Nurture. Push. Advise.

But also be: To truly lead is to pay attention to who we are in the downtime, in the margins. To help them become the best people they are capable of becoming, we must first be those people.

We can do it in these ways:

1. Lead with imperfection.
Try things you’re not good at, right in front of them. Demonstrate a spirit of experimentation. Speak of your mistakes without judgment.

2. Lead with assertiveness.
Show them how a self-assured person says no. Show what it looks like to set firm limits, without apology and without hostility.

3. Lead with relationships.
Let them hear you laugh with other teachers, prioritize loved ones, and speak respectfully of your significant other. Let them see what healthy relationships look like.

4. Lead with language.
Use the right words to describe concepts. Avoid dumbing things down. Savor a good word when it presents itself.

5. Lead with self-control.
When a student makes you angry, think of how you tell students to handle their own anger. Then do that.

6. Lead with manners.
Say please and thank you. Avoid cutting people off mid-sentence. Have sensitive conversations in private. Respect other people’s time.

7. Lead with quality.
Take a few extra minutes to get something right. Do what you say you’re going to do. Proofread.

8. Lead with humor.
Laugh. Be silly. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Avoid mocking or ridiculing your students. Mock yourself instead.

9. Lead with enthusiasm.
Share your obsessions. Geek out on the things students think are uncool. Show them that it’s possible to fall in love with a forest, a perfect pizza crust, the moment when a song changes key.

10. Lead with humility.
When you don’t know something, say so. Allow for the possibility that you might occasionally be wrong. Check your ego. Apologize.

To stand before children—share physical space with them day after day—is a rare privilege. In every minute we spend together, they will learn something. Whatever it is we put before them, they will learn from it.

Let’s make it good. ♥


There’s plenty more where this came from.
Join my mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration—in quick, bite-sized packages—all geared toward making your teaching more effective and fun. To thank you, I’ll send you a free copy of my e-booklet, 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half. See you over there!



  1. Thanks. I needed to read this today. I try to live by these philosophies, bit it’s nice to see them listed out. Your list will also prove to be helpful as I prepare to train counselors for summer camp.

    • Thanks, Keith. It’s a good reminder to me as well — home all summer with my kids, I have to remember that they are picking things up from me all the time. I hope your counselors get something out of it too!

  2. Merrissa says:

    I really appreciate all of your insight on education. It’s so encouraging to hear other teachers who see teaching as an art- something that you never stop learning how to do in a new or better way.

  3. Kavi Razzaghi-Pour says:

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful and informative site. I happened to discover it by chance and now find myself going to it on a regular basis for information and inspiration. I live in a northern part of Sydney, teaching at a small specialized setting and find your website wonderful. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!

    • I’m so glad you found the site, and that it has been helpful. It’s good to have you here — can you tell me more about the setting you work in?

  4. Beautiful thoughts,simple and direct, easy to live by. I am eager to share these with my faculty as we work on building community this next school year. Thank you.

  5. Kimberly Ramsey says:

    I am about to enter my 14th year as a Language Arts/English teacher. I began in upper middle school and now enter my 4th year with 9th graders. I found early on that the old advice of coming in to each class really rigid and “Don’t smile until second semester” did not fit my personality. I set and maintain a high bar of expectation from day one in behavior and academic effort. But, I smile and laugh, listen and talk, make mistakes and enjoy the students. I succeed through consistency and love. Students find out very quickly that if I say it, I mean it – or, I do not bother to say it. My classroom rules are consistently enforced, but my love of the student is always present.

    • Fiona Hansen says:

      Keyword is love from which empathy, appreciation, sharing, establishing relationships and more begins.

  6. This is a fantastic article! I’ve been teaching high school English for over 25 years, and I feel that I only became truly effective when I “sacrificed” some hard-core subject matter instructional time to be a human being with my students. This open dialog allowed me to find more effective ways to present the actual curriculum. When I began sharing tidbits about my interests in music, comedy, and movies with my students, they began to share with me. I’ve even sung for my classes. These more personal moments when I give some of myself encourages my students to give more of their time and effort to my class.

    I especially liked the point you made that students will always learn something from us, even if it isn’t our subject. When I learned that lesson is when I really became a teacher.

    • Hi Tracey! It’s great to hear from you, and to hear how doing a little less content with students actually resulted in higher quality teaching — it’s a message I’m hearing more and more often, and it’s so true. Especially during the middle and high school years, when students are pulling away from their own parents, teachers become such significant role models in every way. And when we share of ourselves, the way you do about your own likes and dislikes, students feel more comfortable letting us get to know them. And that relationship building with students is such a HUGE part of good teaching.
      Glad this resonated with you, and I’m glad you’re here!

  7. J.J. Dugan says:

    Thanks for that article. I’ve taught English and ESL in high school for 20 years,
    and I have stayed true to the idea of “be yourself,” even though my first “mentor’ during student teaching was a true counter-example (enough said!). If the students get the feeling you are “above” them, and, in essence, too lofty to reveal yourself to them, how can they trust you? I maintain a professional distance, but I always try to connect with the students as people, with their interests, their heartaches, and their quirks. I was on the receiving end of their humanity when my brother called the school office during class time. Since he had never called me at work in 20+ years, I knew that our mother had died. I told my ESL class what happened, and the outpouring of sympathy was overwhelming – even male students felt comfortable enough to hug me and tell me how sorry they were. I will never forget their sincerity and warmth towards me at such a difficult moment.

  8. Kasturi says:

    Thanks a lot for the beautiful article! Hope to hear more from you.

  9. Ashley says:

    Wow. That last quote is so simple, yet so heavy! I teach middle school and make it a point to embarrass myself every day in some way. Embracing (and sometimes enhancing) my imperfections makes it so much easier for them to deal with theirs, which makes these awkward and wiggly hormones with feet feel so much more comfortable in my class. To me, that’s the most important part of my job.

  10. Simple, but powerful article. I am not a teacher, but used to work as a supervisor for a middle school after school program. While sometimes I had to work with staff on not revealing too much to students, and maintaining boundaries, I also saw how powerful it can be to let yourself be a little vulnerable with your students, and embracing your weirdness. Thanks for this wonderful article. I can’t wait to share it!

  11. Rebecca Najor says:

    I have absolutely loved reading your blog posts, and have been so inspired by your ideas, thoughts on education and variety of resources. You had me at “Find your Marigold” – printed it and purchased the mugs for my daughter’s first year teaching; she also found it to be very inspiring! Now this here: “But also be: To truly lead is to pay attention to who we are in the downtime, in the margins. To help them become the best people they are capable of becoming, we must first be those people.” BE = Better Everyday! This acronym is something my daughter taught me from her time working in her HS Student Council, which they chose as their “mantra”. Now it’s our mantra! Thanks for all you do!

  12. Sudeshna Moitra says:

    very encouraging.

  13. Hi Jennifer
    I totally admire the 10 principles requisite in any classroom.

  14. Your post are always so inspiring! Number 1 – leading with imperfect is my favorite suggestion, a fellow literacy coach and I write a whole blog about how teachers can lead with imperfection. Thanks for always encouraging people to grow and learn!

  15. Nicole Williams says:

    Jennifer, I appreciate your voice and I deeply value your work. I always look forward to reading your posts. When I first visited Cult of Pedagogy today, I read “We’re Killing Reading” which was quite insightful. I am very interested in reading more of Ripp’s work. I then saw a link to “Lessons in Personhood.” I have read this before and it truly inspired me again today. It reminds of the why of our work. While all of the lessons speak to me, leading with relationships and leading with humility both speak to my soul. Thank you for spreading powerful messages. Blessings to you!

  16. Wendy says:

    Please be careful with the self mocking. Younger kids don’t get sarcasm and if you’re modeling self deprecation that’s what your students will do.

    Moderation in all things.

  17. I love this blog! it is so sweet and simple.
    I am on my 2nd year of my educational journey and reading your blogs are really opening my eyes and my heart.
    I cannot wait to implement these lessons into my own classroom.
    Thank you so much!

  18. I loved hearing all the wonderful ideas. Thanks for the information. The children do watch us so carefully at school on what we say and how we react to situations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.