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95 DECEMBER 2006
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Beyond blame: A lead management approach

William Glasser and Robert Wubbolding

Power struggles between teachers and students may have no clear instigator. Rather than assigning blame when difficulties arise in the classroom, teachers can use an alternative “lead management” approach, based on William Glasser’s choice theory. Strategies for implementing lead management are provided.

Lee’s Story:
I’ve been teaching seventh grade for the past 16 years, and I consider myself a good teacher. I’ve always enjoyed getting to know my students by going to extracurricular events, taking them on trips, and being an informal counselor when a student needed advice. Over the years, I’ve acquired a reputation for being a fair, consistent, somewhat stern disciplinarian. I’m in charge of my classroom, and the students have always known where they stood with me. If they followed my rules, they wouldn’t get in trouble. During trips, I let myself shift mental gears and be a little more friendly.

But in recent years, things have changed. First of all, the local administration, school board, and even the state department of education have become more demanding. I have more paperwork and must spend more preparation time than ever before. To make matters worse, the students' behavior is more disruptive, and they don’t appreciate me like they used to. Lately, I’ve seen more tardiness, sloppy work, missed assignments, apathy, and disrespectful remarks. They refuse to listen and they are more verbally rebellious and challenging. Beyond that, they are impulsive, angry, and resentful toward authority. I feel burned out. I don’t want to spend time with these kids “it’s enough to try to deal with their disruptive behavior in the classroom! All I want to try to do anymore is get through the subject matter. I’ve had enough. I’m ready to toughen up on the rules. In fact, the whole school needs to beef up enforcement of the rules.

Last Monday was a good example. One of my students, Randy, who’d been giving me trouble constantly, came storming into class – several minutes after the bell had rung. He slammed his books on the desk, noisily sat down, and grimaced at me! I told him that his behavior was not acceptable, and I sent him to the principal’s office. How can I be expected to teach with this kind of constant disruption?

Randy’s Story:
I’m a seventh grader and this is my first year at this school. I still haven’t gotten used to all the rules they have around here – there are so many of them, and half of them are just stupid. I’m never going to get friends by being a goody-goody, and I’m not going to follow rules that a bunch of control freaks made up just to keep me from doing what I want. Mr. Smith’s class is the worst. He is way too uptight. If you break a rule in Mr. Smith’s class, he goes ballistic.

Like one time last week, I was just a few minutes late for his class because I missed my bus and had to walk all the way to school. Well, I came in and set my books down on the desk, and he gives me this dirty look! So I give it back to him. And he goes off, yelling at me, getting all red in the face: “I’ve had it with you! You can’t come stomping in here like you own the place. Take your books and leave. Go to the assistant principal’s office! I can’t teach when you act like this".

Who’s to Blame?
So who is to blame for this power struggle? These fictional characters and their attitudes described above are probably familiar to most professionals who work with young people. Depending on one’s experience and perspective, there are two clear ways to view this interaction:

1. Randy disrupted the class, which is not permissible in a learning environment. He was inconsiderate at best and disrespectful at worst, and he openly defied the rules. The school needs to find swift and severe consequences for this kind of insupportable behavior, especially in light of the trend toward increasing antisocial behavior among young people. Could it be that the amount of pathology and maladjustment among young people is increasing? If so, the situation will surely get worse if behavior like Randy’s is left unchecked.
2. Lee lost his temper, shouted at Randy, and treated him in a demeaning manner. He should be blamed for provoking the student, and making him even more resentful. In this kind of conflict cycle, Randy is obligated to take further action to “get even:” After all, he has been humiliated in front of his peers. Or perhaps he even enjoys the attention. Either way, the principal should reprimand Lee, and in fact all teachers who persist in an authoritarian discipline approach to the students of the '90s.

While both of these perspectives are based on some valid points, there is a third way to view this interaction, which is intended to be symbolic of both student misbehavior of varying severity and of more widespread school difficulties. The real problem lies not in the behavior of either individual, but in the system of communication and management that characterizes the interactions between students and teachers as well as how the building itself is managed. Neither the student nor the teacher is to blame in this situation. They both chose behaviors that seemed justified and appropriate to the situation from their perspectives. However, both responses were totally ineffective. What Lee and Randy need is a replacement for outdated authoritarian approaches to classroom management.

Lead Management
Lead management is a term is used by William Glasser (1990, 1991, 1996) to describe a democratic style of management and its accompanying communication technique. The lead manager is the opposite of the boss manager, whose motto is, “It’s my way or the highway:” Among the many differences in management styles between boss and lead managers is that the lead manager seeks to involve students and faculty in decision making and appeals to people’s intrinsic motivation rather than relying on external stimuli of rewards and punishments to keep control.

This system of management is based on choice theory (Glasser, 1996). Human beings have five sources of motivation which are internal and not derived from external stimuli. These needs are:

  1. Survival (physical needs)

  2. Belonging

  3. Power or Achievement

  4. Freedom

  5. Fun

When these needs are fulfilled at school, students behave better, learn more, and see education as valuable and important to them.

Three Principles of Lead Management
Teachers can utilize a lead management style and create a classroom environment that is fun, friendly, and fair by beginning with the following three principles:

  1. Elicit students' input. Class or group meetings are an excellent way to get students' input on a wide variety of subjects relevant to a classroom or organization. Seat the students in a circle and ask them about what quality work is and how they would recognize it. Ask them about quality behavior. What is their best effort? What rules should be established for the classroom? Post these rules on flip chart paper and ask all students to sign the paper indicating their agreement. Conduct other meetings on a variety of topics interesting to the students and relevant to the curriculum (Glasser, 1990, 1991). Ask them how they think they can best learn the content of the class. Even if teachers cannot implement all the ideas, they usually discover that students have excellent suggestions. Moreover, when students are asked to evaluate their suggestions, they learn valuable lessons about recognizing that they cannot get everything they want at all times. Most important, they feel that the teacher listens to them. Eliciting student input helps meet students” needs for power and freedom.

  2. Learn and use the WDEP system of Reality Therapy
    (Glasser, 1965; Wubbolding, 1988, 1991, 1996). When problem solving with students, ask them what they Want from the class, from the school, from themselves, and from the teacher. Ask them how hard they Want to work to get what they want. Ask them about what they are Doing, especially when they misbehave. Avoid asking “why?” as it will only elicit excuses. Lessen the number of lectures about what students ought to be doing and substitute questions that touch the inner needs and wants of the students. Most important, teachers need to ask students to Evaluate their behavior, their effort, and their school work. Is what they are doing helping or hurting themselves, the class, etc.? Is what they are doing against the rules which they have agreed to keep? And then, can they make a Plan of action – a simple, doable Plan to do better. Recognize that this is a skill that students need to learn. Good planning will not happen with the first question.

  3. Focus on meeting needs rather than controlling behavior: Abandon questions about how to control students' behavior and ask the more fundamental questions about how to help students and faculty tap into the five basic human motivators. When these needs are met, school experiences “feel good:” At faculty meetings, discuss possibilities for meeting these needs. Relate the eagerness students feel for athletics, drama, art, or other absorbing activities to the academic curriculum. Why are they excited to learn and work hard in some areas but not in others? These and other questions have no simple answers. But there are answers, and with commitment, they can be applied to other areas, academic and otherwise.

The Replay
What if Lee and Randy were able to replay the scene and try a different approach? Using the three principles of lead management described above – eliciting Randy’s input, using the WDEP system, and focusing on Randy’s basic needs – Lee would probably have been able to maneuver toward a more peaceful outcome:

In the classroom:
L: Randy, I can see you’re upset. Let’s step out in the hall and talk for a moment.
R: Whatever. Out in hall:
L: Something must have happened that got to you.
R: Yeah, right. I missed my bus and I ran all the way here, and this is the thanks I get!
L: That must have been really frustrating. I’d like to talk with you more about it after class, but I need to get the lesson started now. Do you want to stay here until you feel better or do you want to come into class?
R: I don’t know.
L: Which would help you more?
R: I guess I can go into class now. After class:
L: I wanted to talk a minute about what happened when you came in late to class. What did you do to handle the situation?
R: Hey, you’re lucky I got here at all. I told you I missed the bus, and I ran all the way over here!
L: I appreciate your effort to get here. I need to ask you though, did the way you entered the class help the other students learn and help me teach?
R: Well ...I guess it hurt.
L: What would be another way you could handle things if this situation comes up again?
R: I don’t know. I guess I could come in the back door and try to be more quiet.

An alternative short-term resolution might occur in the class. After Randy enters the room as described earlier, Lee could simply have said, “Randy, that’s one way to come in. That was a practice run. Could you go out and come in again, this time for real?”

Both of these approaches help Randy to evaluate his own behavior instead of merely trying to control him externally. If Lee wants to have the kind of student behavior in the classroom as well as high-quality work so appreciated by teachers, he will continue such interactions that use this lead management style based on internal controls.

A Daily Tool
Lead management comprises both immediately useful techniques and long-range thinking and discussion. A teacher who adopts the questioning skills, summarized by the WDEP acronym, has a useful tool which can be used every day. But if the school overall is to meet the needs of students, faculty, and administration, the philosophy of quality and lead management and the rationale behind these ideas should be practiced as well.


Glasser, W. (1965). Reality therapy. New York: Harper-Collins.
Glasser, W. (1990). The quality school. New York: Harper-Collins.
Glasser, W. (1991). The quality school teachers. New York: Harper-Collins.
Glasser, W. (1996). Choice theory. New York: Harper-Collins.
Wubbolding, R. (1988). Using reality therapy. New York: Harper-Collins.
Wubbolding, R. (1991). Understanding reality therapy. New York: Harper-Collins.
Wubbolding, R. (1996). Reality therapy training (9th ed.). Cincinnati: Center for Reality Therapy.

This feature: Glasser, W. and Wubbolding, R. (1997) Beyond Blame: A Lead Management Approach. Reaching Today’s Youth Vol. 1 (4). pp. 40 “42

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