Recruiting followers: a lesson from the class room

Any change programme needs followers, those people that will get behind what is happening and give it critical mass.  What makes followers follow?  Do we nurture them or just expect people to leap on our passing band wagon?
Many years ago as a fledgling teacher I was taken under the wing of a very wise experienced colleague, John,  who gave me a few tips on how to win round the toughest Year 10 group that the school had put together.  Some crazy management idea that if you put all the worst behaved kids in one class it would put all the disruptive influence in one place which would help all the other students achieve their potential.  Pity the poor teacher, (me), that had to find ways to enable these young people to find their way to success. 
John’s observation was that in general 20% of the class wanted me to succeed and given slight encouragement would be supportive. 60% would sit on the fence and go with whichever side was in the ascendancy.  Of this group some were more supportive than others and would leave their lofty perch sooner rather than later.  This left what John eloquently described as ‘the greatly troubled’ whose sole objective was the status they achieved through their notoriety.   Let’s face it, these children had very little going on in their lives that could offer them hope of achievement in any other form.
John suggested I start by winning over ‘the supporters’.  Rather than focusing attention on problem students make sure the ones that wanted me to succeed felt valued such that they understood I wanted them to be winners.  Within two lessons this had been achieved and some of the ‘fence sitters’ also decided to join this group.  Bringing the 60% over to my side meant working on them a few at a time.  Plenty of praise to reward good behaviours and giving them opportunity to be successful paid off.  Eventually after a few weeks things had vastly improved, I had a critical mass of followers.  80% were now working well and on my side.  John’s advice was now to divide and rule, pick off ‘the greatly troubled’ one at a time.  It started by paying each special attention, arranging for comments by their head of year about their good behaviour at school assembly. Being praised for doing good in front of 200 of your peers makes it difficult to maintain a ‘hard man’ image. Gradually each was won over until there was one left.  Only Wayne remained resolute in his defiance.
Unfortunately for Wayne I noticed him sitting at the front of one of his classes studiously grappling with some geographical activity.  I immediately sought advice from Mrs Jones the geography teacher, as to what magic she had used to achieve such a remarkable turnaround.  Wayne had apparently had a lapse of concentration in one lesson and forgot to be disruptive, he did just enough work to justify praising his progress.  Wayne never got praise usually, he liked it and next lesson evicted the swats from the front of the class so he could become Mrs Jones’ star pupil.
Not one to deprive Wayne of further success I commented to him that I’d heard how well he was doing in geography, how Mrs Jones had told me about his hard work and indeed ability.  He seemed genuinely flattered.  Before too long he was sitting at the front of my class, my new star pupil.
In all organisations we find supporters, fence sitters and the greatly troubled.  We need them all to become followers.  As John sagely said: ‘where there’s a Wayne, there’s a way’.

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