Eight habits of exceptional classroom leaders

Written by: Matt Ward | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is a wide range of skills that are required to make an exceptional classroom leader. Matt Ward picks out eight essential traits


We have all seen them, and they are in every school. Teachers that effortlessly control any group of pupils, from the most challenging to the most able.

Age or year group does not seem to matter; it is all the same to them. They can walk down any corridor and successfully influence even the most intractable, objectionable pupils, often with barely a glance.

Is this skill innate, or is it something learned over time?

It is my belief that exceptional classroom leadership is absolutely learned behaviour. Nobody is a great classroom manager when they first begin to teach. Great classroom leadership is a skill that is acquired over time, it is refined and built upon; it is a repertoire that is constantly being added to.

We could all learn a lot from such individuals. Let us examine what exceptional classroom leaders usually do that makes them so outstanding.


Exceptional classroom leaders...

...are predictable

Exceptional classroom leaders really understand the children they teach. More than this, they understand what their most basic, fundamental needs are. All children want you to make them feel safe. Do not underestimate how much the children we teach every day, no matter what age, want this. Exceptional classroom leaders accomplish this through relentless consistency.

When teachers consistently enforce predetermined and reasonable boundaries, lesson-in, lesson-out, they become utterly predictable to the pupils they teach. This means that in any given situation, from the lowest level misdemeanour to the highest level classroom crisis, the pupils in the classroom become able to predict what their teacher will do, and more importantly, that their teacher will do something. This, in turn, makes pupils feel safe with them.

...have a developed sense of ‘withitness’

“Withitness” is a heightened sense of awareness. It is knowing what is going on in all areas of the classroom at all times and because of this, exceptional classroom leaders are able to prevent unwanted behaviours in classrooms often before they occur.

Exceptional teachers have mastered “withitness”. They excel at just being aware of all their pupils and their interactions. They know who is on task and whose attention span is wilting; they know which pupils are stressed and who is on the verge of tears. They can see that the pupil in the corner is exploding with rage before he does so outwardly. This is the real skill in classroom management; anticipating issues and stopping them before they become a problem, not staving them off once they have occurred.

...are good at ‘overlapping’

Exceptional classroom leaders have the ability to manage two or more situations in a classroom at the same time, something that has come to be referred to as “overlapping”. Overlapping is critically linked to withitness. They go hand-in-hand in preventing, at a low level, behaviours before they become more serious.

Exceptional teachers manage pupils at generally much lower levels, when issues are still about work content, before behaviours become problematic issues and about pupils “acting out”.

...are ‘unflappable’

As teachers, we cannot really “control” anything that goes on inside any of our classrooms. If a child refuses to do something like take off their coat, or put away their phone, you cannot really make them. Only in very limited circumstances can you ever intercede physically.

There is only one thing that you absolutely can control; your own behaviour. Exceptional classroom leaders have complete control over themselves, even if they do not necessarily have complete control over the situations they are managing, or the children they teach.

It is this control, this personal “unflappability”, even sometimes in the face of the most horrendous circumstance, that counts. This self-control enhances or diminishes the degree to which children feel safe, or not, in your classroom. Even if the teacher is managing the most volatile situation imaginable, which they have not quite got a grip on yet, the fact that they are personally in complete control, leads children to conclude that Sir, or Miss “has got this”.

...work hard to prevent ‘dead spots’ in their rooms

Exceptional classroom leaders maintain the flow of lessons to prevent the emergence of dead spots. Dead spots are the portions of a lesson where the flow is interrupted, or the pace begins to meander and slow, thereby encouraging off task, distracted types of behaviour. A skilled classroom leader anticipates this waning and changes tasks or direction to refocus pupil attention on the lesson and maintain its flow.

Exceptional classroom leaders try to ensure that their lessons are smooth and that the transitions from one activity to the next are almost seamless.

...are highly counter-intuitive

Some of the very best and most impactful classroom leadership is also the most counter-intuitive. Part of this comes with experience, but part comes from “unflappability”, the deeply held belief some teachers have, that no matter what happens inside their classroom, they are in control.

This type of confidence is effervescent. Pupils can see it and innately recognise it almost immediately. Often this comes through counter-intuitive classroom management, not following the predictable methods of traditional behaviour management, which can often make situations worse. Not shouting at a child when their behaviour would normally require that response. Being gentle and calm when others would go “off the deep end”. It is highly impactful and exceptional classroom leaders are usually masters at this.

...are reflective practitioners, especially over their own practice

Exceptional classroom leaders are always reflecting upon their practice. They make mistakes too; no matter how long you teach, you will never get to a point in your career where you reach perfection in your classroom management. Exceptional classroom leaders constantly reflect upon their own practice and tweak it, where necessary.

Some of the best behaviour CPD is often just down the corridor. Exceptional classroom leaders are always looking at how other people manage problematic students and situations, and how they can incorporate different approaches into their own behaviour arsenal. So, get out of your classroom, and go and watch your colleagues, especially those who do not seem to struggle with “that” class or “that” particular pupil. See how they do things and see if there is anything that they are doing that you could incorporate into your own practice.

...never take it personally

In all my years of teaching, I have taught many pupils labelled as “challenging”. Yet I have never taught a child that genuinely wanted to upset or hurt me. In fact, in my experience, when children do realise they have genuinely upset a teacher, they are often horrified. It is almost never personal for the children we teach. The children we teach don’t see us as we are, people with lives and families, hobbies and ambitions, they merely see us as “Sir” or “Miss”. We should, difficult though this sometimes is, act accordingly.


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