Category Archives: Core Principles

Decentralize Command

Teachers are leaders. As leaders, they must reckon with the Laws of Combat: Prioritize and Execute, Cover and Move, Simple, and Decentralize Command. If a teacher is going to do these things in a formal leadership role, then the teacher has to be able to take a step back while students are learning and detach, observe, and be the strategic genius. That means that students have to be trained to self-direct and to make decisions, and that students must lead each other at times so that the teacher can gather data and manage relationships during class.


In Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin give examples of Decentralize Command in both combat and business. In the combat examples, we see subordinates taking initiative and leading up the chain of command to prevent friendly fire incidents and make their teams more efficient and lethal. The business example explained that leaders cannot lead large numbers of subordinates effectively, and that leaders should plan the distribution of direct reports among subordinates leaders carefully.

If we do not apply Decentralize Command, then we have to have control of everything in the room at once. Control works in both directions: if we cannot step back from a group’s activities to observe and manage at a small distance, then that group controls us through its behavior and performance. This keeps us from stepping outside the activity to see how students fare when directing themselves and leading each other. This is not Teachership.

Having to control all action in the room also forces us to use identical activities to help each student learn. Each student is unique, so, while this might seem the most fair way to do things, it is actually very unjust, because it cannot optimize growth for each student. Students at either margin — those who struggle most and those who find the regular content of the course to be very easy — receive inferior service.

Decentralize Command puts all students into leadership positions by encouraging them to use initiative. In groups of any size that follow this Law of Combat, team members learn that good leaders will listen respectfully to their concerns and suggestions, and allow them latitude to make certain decisions according to the leader’s intent. Leaders who comply with Decentralize Command know that they do not have to carry the entire burden of planning and preparation: as subordinate leaders develop initiative, top leaders can delegate certain tasks.

Delegation frees a leader to manage the “big picture” and shape a clear “leader’s intent.” Then the leader can communicate “leader’s intent” to teammates so that they understand how to make decisions in leading within the team and up the chain of command. If we are practicing Teachership, then our students will grow in initiative throughout the year.

We are implementing Decentralize Command for two key reasons. First, students will learn content more deeply when they are leading and collaborating with each other. Second, students learn leadership when they must exercise their initiative and step up to help their teams succeed.

Decentralize Command Is a Better Way to Learn Content

Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation provides a list of research-identified benefits for “collaborative learning” that opens with “development of higher-level thinking, oral communication, self-management, and leadership skills.” There are more on the list, but these are the benefits we want to achieve for our students in Teachership. The development of higher-level thinking — analysis, evaluation, and creativity — is a vital goal. Anyone can memorize, understand, and apply content, and we will teach those skills, but if students are to learn deeply and have that knowledge available to support more learning, then we must help students learn beyond the basics.

Possibly the most difficult thing for us to do is to get students to discuss or debate relevant academic content. By being present, we have a profound effect on how students participate in these activities. If a student leader can manage a team and if we can supervise the team at a small distance, then the teacher should arrange higher-level thinking activities that way. Students involved in this group will begin to take ownership of the team’s work, and they will engage in that work more completely than in a teacher-led full-class discussion or drill session.

Aren’t You Going to Teach?

We are not abdicating the teaching role to student leaders. Groups cannot begin to address problems and projects until the they can remember, understand, and apply the necessary concepts and skills. The teacher must present these to the whole class and guide practice until all students have access to the necessary knowledge by notes or other resources. Discussion, note-taking, and guided practice, led by the teacher, are still in the program — but their roles are to establish an arsenal of ideas, which students can explore and share in working on problems that challenge their analytic, evaluative, and creative skills.

We are not choosing the easy path in applying Decentralize Command or any of the other Laws of Combat. At its beginning, developing the correct conditions for collaborative learning under student leaders requires more work than teacher-centered instruction. Before implementing group activities under student leaders, we must train the class in effective note-taking and study methods, establish expectations for student self-discipline, and train all students in appropriate collaborative behaviors. We must also select and train the leaders. Falling short in any of these areas will prevent Teachership from happening at all.

What If Some Students Can’t Work Without the Teacher?

There is one exception to having students engage in collaborative learning under student leaders: some students will not acquire the necessary note-taking, social, and basic academic skills that support effective participation in these groups. These students will still be in a group and will still engage in collaborative learning, but this group will have the teacher as its leader, so that the teacher can continue to mentor these students and help them master content and skills while developing leadership skills.

There is an obvious supervision challenge here. When the room breaks to group work, we teachers take our seats in one corner of the room, with our backs to the corner. The groups we lead gather with us, and we use our location to supervise all students, as they should all be within 90˚ of our field of view. We plan our groups’ work so that, when students need a few minutes to work on a task, we may leave our seats for a few moments to observe and support the other groups.

Decentralize Command Helps Students Become Leaders

Students will have to make decisions and share ideas on their own initiative in these groups, and initiative is crucial to leadership at every level of the chain of command. Student leaders are not dictators, and we do not want their teammates to follow them blindly. We will train our leaders to check their egos, listen, and incorporate good ideas that come from teammates.

Leaders do have to make decisions — and teammates need to follow their leaders when that happens. But if leaders are serious about optimizing performance, then they will listen to others’ concerns and ideas, and incorporate them into their plans according to their judgment. Leaders will help their teammates take ownership of their work on problems and projects by listening to their ideas, adopting the best ones, and making counter-suggestions to flawed ideas. We will teach our students to do these things. When teams operate this way, our students grow in leadership, initiative, and responsibility.

When We Decentralize Command, Behavior Changes

We should begin to see more confidence and more efforts to lead up the chain of command, even when students are not working in groups. Kids push limits, and in this case, we hope they will. When Decentralize Command is working for us, our students will start to share ideas and concerns with us during whole-class activities. We must welcome and consider their ideas, listening respectfully, and then making the necessary call. If the students’ ideas are sound and helpful, then we should model the “ego check” and adopt them. If they are flawed ideas, we should make counter-suggestions respectfully. Good leaders are good listeners and amenable to good suggestions. We must model that.

Our students will take the new skills and habits they like best with them to other classes and to their activities beyond the classroom. As we observe them in their various public activities, such as sport, musical performance, or theater, we will watch for them to use initiative and to communicate effectively with their colleagues. When we see this sort of growth — in or out of the classroom — we need to recognize it. Praising a student for fulfilling specific tasks is often counterproductive, but we should look for opportunities to acknowledge broad personal growth and maturity.

Our students are not automatons and we do not want them to practice the bad habit of following bad leaders in lockstep. We also want them to learn how to be effective in helping leaders find the best solutions to team problems. We want students to become citizens who can lead and collaborate responsibly in a self-governing nation built on the blessings of liberty. To achieve that, they must have a share in directing their own work in groups of all sizes as they learn. We are the leaders of that enterprise, but we must practice good leadership to foster leadership qualities in our students.

Decentralize Command.

We Must Teach Initiative


  1. the ability to assess and initiate things independently.
    “use your initiative, imagination, and common sense”
    synonyms: resourcefulnessinventiveness

  2. the power or opportunity to act or take charge before others do.
    “we have lost the initiative and allowed our opponents to dictate the subject”

Here is an example of why we must teach initiative, taken from the powerful and thought-provoking film Most Likely to Succeed:

This scene reduced one of my favorite educators to tears when she saw it. It is a powerful example of what students are not learning in our classrooms.

We have one more Law of Combat from Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win to explore as we continue creating a foundation for Teachership. Before we explore that Law of Combat — Decentralize Command — we must state why it is important. Decentralize Command means granting trained subordinates the latitude to take and manage risks, fulfilling the leader’s intent without seeking permission. Educators are not used to cultivating initiative in the classroom, and parents and administrators may have objections to implementing Decentralize Command if the teacher fails to communicate what is happening and why.

Decentralize Command is different from the other Laws of Combat. Teachers have been trying with varying success to implement Cover and Move for a long time. It should surprise no one that we will teach students to collaborate in their learning or that we will collaborate with our colleagues and administrators. Everyone wants us to keep things Simple and to Prioritize and Execute. Decentralize Command will cause more concern because we will create opportunities for students to use initiative and to lead each other.

We must exercise our initiative to communicate with parents and administrators and address concerns that we should anticipate.

Why Decentralize Command?

It’s easy to justify Decentralize Command as a rule for combat or business, as the authors of Extreme Ownership do. Risk-taking and risk management are adult activities, and adults should know how to take responsibility for and mitigate risk. When do we teach this to our students? How can we help them develop initiative?

Soldiers fighting for their lives and their comrades’ lives must take risks and seize opportunities when that action fits the objective. There is no time to ask permission along the chain of command in the chaos of combat. Someone has to make a decision and go. Taking unplanned action to achieve objectives, save soldiers’ lives, and protect civilians is fundamental to the duty of any U.S. service member, and our best leaders train subordinates to do these things independently.

Business presents situations where managers or sales professionals must make decisions on the spot. If individuals don’t have the training and freedom to act in the company’s interests, then the organization is limited, if not paralyzed. Taking unplanned action to achieve objectives, limit liability, promote stewardship of resources, and meet legal obligations are fundamental to every role in a business, and our best leaders train their subordinates to do these things independently.

Do the best leaders in education do this? Do we give our students chances to make choices so that they can learn to optimize performance on their own initiative? How well will they do that in the future if we don’t teach them to do it now? They will do it — but shouldn’t they practice now when we can help them manage the risks?

Our students are not adults, and they are not in a chaotic environment like combat, nor are they in a dynamic environment like our economy. Educators control the classroom through curriculum, professional practice, and planning. This creates a chasm between the classroom and adult life that we must bridge.

Well-led participants in extracurricular activities have opportunities to take risks and see the consequences. Students who have jobs have chances to do this. Students who help their parents manage their households also have to practice initiative. Compared to these endeavors, classroom education is an inadequate learning experience most of the time.

Every student we teach will spend a lifetime needing to lead. Students need discipline and learning skills to succeed in school. They need to earn a high school diploma and prepare for the next mission, whether that is trade school, enlistment, college, apprenticeship, employment, or entrepreneurship. They must lead themselves.

Once they leave secondary school, they will have to learn and discipline themselves even more, and they will also need the character and confidence to act on initiative and manage risk. No one will plan and structure students’ adult lives the way we plan and structure their learning.

If a student doesn’t learn to do all of these things, then the student doesn’t learn leadership. If a teacher doesn’t do these things well, then that teacher’s students will miss a valuable model. Teachership has to include risk-taking and risk management opportunities for students and the modeling of initiative by the teacher. To learn to apply initiative in adult life, students must begin doing it while training for adult life.

We use Decentralize Command in the classroom to help students develop initiative, which is a quality we all hope to see in adults.

Own the Lines of Communication — or Fail

It is very important in implementing Teachership that we win people over to our way of thinking before we start the process of teaching students how to take and mitigate risk. Implementing Decentralize Command without communicating our plans to parents and administrators will derail the Teachership project before it has any time to work.

Imagine a parent who does not understand why some students might report to a student leader in class and not always directly to the teacher. Is the teacher even teaching those students? Imagine this parent pondering why a student is choosing among various learning activities. Is one choice better than the others? What happens if the first choice doesn’t work out? Will the consequences or delays be unacceptable? Parents will oppose what they do not understand.

Imagine a superintendent who does not understand what we are doing when parents are upset and express concerns at a personal appointment or at a school board meeting. The parent will discuss the matter with other parents who also do not understand. Imagine a principal who does not understand what we are doing when a cacophony of angry e-mails, phone calls, and surprise visits from parents begins. Administrators cannot support what they do not understand.

If we are going to implement every part of Teachership so that we can help our students become lifelong learners and leaders, then we must communicate those plans to parents and administrators before we begin. The first principle of Teachership is Ownership: if parents and administrators do not understand our plan, then we have not explained it yet. Our failure to communicate is not their fault.

The other adults in the chain of command want us to succeed in giving our students an excellent education. We are all on the same side, even when we disagree. We must explain why and how we plan to implement Decentralize Command to parents and administrators, and we have to build and maintain good relationships with them so that those lines of communication remain open and positive.

Two Excellent Questions to Answer Next

Now we can predict the two questions parents, principals, and superintendents will ask when we explain our plans to implement Teachership and Decentralize Command:

  1. How do we implement Decentralize Command in a classroom?
  2. How does implementing Decentralize Command help students to learn academic content?

We’ll address both questions in the next post.


There was a temptation to produce just one sentence and the graphic below and end this post. That might have been funny, but Simple is not that easy. Simple is difficult. Simple requires discipline. Simple is not as simple as one word.


In Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win, authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin make the point that Simple is a Law of Combat that saves lives. In combat, communication must be quick, packed with information, and clear. Simplicity is vital.

In Extreme Ownership‘s business example for Simple, two managers had devised a system of incentives for workers. Willink’s account of counseling these leaders begins with their explanation of the top two levels of data analysis in the system. There was much more to the system than this, however. The system was ineffective, and its complexity made it incomprehensible to the workers. Replacing it with a simpler system and putting more energy into communication about the system solved the problem.

We must make simplicity a priority in teaching. We might waste Day One of a school year on a list of rules and procedures and how we might grade students’ work. We could work through a syllabus and a heading for assignments and many other things. None of that matters on Day One, however. Prioritize and Execute: our first priority is to build relationships with students. Keep it Simple. On Day One, we initiate relationships, and, as the old saw reminds us, we only have one chance to make a first impression.

If students want to know our goals on Day One, we should have a simple and accurate statement of them ready to go. “Our goals are to become more self-disciplined and to increase our skill at learning.” That’s all there is to say about academic things on Day One. Get back to relationships. There will be plenty of time to explain goals, but there will not be another Day One, and Day One is for relationships.

Our broad goal in education is to unleash disciplined lifelong learners to work for peace and abundance in a chaotic world. But to help our students fulfill this vision, we need focus. We need determination. We need to be efficient and productive with time and energy in our classes and with the years our students spend with us in school.

We need to keep it Simple.

Cover and Move

The second Law of Combat from Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win is Cover and Move. The first law was Prioritize and Execute.


Extreme Ownership co-author Leif Babin gives the specific introduction to this Law of Combat by recounting an incident where he failed to Cover and Move in Ramadi, Iraq, at the squad level. After completing a “sniper overwatch” mission at the same time as another squad, Babin’s squad, which had traveled farther from the command outpost, used Cover and Move among themselves to patrol safely back to base.

When he arrived at the base, a senior non-commissioned officer confronted Babin. The NCO had observed the squad’s movements from the command outpost. He was upset because Babin did not use Cover and Move with the other squad. Cover and Move was the right way to mitigate the risk inherent in Babin’s unit’s more isolated position and longer return trip. Leaders should look for and seize every chance to coordinate movements and establish mutual support within and among the units they lead.

In Babin’s business example, a manager was upset with the poor service his team received from a different company within a large conglomerate. He had to use this company’s services because both companies were under the same corporate umbrella, but he felt the poor service was hurting customer satisfaction and leading to missed opportunities.

We must use and teach Cover and Move. We should communicate and coordinate our work with the efforts of administrators, colleagues, and parents, who share our missions at different levels. We need their support as we help our students, and these education stakeholders will need our help, too. Many times this help will take the form of communication and data.

Many of us work in systems where two or more teachers lead students into the same challenges, in the same building or in two or more buildings. There are often other systems that coincide with ours geographically: American public, parochial, and private schools often serve students in the same area. We want all students to learn, grow, and succeed, so we should be collaborating and supporting each other in pursuing these goals, regardless of our affiliations.

Cover and Move is easier than ever thanks to technology, yet many of us isolate ourselves, surviving when we could be thriving. Communication is the first step out of this situation, but lines of communication are only open if we communicate regularly. That requires a disciplined effort on our part, but it pays powerful dividends.

Cover and Move is communication, coordination, and support. The manager in Babin’s business example solved his problem by contacting the leaders in the company his team had to work with and offering to help them with their challenges. His help led to improvements at the other company and solved his problem in the process.

Yes, the examples are from combat and business. We face the same kinds of choices even if the situations are different. We take more risk than we should when we work without support. When we complain about teammates instead of offering to help them we are making excuses and wasting energy. We should seek opportunities to coordinate and collaborate at all times.

We must teach Cover and Move to our students, too. It begins with modeling it. If we do not Cover and Move — if we do not communicate, cooperate, and support in our regular practice — then our students will never do it. They are always watching and learning from us, so we must start with ourselves. Communicate regularly up and down the chain of command, with colleagues, and, of course, with parents and students. Use those lines of communication to coordinate your work with theirs, and to provide and arrange support.

Cover and Move.

Prioritize and Execute

There are four Laws of Combat presented in the book Extreme Ownership by Leif Babin and Jocko Willink: Prioritize and Execute, Cover and Move, Simple, and Decentralize Command. As we delve deeper into leadership and how we can transform our teaching into teachership, we’ll refer to these.

The Laws of Combat are clear. There’s little chance that a teacher will not recognize their clarity and correctness. Let’s discuss the first one and then commit to applying it in our practice.


In Extreme Ownership, Babin relates a story from a mission in Iraq in which he and another American warrior left their unit mid-mission to chase down a “squirter” — an occupant of a building who responded to the pressure of American and Iraqi fighting men entering that building aggressively by fleeing after the forced entry but before the Americans and Iraqis could secure all exits. After catching the fugitive, Babin and his companion surprised several armed Iraqi enemies by their presence. Babin recounts that he needed to search the captive, determine his own position, determine his unit’s position, rejoin his unit and resume command and control on the mission, and deal with the enemies who had just turned a corner and were in the process of realizing that two Americans were lurking in the shadows.

Later in the book, Willink discusses a company that was struggling to return to profitability and had planned a host of actions to accomplish that. The term “decisively engaged” entered my vocabulary at that time, but as I heard and later read the definition, I recognized it from experience. To be “decisively engaged” means that the immediate actions in which a unit engages must succeed or face disastrous failure.

I thought of Custer at Little Big Horn as well as several occasions early in my teaching career: none of those turned out well. We do not want to put ourselves in situations where we have to overcome all of multiple challenges simultaneously just to survive: we need to prioritize and overcome single challenges, starting with the most crucial.

Babin made the armed combatants confronting him his first priority. He lived to participate in the writing of an excellent book on leadership. The unprofitable company directed every department’s discretionary effort to supporting the sales force. One would hope that the authors are not hiding a failure behind what appears to be a strong decision.

But what about teachers?

We do face multiple simultaneous challenges regularly. Some of the prioritizing that must be done can be done in advance. Students’ safety is always first, followed closely by the safety of all adults in the building. Building and maintaining strong relationships within the school community, first with students and then with colleagues, is next. Once these things are in order, it’s time to start looking at the implicit and explicit curricula students encounter.

At any given time, a teacher may also have to address a hodgepodge of competing priorities. For example, a student may have difficulty engaging in class activities after being a solid performer earlier in the year, students may await feedback on tests taken Thursday (and it’s Sunday night), a class may have a field trip planned for Wednesday and several bureaucratic tasks might remain to be done, and lesson plans for the week are not yet complete. This is to say nothing of our duties to ourselves and our families.

We must prioritize and execute just like any soldier in combat or business facing stiff competition. We must not be decisively engaged in multiple tasks. The stakes are too high for us to put ourselves in that position.

There is another reason we must prioritize and execute: our students are watching us. They know we have tough jobs. They are trying to manage parts of their own lives and failing (and learning) all the time. They know that their struggles with life and learning are important to us and that we have a hundred or more students to lead. Our approach to our own sets of simultaneous problems will be a crucial part of their learning, and this is one of those “soft skills” we’ve been discussing in recent years. It’s more important than content: if students can prioritize and execute, then they can improve as learners, and that is a win for everyone.

In a future post, I will explore how we can teach Prioritize and Execute to our students and get them to add Prioritize and Execute to their own problem-solving arsenals. That teaching, however, will fail unless our students see us trying and succeeding in applying it to our own situations. Successful actions inspire imitation and get students to learn independently. That is the best way to learn, if we can foster it.

When you face multiple simultaneous challenges and feel you are approaching “decisive engagement,” take a breath and asses the situation, select the most important and urgent task that you face, and do it. Review the remaining tasks, identify the most important and urgent task that remains and do that. Repeat. You will overcome obstacles and drive your work to success with this approach.

Do not deceive yourself into “multi-tasking.” What we call “multi-tasking” is “fast switching” between two tasks and is a sure pathway to decisive engagement. Dividing your attention among multiple tasks is a recipe for disaster. Focus and get after it.

Prioritize and execute.

First Check: Believe in the Mission

Leaders have to believe in the team’s mission and inspire teammates to accomplish that mission. Teachers are leaders. We have to inspire our students to accomplish the missions of our classes. We have to help them believe.


Chapter 3 of Extreme Ownership discusses a mission that commanding officer Jocko Willink had to sell to his task force of SEALs, one that was initially very unpopular with everyone. Higher-ranking officers had issued the order for that mission to Willink, and he had to find a way to believe in it and inspire his SEALs to accept the risks that the mission asked them to take.

My leaders want me to establish in my students strong conceptual and practical foundations for using and learning mathematics. That is very broad, which is good. The breadth of that mandate gives me freedom to devise a mission that fits my vision of what my students should become and which drives my practice in the direction I desire.

That might sound self-centered, but it fits my answer to the question “Why teach?” I teach to be the best teacher that I can be. This means that I need to assure not only my students’ growth and learning, but my own. I want to serve my students, but the overused phrase “for the children” does not explain why I am a teacher. I like teaching and supporting young people as they grow and improve. I teach so that I can help kids become learners. If I didn’t like teaching on my own account, I would begin searching for a new line of work.

I want my students to move as far as they can along Bloom’s taxonomy. They need to acquire an arsenal of facts, formulas, and concepts and remember all of them for at least several years, depending on their vocational choices. My students need to understand the facts, formulas, and concepts in that arsenal, and they must learn when and how to apply them.

Working at the three higher levels of the taxonomy will give their knowledge more permanence and depth. I want them to analyze relationships among the concepts they learn and link those concepts to other subjects. I want them to compare the concepts they learn to other things that they have learned or are learning. I want them to create illustrations, demonstrations, and tools using this knowledge.

Before the year starts, I have to prepare to get my leaders, my colleagues, and my students (and possibly their parents) to believe in the mission. I must distill the broad mandate I have from my leaders into a specific mission. I must propose that mission to my leaders and colleagues and secure their support. Then I will need to plan the process by which I will help my students believe in the mission and accept the challenge.

I have some mission development work to do. Check this blog for updates on my progress.

Ownership and Teachership

I know. The tag-line on my website’s title looks pretty brutal:

There are no bad classes — only bad teachers.

I mean it. The most important factor in the success of any class is the teacher, and the teacher is responsible for the instruction, the leadership, and the outcomes in the teacher’s classroom.

Every teacher makes mistakes. The mistakes we make are deficiencies in self-discipline, competence, and communication. Every mistake fits into one of these categories.

It’s easy to find a bad teacher: just look for the teacher who never makes mistakes. They identify themselves. When students refuse — actively or passively — to engage in learning activities, the teacher will identify every possible reason for this except the obvious one:  the teacher. The teacher is the leader. The teacher is responsible for everything that happens in the class.

When students begin a class, they are hoping for various outcomes. They are hoping to receive certain grades. They are hoping the class will be interesting. They hope the class will not increase the stress in their lives. They hope the class will not waste time. None of these facts make the students bad people: this is how most people approach required experiences. Most people do not take the optimal approach to anything, and this is even less so when an experience is mandatory. For most of us, someone must lead us well if we are to have a good experience in that situation.

We teachers have a challenge in addressing students’ hopes. The teacher must have and communicate a way of assigning grades that ties the grade to students’ effort, improvement, and competence. The teacher has to engage students in discussions that stimulate thought and challenge preconceptions about content. The teacher has to induce stress that is sufficient to stimulate growth and learning, but not so excessive that students abandon hope. Finally, the teacher has to lead the class — the pace has to be efficient and students have to believe that they are working at worthwhile tasks.

The best teachers do most of this most of the time. They are my heroes, and their students admire and love them. Good teachers are trying to do most of this some of the time, and their students respect them because these teachers do enough of this to demonstrate competence and commitment, and they do it with humility. The bad teachers, however, are sure they do all of these things all of the time, and, when the class fails to learn, they make excuses and blame others.

The difference between bad teachers and other teachers is ownership. The best way to understand ownership in this sense is to consider how people treat resources they do not own. Consider rental cars. Most people don’t treat rental cars as well as they treat their own cars. They don’t worry about how clean they are or drive them as carefully. The outcome is … well, let comedian Jeff Foxworthy explain it:

Most people are not all people, of course. Some people treat rental cars like their cars — they keep them clean, they drive defensively, and they minimize risk. This is ownership. They don’t own the cars, but they have made a decision to treat the cars as though they did. The resulting experience is ideal for everyone. Ownership is good, and if someone owns something, then they will care for it.

The best teachers own everything in their classrooms and probably everywhere else in their worlds. I’ve been blessed to work with several of these. When things don’t go as well as they hope — it happens to everyone — they assess themselves and change course humbly and with determination. They own and acknowledge everything that did not go well, and they commit to improvement. This is not a guarantee that all students will learn content well and have ideal experiences in these teachers’ classes. Students have flaws, too, and some enter some classes determined to be dissatisfied.

Good teachers make more mistakes than the best, and, like the best teachers, they take ownership of these mistakes and work to correct them. They own everything in their classrooms, and, while they are not the best teachers, they are trying to do better work. Students like these teachers, to varying degrees, but only the most callous students fail to respect them.

Bad teachers believe they own everything in their classrooms, but when it’s time to account for failure and error and commit to improvement, they own nothing. The students, the parents, the principal, and the other teachers have acted to frustrate the bad teacher’s amazing plans. The only person who has not made any crucial mistakes is the teacher.

When students identify a teacher as a bad teacher, they act individually to fulfill their hopes. Some students try to secure the grades they want by ingratiating themselves with a teacher who cannot deliver instruction but does fill out a grade-book. Others will begin conducting experiments, making class more interesting by providing behavioral stimuli and then observing the responses of the teacher. Still others will just behave well, do their work, and stay quiet. They won’t lead their classmates or seek challenges, and they won’t help the teacher. They want the class to end soon and quietly.

All of the students will dislike the class and the teacher, because they will be quite sure that going to this class is wasting time.

The good news is that the cure for this is leading and mentoring the bad teacher to become good, or, if the bad teacher resists, replacing the bad teacher with a good teacher. The students will respond to either improvement with engagement, learning, and growth, because there is no such thing as a bad class. Every class needs a good teacher.

Good teachers take ownership of everything in their work.

Bad teachers own only what they believe makes them look good.

There are no bad classes — only bad teachers.