Transactional vs. Transformational Teaching

The more I learn about leadership, the more convinced I am that teachers need leadership training in credential school. We create a culture in our classrooms, establish norms and routines, and seek to influence our students. However, for many teachers, classroom management and behavior issues are constant distractions that complicate an already challenging job. If teachers were trained on leadership styles and techniques instead of classroom management strategies, would they have more success working with students?

As I was reading “From Transactional to Transformational Leadership” by Bernard Bass, I was struck by the parallels between leadership and teaching. In his article, he focuses on the difference between transactional versus transformational leadership.

Transactional leadership, as the name suggests, relies on the exchange of one thing for another. If employees accomplish a task, they will be rewarded. If they perform poorly, they are punished or disciplined. This reminds me of the way many teachers run their classrooms. They use reward charts and other external incentives, like class parties or the promise of points, to entice students to follow directions, complete assignments, and pay attention in class. However, external motivators, as Daniel Pink articulates in his book Drive, are not effective long-term. External motivators may yield short-term results, but ultimately intrinsic motivation in which students are motivated by an internal reward or feeling of satisfaction or accomplishment is much more effective.

Transformational leadership is composed of four factors: charisma, inspiration, intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration. Transformational leaders articulate a clear vision and generate excitement around that vision. Similarly, teachers who explain the why or purpose behind the work students do and exude energy and enthusiasm for their work will likely gain more buy-in from students.

Transformational leaders set high standards and seek to inspire people within their organization to exceed those expectations. It seems obvious that teachers who believe their students are capable will have better results than teachers who assume that their students are incapable. Sadly, there are teachers who assume that their students are not capable of achieving high standards. Instead, we need teachers, and leaders, who promote the idea that students can “accomplish great things with extra effort” (Bass, 1990, p. 21).

Transformational leaders strive to provide intellectual stimulation and encourage problem-solving. These leaders provide employees with the tools and time to tackle complex problems. In classrooms, teachers can embrace problem or project-based learning and teach students to work though the design thinking process, so they are confident approaching real-world problems. Instead of working from a curriculum that feels disconnected from life beyond the classroom, a project-based approach is intellectually challenging and allows students to make connections between the curriculum and real-world issues.

Finally, transformational leaders “pay close attention to the differences among their employees; they act as mentors to those who need help to grow and develop” (Bass, 1990, p. 21). Instead of waiting for deviations from expected behavior or performance to intervene, transformational leaders take a proactive approach to developing their employees. Similarly, transformational teachers make a consistent effort to connect with, understand, and support their students. Teachers can embody a transformational style by prioritizing communication via conferencing, personalizing learning experiences for individual learners, and viewing their role in the classroom as a coach focused on supporting individual development.

A “teacher’s style influences students’ school-related motivation, emotion, and performance” which is why it is important for teachers to view themselves as leaders and consider how their style may be positively or negatively impacting students (Reeve, Bolt & Cai, 1999). Students deserve to work with educators who inspire, challenge, support, connect with, and believe in them.

Bass, B. M. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics18(3), 19-31.

Reeve, J., Bolt, E., & Cai, Y. (1999). Autonomy-supportive teachers: How they teach and motivate students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(3), 537.

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