In The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell has an essay lamenting the notion that Al Gore didn’t win the 2000 election by a landslide. And her main argument is pretty on the money, I think: Al Gore is a pretty brilliant dude, and it’s sad that our culture sees intelligence as almost irrelevant and sometimes even suspicious. We should value our super-nerds, for they often have the best ideas.
After my Lord of the Flies experiment in class, however, I’m pretty sure that nerds just don’t make very good leaders. In every class period, I have a small handful of genuinely bright students–let’s say seven total. And I honestly expected these students to step up to the challenge and get everyone organized. They would certainly come up with the best strategy to get finished in time, and the others would recognize a good idea when the heard it.
It just didn’t work out that way. One of my adorable little nerds realized that the work would have to get done well if she wanted to maintain her 101 average in the class, so she got active. Watching her try to boss around her peers to no avail was almost heartbreaking, but she and I both learned quite a lesson that day: intelligence does not equal leadership skills.
My 6th period class nailed their experiment, and while their smaller class size made the work more manageable, I’ll attribute most of their success to having a darn good leader. A strong, attractive, popular student with a C average, he failed my test on Lord of the Flies but definitely taught me a few things about what it takes to get a classroom under control. Dude just exudes confidence–people want to listen to him; they want to do whatever he says. Again, I don’t know if that’s a skill I can learn, really, but at least I know now that my kids aren’t going to listen to me just because I know stuff.
For example, I’ve been going my entire, brief teaching career trying to get students’ attentions with a simple, “Listen up.” It hardly ever works. My 6th period leader, on the other hand, got the class’s undivided attention with an extremely simple yet confident “I need your attention.”
“I need your attention!” How come I never thought of that? It’s brilliant. I’ve used it a few times since that day, and it’s definitely more effective. I don’t have the math to back up that claim, but I suggest trying it out. It’s like students believe you really do need their attention. You’re not bossing them around to be quiet; you’ve got information they need.
Whether you’re running for president or running a classroom, people will respond not to how smart you seem, but how capable you appear of taking them in an interesting direction.