Why Teachers Are Natural-Born Leaders

Dr. Michael Kaufman's picture

At a time in our country of great debate, there’s no debate about one thing: Teachers are the superstars of the U.S. education system. I’ve been leading special education teams and schools for 25 years of my 32-year social services career, and I continue to be amazed and awed every day by what teachers accomplish and how resourceful they are in accessing today’s youth. 

Why Teachers Are Natural-Born Leaders

Superintendents make policy. Principals make rules and cultivate culture. Admins know how to navigate all the red tape and keep all the wheels turning. But teachers are the real headliners of the act—they’re the rock stars of the show—because if they can’t figure out a way to get the audience to stay in their seats and enjoy the experience, there is no future for any of us, there is no educated next generation, and the generation after that, to lead our country to advance and to excel.

But here’s the thing: Teachers aren’t just instructors with credentials to lead a classroom. They’re actually well-rounded leaders in their own right, with a distinctive set of aptitudes and inherent abilities that equip them to be exceptional directors and managers—in the education sphere, yes, but well beyond that. 

There are so many ways that teachers already display the skills needed to run the whole show, but here are half a dozen, to get you thinking about your own leadership potential and how you might want to translate it into a top-tier leadership position in your future.

6 Ways Teachers Are Already Skilled Leaders

#1: You know how to deescalate conflict. A huge part of leadership (arguably the biggest part) is conflict management and resolution. Think about it: People and entities don’t really need leaders to step in when things are going well; they need adept leadership when things are going poorly and the ship is threatening to veer off-course. When your classroom is calm and peaceful, with everyone at their desks independently doing their work, you can comfortably sit at your desk and plan curriculum or grade assignments too. But at the mere hint of dissension, your antenna goes up, you’re out of your seat and on your feet to quell the unrest, soothe the upset, and reinstate order and cooperative teamwork. That’s what leaders do. 

#2: You know how to mediate and problem-solve. On a related but different note, leadership often requires bringing an impartial perspective to a charged situation so that you can devise a solution for the greater good. Acting as a successful mediator means that all parties feel heard, seen, and equally represented en route to untangling a disruption. Sound like a familiar part of your day? It should! You’re well-versed in gathering your students who are having a problem, polling them for their individual opinions, and then finding a compromise or negotiation that’s acceptable to all so that productive work can recommence. Getting the unformed young minds of Joey and Julie to play together nicely in the sandbox isn’t much different at all than getting the fully formed adult minds of Josh and Janelle to co-manage the big project that just came in.

#3: You are an active listener. Many proficiencies go into being a deft leader, and perhaps none is as important as knowing how to listen. To really listen. Active listening is less about how long you listen or allow another to talk and more about a caliber of listening that entails, among other things, being fully present, showing interest through eye contact and gestures, picking up on nonverbal cues, and listening to understand rather than to respond. If you weren’t already skilled in this area, you’d never pick up on what your students are trying to communicate to you, what learning blockages they’re having, and what they’re actually saying that they’re not saying. But you do process their messaging on a very deep level and you do break through the barriers impeding their progress. This makes you a great teacher and a great leader. 

#4: You know how to put theoretical lessons into actual practice. Any type of teacher, from elementary school art teacher to college physics professor, is tasked with translating the learning that is to be imparted into actionable, empirical assignments and activities that don’t just capture the intended lesson, but make it applicable to real life in ways that students can grasp. It’s the same with any type of leadership role you might want to take on: You’ll be given benchmarks to hit and goals to achieve. To do so, you’re going to have to come up with job duties and functions for your staff that actualize abstract concepts (like “organizational growth” and “employee engagement”) as concrete deliverables. There’s a knack to knowing how to do this—and your lesson plans show you’ve got it! 

#5: You are empathetic and compassionate. Yep, just because you have a warm, caring heart that’s soft on people doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader who’s tough on results. Because you know how to put yourself in another’s place and discern where they’re coming from, you inspire confidence and trust in your judgment. Because you understand what motivates others, you know what to say and do to propel others to produce desired outcomes. A remarkable leader isn’t just someone who’s not afraid to soldier through a challenge; a remarkable leader is someone who inspires their troops to follow them into battle on the basis of their benevolence, their mercy, their goodness. Teachers are just naturally good, kind, and giving—you wouldn’t have gone into your profession if you weren’t already dedicated to improving lives and committed to the betterment of humanity.

#6: You know how to liaise and foster collaboration among different groups. In your job, you regularly interact with many different populations, and you’ve learned how to meet each one where they are: the administrators you have to appease, the bosses you need to please, the coworkers you support and befriend, the parents you assuage and advise, the ceaseless string of students you encounter year after year, each one unique, each yearning for something specific from you to feel nurtured and to thrive. Not only that, but you somehow manage to get all these different clusters on the same page in the best interests of any one child. In essence, you know how to connect with people of all ages, with all kinds of backgrounds and education levels, bringing them together and uniting them in a common aim. If that’s not what a leader does, I don’t know what is.

Bonus: You know how to follow regulations and meet requirements (boy, do you!), yet still set your own standards and forge your own path. Does this one need further explanation? Didn’t think so!

The value of teachers to a fair and flourishing society is inestimable. Every day, in endlessly imaginative ways, they engage kids with their passion and their patience. They shape kids with their creativity and their vision. They reach kids with their communication acumen and their subtle persuasiveness. They have tact, diplomacy, and an inner knowing. In a word, they lead. 

I’ve been watching teachers and their talents for a long, long time. And in my professional opinion, anyone who can take 30 kids on a field trip, keeping every single one of them safe, in sight, and stimulated for hours on end, can most certainly run a board meeting, spearhead a conference, or generate quarterly gains.

You’re a rock star. You got this. You can be any kind of leader you dream of being. 

Doing Good & Doing Well


Michael L. Kaufman, MSW, PhD, is the author of Doing Good & Doing Well: Inspiring Helping Professionals to Become Leaders in Their Organizations (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023). With the heart of a social worker and the head of a business executive, he rose from an in-the-field social worker to the CEO of three organizations, most notably one of the largest private special education companies in the country for K–12+ students with moderate to severe exceptionalities. With his book, Dr. Kaufman aims to empower fellow helping professionals to pursue their highest career aspirations and encourage them to travel a fruitful and fulfilling path to professional development and organizational leadership. Learn more about Mike at www.michaellkaufman.com