I’m a pretty firm believer in the leadership principles of the U.S. Marine Corps.  I think these principles can be applied in multiple ways including bringing about social change, how to handle crises, and even coaching/teaching, though on that last one, I didn’t address education directly and that’s caused me to create a post here for the Foundation–how can we apply these principles in the classroom?

For people reading, some may oppose military action, the military in general.  I understand that.  This is not a political post.  This is about using tested principles to help improve kids–and help with the process of turning them into leaders as well.  This is necessary for a healthy body-politic and society at large.

Technical Proficiency: When you are teaching a lesson, there can be no doubt you understand the material.  If you are going to put a math equation on the board–you need to know how to solve it–and also the various ways a student can make a mistake and come to a wrong answer.  When it comes to complex equations in some high school classes–that can be challenging.  An answer could apply a theorem just wrong or the student could miss a decimal place or perhaps invert a fraction.  Know the possible mistakes that can be made–and know how to correct each of them.

This is more difficult in a Humanities class.  There may not be a ‘correct answer’.  Thus, you need to be able to give concrete examples of possible term-use  (metaphor, aphorism, blank-verse, etc.).  You need to know the story/novel/assignment to guide them to find proper examples or to spark critical thinking.  In a history class, you need to know where fact separates from opinion–and if asked for a detail you are unsure of, admit it if your answer is opinion.

Know yourself/Seek Self-Improvement:  Before you teach a single class, you know what your strengths and weaknesses are, the aspects of a subject you liked when you were a student, the parts you disliked.  With secondary education, you can’t just focus on your own likes–you must give them a broad perspective.  That means brushing up and learning about your weaknesses.  Me personally?  I’ve spent the last year working on women’s history and black history.  The cool thing–when you expand your knowledge into other subject areas, you often find crossover with what you already know, so integrating your new knowledge is easy to do.  Most important, if students see you are working to improve, you provide them with a role-model. Students need to see teachers actively using critical thinking, willing to consider new areas of learning.

Know Your Students/Look After Their Welfare: In large schools this can be tough.  At the college level, schools with 500-person lectures, this is impossible (thus, they assign students to sections led by grad assistants).  Students struggling in a class aren’t always struggling with the material–sometimes there are problems beyond the classroom.  It could be something temporary like a boy/girlfriend problem, stress over a bad grade in a different class, or it could be something long-term such as health problems or neglect at home.  Long ago, I was assigned a ‘troublemaker’ for three of my eight class periods because I was male, tall, and therefore intimidating.  The new student came in, class started, and he took a book out.  I told him to put it away and he politely refused.  I told him “I like reading H.P. Lovecraft, but we aren’t to the 1920s yet.”  He was shocked I’d heard of the author and blurted, “Would you actually discuss Lovecraft?”  I said, “That’s the plan–once we get to the ’20s.”  He put the book away and I never had an issue–because he’d come in a couple minutes early and ask my opinion of authors from Kerouac to Kesey to Ellroy and Neil Stephenson.  In a couple cases, I’d never read the stuff…but I did for that student–and he was shocked to find I enjoyed those books…and that I’d read them on his recommendation in the first place.  If you’re teaching, your job is to know them, to care.  But caution–caring doesn’t mean you do what they want or you don’t enforce discipline!!!

Keep Your Students Informed: Technology potentially lets you be lazy here–you put assignments on a website, kids are told to check–voila, they are informed–but students forget and often technology hiccups at inopportune moments.  Nothing replaces telling them directly.  If you have space on a board in your room, post upcoming assignments there and leave the board alone.  I would put lines for each class/hour–“Due This Week;” “Due Next Week;” “Due in Two Weeks;” and “Due Sooner that You Think.”  This served as a reminder–but was a way to help them learn how to prioritize assignments.  On top of this, if you know of scholarships, work opportunities, and outside means of helping students, there’s no harm in mentioning extra opportunities–informing them of who to see (usually the counselor) if they are interested in these possibilities.

Set the Example: Work hard, be prompt.  Be involved in the school–going to plays or sporting events, the other activities which matter to your students.  The group that fails this most often are college instructors.  They demand assignments be turned in at a certain time–failure comes with draconian penalties, but then those instructors take weeks to return the assignments.  In some instances, instructors deduct points for absence from class (as a college coach, I deal with this one advocating for the student-athlete), but the instructor has no problem skipping class if they feel ill or have a sick child at home.  If you demand attendance and penalize their grade for absence, the instructor must face consequences for breaking their own rules.  Otherwise, it is hypocrisy.

For the record, I’m one of those instructors who demanded assignments on time or else 25% was coming off daily for lateness–and in 20+ years of teaching, I only failed to get assignments back to students on time twice-once because I was rushed to the hospital/ICU and didn’t make it back to teach for six weeks (NOV-DEC 2001 if that matters).  The other was my fault and because I screwed up, I gave every student 25pts (1/4 of the assignment’s value) extra credit.  Unsurprisingly, I never really had issues with students turning stuff in late–they knew I’d hold myself accountable just as I held them to task.

Ensure the Task is Understood, Supervised, and Accomplished: This is challenging.  Students may not want to bein your class, they have different levels of understanding ahead of time, or they may have learning disabilities which affect some aspect of their performance.  How many different ways do you explain an assignment?  If covering material, do you rattle the material off, expect them to copy it down as-is?  How can you make sure they are learning since supervision beyond the class period isn’t practical?  One of the ‘cheats’ is if you are teaching the same subject to multiple sections–as long as you aren’t teaching by rote, you can see what works or resonates with the first class and emphasize those points with later sections.  If possible, getting feedback from students/prompting them into discussion is also a great way to observe their critical thinking skills and if they understand the material.

Train as a Team: This fits with some educational theory.  There are a couple of ways you can do this–though it requires skilled supervision (hey!!!–that fit’s the previous leadership comment).  The first is to use group projects.  Have groups of students work together.  The catch is–inevitably you will have students who try and be lazy and have their partners do all the work while they cruise in to share the grade.  In those cases, better to give each student a specific aspect of the project to carry out.  One of the things the Marine Leadership seminars emphasized was that troublemakers/loafers can’t hide if you give them responsibility; indeed, in many cases, putting the loafer in charge will get them to really work–and sometimes realize they can be more than a slacker.

The other possibility for training as a team is to pair students up–a weaker student with a stronger one.  As long as the better student doesn’t just do the work and permit the weaker to coast (back to rigorous supervision…), this provides a peer for helping, gets the advanced student direct leadership experience while reinforcing their own knowledge of the subject–and helps the weaker student go at a one-on-one pace they can work successfully at.

Make Sound/Timely Decisions: In general, once you make a decision, stick with it.  Once you permit an exception, you’ll get a dozen “But what about???” queries.  Don’t rush into your decision–know as many details as possible, the potential consequences.  This could be on countless aspects of your course–should you give homework or permit them to work in the classroom, how much reading is appropriate, should you give a short answer test or an essay test?  Should a 10-pg paper be due the Monday after prom?

Develop responsibility in your subordinates:  There aren’t really ‘subordinates’ when you are teaching–but you can still apply this idea.  If a student has a question, encourage it to be asked.  Inevitably, when one student has the courage to ask the first question, it turns out there were 5-6 more but none wanted to appear stupid in front of their fellow classmates.  Asking questions when unsure is responsible behavior–in a student or adult.  You can take this further in some instances–teach them to ask more specific questions:  “Can you repeat that?”  “You said __________, so that means _______, right?” and so on.

Employ the Unit to its Capabilities: With school, this is common sense.  You can’t ask 5th graders to do calculus and you can’t expect 50-pg papers from freshmen using primary sources only.  For teaching, this principle is about pushing the students to be their best, to master the current material so they can learn the next step…carried on in a chain from primary school through high school graduation.

Seek and take responsibility: Teachers have different levels of experience, different areas of knowledge.  Share these.  If the other history teacher doesn’t know civil rights, share your notes.  If you have a cool Literature project, pass that along.  The objective isn’t to be ‘better’ than the other teacher–it is to teach and make ALL of the students better.  If you can do that, actively help that other teacher.

Sometimes taking responsibility means owning up to a mistake.  You can do this with students.  They understand.  Make the mistake, take responsibility, fix it, move on.  You gain a ton of respect from students when you do that.


So there you go–Marine Corps leadership principles applied to the classroom.  You know your classroom–so you should have ideas on how you can implement these concepts.  The objective is to instill certain ideals that make EVERYONE better–ethics and integrity, work ethic and leadership, a sense that we get further when we work together.