The Charismatic Teacher

This piece, written by the principal of the Toronto Hebrew Academy, was sent to me by a teacher of mine who evidently reads this blog now and again (*waves hello*). It’s been floating around the internet/blogosphere lately, and given its (sadly) timeliness and the fact that it’s one of the more productive things I’ve seen on the whole subject of gurus and power, I couldn’t not repost.

The Charismatic Teacher
by Paul Shaviv

The charismatic teacher (the ‘Pied-Piper”) is one of the most difficult
situations for a Principal to deal with. A charismatic teacher will
deeply affect and influence some students – but will almost always
leave a trail of emotional wreckage in is/her wake .

Charismatic teachers are often themselves deeply immature, but their
immaturity is emotional, not intellectual, and it is not always
obvious. They can be brilliant in inspiring students to go beyond their
wildest expectations, and are often regarded (by their following of
students, by parents, and by the Board or the community) as the ‘most
important’ or ‘best’ members of staff. There is always, however, a
price to be paid.

One of the effects of charisma is to convince the recipient that he or
she is the centre of the charismatic personality’s concern. A teenage
student (or a particular class) may feel as though he or she is the
protégé of the charismatic teacher. The moment they realize that they
are not (sometimes when the teacher ‘moves on to the next’), deep
emotions come into play. In the same way, many charismatic teachers
will lavish attention on a student or group of students – as long as
the student(s) do things the teacher’s way, or accept every piece of
advice or “philosophy” or Torah uncritically. The moment the student
shows independence or objectivity – they are dropped. As soon as they
are disillusioned or dropped, they are written out of the teacher’s
story. Often such students, very hurt, leave the school. Mild
characteristics of cult leaders may be observed.

Other parents, however, will rave about how their son/daughter “adores”
Mr./Ms/ or Rabbi X, and is learning “so much from them”. Events linked
to that teacher will be showcase events, and in certain cases the
Principal (or Head of Department) will come to be dependent on the
teacher. “We need something special for the prize-giving…or the
ground-breaking … or the community event… can you put something
together?” The teacher will protest that the time is short, and it’s
impossible, but will, of course, accept and do a fabulous job.

The problem is that at core, these are not educational relationships.
The emotional dependency and entanglement between teacher and student
leads to boundaries being crossed. The teacher throws open his/her
house to the students. Teens idolize the teacher, and fantasies begin
to develop. The charismatic teacher will solve the teen’s angst and
will sympathise with their intimate family problems. The teacher
becomes party to knowledge about students and their families that
reinforces the teacher’s view that they are the only teachers who
“really” are reaching the students. The teacher, however, is neither a
trained counselor nor a social worker. That knowledge becomes power. A
really charismatic teacher can end up running a ‘school within a
school’.

In the classroom, the teacher will often employ techniques (and texts)
which take students to the extremes of emotion or logic, and will then
triumphantly show them how they are holding they key to resolution (“At
this moment, you have agreed that life has no meaning — but here is
the answer”).

Part of the reason of why these teachers are difficult to deal with is
that they are often blissfully unaware (perhaps deliberately unaware)
of their own emotional power, and see their activities in the school as
huge self-sacrifice. “Look at how many extra hours I put in!”
Faced with this situation, the Principal is in a quandary. Parents are
telling the Board that this teacher should be promoted. Local rabbis
are letting it be known that “X” is “the only teacher at the school who
is reaching the kids”. And the truth is that ‘X” is contributing a huge
amount of positive things to the school.

The other teachers, in the main, cordially dislike ‘X’, for both good
and bad reasons. The more emotionally stable teachers see an adult
playing ‘mind games’ with the students, and feel that the influence is
‘unhealthy’. Other teachers are simply jealous of ‘X’’s influence over
the students, which they cannot even dream of. Those that choose to
drink coffee with ‘X’ in the staff room (although, in my experience,
charismatic teachers often avoid the staff room) are also ‘groupies’ –
themselves frequently the less mature teachers.

The Principal (although possibly under pressure to turn a blind eye to
what is going on – “x is doing so much good!”) must act to bring these
situations under control; curb any excesses that are taking place (some
of which may emerge during the meeting, as the teacher, protesting,
goes to great lengths to show how much he/she cares for the students
and how close he/she is to them); lay down guidelines for future
conduct; and try and save for the school the best of what the teacher
has to offer. The meeting will probably have to deal with:

• The teacher’s professional duties as a member of school staff.
• The teacher’s relationship to students.
• The teacher’s relationship to other teachers.

The exact list will obviously vary according to circumstances, but may
well include required undertakings from the teacher that:

• S/he will strive to act professionally and objectively, delivering
the classroom curriculum with equal attention to all students, and
maintaining proper professional relationships with colleagues
• Inappropriate discussions and/or introduction of inappropriate
material in the classroom will cease
• Contacts with students outside the classroom on matters not connected
with the curriculum, direct or indirect, will cease
• No meetings will take place with students off school premises or in
any non-professional context without prior consultation and permission
of the Administration
• Students approaching the teacher for counselling or advice on
personal matters will be directed to a school Guidance Counsellor or
other qualified professional. The teacher will not be concerned with
the emotional issues of students.
• The teacher will immediately disclose to the Principal any event or
incident concerning a student which may be construed as being outside
their professional responsibility

A letter summarizing the meeting should be sent to the teacher, with a
copy in their personal file. The charismatic teacher’s behaviour may
lead to situations that expose the school to legal and other action. It
is the Principal’s duty to safeguard the educational and professional
integrity of the school.

9 thoughts on “The Charismatic Teacher

  • Jewschool » Blog Archive » The Charismatic Teacher
    May 28, 2006 at 6:38 am · Reply

    [...] Read more…. [...]

  • yoseph Leib
    May 28, 2006 at 10:39 am · Reply

    On the other hand, isn’t fear of The Charismatic Teacher one of the main ways school administrators prevent innovation, depth and radical information from seeping into a dry and tightly controlled ciriculum? Aren’t there Charismatic teachers whoare also responsible people, not emotionally immature or manipulative, or at least able to learn and grow if they are?

    Is emotional weakness something very difficult to grow out of in positions of authority or administration? Could we have a way of building that sensitivity, desire for the student’s well being over their own pleasure somehow instilled deeply without having to lose exciting personality and the possibitlity of real care an involvment of a teacher in a student’s life?

    informal poll: did people out here have more trouble with boring, uncaring and dry teachers or charismatic, abusive ones? the former might be, might have been, more destructive, and maybe not.

  • danya
    May 28, 2006 at 10:51 am · Reply

    I don’t think that this article is necessarily talking about any gifted teacher who happens to be dynamic and engaging in the classroom–I think we’re talking here about a particular type who has a real lack of healthy boundaries, which even in its most benign incarnations can be toxic, invasive and extremely destructive.

    I don’t have a lot of optimism about helping people to grow out of their immaturity, certainly not in an on-the-job context. That’s not the appropriate place for the individual to do that work, in any case.

  • rebecca
    May 28, 2006 at 12:07 pm · Reply

    true– I had a very dynamic and caring teacher in high school. I couldn’t prove no boundaries were ever crossed, but: she didn’t favor particular students, create a clique, etc– it always seemed clear to me that she cared about all of us.
    she encouraged us to think on her own, and didn’t mind us disagreeing.
    she was willing to admit when she didn’t have an answer, and to discuss texts and sources she disagreed with, in an eilu-v’eilu way.

    That, Yoseph, I think is the healthy kind– no mind games, no manipulation, no brainwashing, no favoritism.

    The administraion, has to be aware of potential red flags though, and not sweep them under the carpet.

    (while I’ve never had a charismatic, abusive teacher, I think I’d prefer the dry boring one, not that I’d enjoy that. it just doesn’t seem worth the emotional harm)

  • Paul Shaviv
    May 28, 2006 at 3:28 pm · Reply

    I don’t think that this article is necessarily talking about any gifted teacher who happens to be dynamic and engaging in the classroom …. etc

    ======== correct. Thank you for re-posting this piece, which to my astonishment has bounced all around the blogosphere. It is an extract from a forthcoming book (‘The Jewish High School – an operations guide’ – provisional title!) which should be available by the end of this summer. a) In the book, it is in a section which discusses management and supervision of several categories of problematic teachers b) the posting itself has qualifiers in the first few lines.

    Paul Shaviv
    Toronto

  • Alex Koltun
    June 1, 2006 at 2:00 am · Reply

    If you want to understand more about charismatic personality, read the following two books:

    Prophetic Charisma by Len Oakes

    and

    In the Shadow of Fame by Susan B Erickson (daughter of Erik H Erikson the psychoanalyst.)

    Both authors had close ties to charismatic leaders. And both learned that many charismatic people become charismatic in order to compensate for areas of personal woundedness. Susan Erikson describes a fascinating ‘before-after’ dynamic, because she saw how her father changed before and after he became world famous–and what a strain his public image imposed upon his family.

    Read together, these books may help us understand how charismatic people can do great help that is genuine–and great harm that is just as genuine.

    In my case, I too had the benefit of a charismatic high school teacher. We were a bunch of adolescent wise-asses and Mr K walked into the room and awed us into silence.

    He gave us tough assignments and we worked our butts off because we craved his respect.

    To my knowledge Mr K never abused his position. It broke my heart to learn, years later, that he had died young from alcoholism.

    He may well have condensed a charismatic personality to cover up areas of deep personal woundedness.

    It is interesting that the other faculty members resented Mr. K because his students cut the other, less inspiring teachers’ classes so that we could get our assignments in on time to Mr. K.

    Charismatic people can be beneficial and exert a destabilizing influence unless they are highly mature, have lots of insight and are very responsible in using their talents to serve the community so all will benefit, not just their ‘in-group.’

  • Thomas Redd
    June 3, 2006 at 6:11 am · Reply

    I hope I am not “butting in” but I taught in a catholic school some years back where one of the teachers was a charismatic type who always had an “entourage” of students. This person did considerable damage not only to her students when she became personally involved in their lives to the extent of undermining the authority of the parents but also damage to fellow teachers. This was done in subtle ways to undermine their personal and professional lives. It was definitely about power.

    For several decades I have been an administrator in a social service agency. If an employee has an entourage of either clients or lower level fellow workers, it is a real red flag that a charistmatic employee is about to make a power play. First the administration is depicted as uncaring and withholding vital resources. Next the clients or lower level workers are prodded to make demands to be treated “fairly.” The pattern is very predictable, but the warning sign is always the entourage.

    Good article. I am definitely going to email it to other administrators.

    Tom Redd

  • Ploni Almoni
    June 15, 2006 at 8:23 pm · Reply

    Note to the moderator: I have not provided my real name because I live in the Toronto Jewish Community, and I fear possile retribution by the author for my remarks.

    If you do a search and replace for “charismatic teacher” in Mr. Shaviv’s article and replace the phrase with “abusive teacher” you would have an accurate, well defined argument.

    However, to say that teachers who form emotional relationships spawning from intellectual relationships are problematic, is a stretch. The only problems that they cause are for Administrators like Shaviv that don’t like to be challenged in front of their boards or parental bodies.

    As far as I am concerned, there aren’t enough “Charismatic Teachers” in the system today. It seems to me that passionate teachers that develop an appropriate relationship with their students are in incredibly short supply. If Shaviv were to have his way, the classroom would be no different than the boardroom; a sycophantic cold place, where everyone is exected to fall in line–and take passion out of teaching, or worse, learning.

    Please don’t get me wrong. There are many educators that match Shaviv’s description; take the whole Baruch Lanner episode as an example. But to lump excellent, charistmatic teachers that take an interest in their student’s lives in with the ilks of the Lanner’s of the world, is just plain ludicrous.

    As far as the emotional connection from the student’s side, this is not an unusual phenomenon in high school teens. It is how the relationship comes about, and then more importantly, how it is managed, that separate the abusers from the teachers.

    Respectfuly,
    An extremely alarmed CHAT Graduate

  • michelle goren
    September 30, 2009 at 6:05 pm · Reply

    Isn’t the problem that should concern us be more of the “uncaring teacher” than that of the too charismatic one?
    A charismatic teacher can be caring or not-caring, as can be a non-charismatic one.
    And that is the main issue that a principal should focus on, in my opinion.

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