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

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.

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