Leadership Substiutes and Neutralizers in the Classroom

Leading in the classroom is a serious challenge for even experienced teachers. However, teachers can take actions to enhance their leadership in ways that do not require more work. This post will look at leadership substitutes and leadership neutralizers and how these ideas help and hurt a teacher in the classroom.


Substitutes for leadership are things that are in place in the classroom that do not require leadership from the teacher. In other words, substitutes replace the teacher so that certain things run by themselves. The more substitutes a teacher can put in place, the less active management they have to do because the students already know what to thanks to the substitutes that are put in place by the teacher.

One example of leadership substitutes would be to have routine or procedures in the classroom. When students know what to do in various situations based on the training they received in the past, it is unnecessary for the teacher to actively control these situations, such as procedures for coming into the classroom or going to lunch.

Developing student leaders is another way to create substitutes for the teacher’s leadership. How this is done varies from school to school and from teacher to teacher. However, the point is that if students can assist in the supervision of the students, it can serve as another form of substitution of the teacher’s leadership.

There is a term in education call withitness, which means knowing almost subconsciously how to respond to a problem in the classroom or having “eyes in the back of one’s head.” If students understand that a teacher is “withit,” it can serve as another form of substitution of leadership in the classroom because students know they cannot get away with whatever they are thinking of doing.

There are also more intangible ways in which leadership substitutes can be established. If a teacher has a strong reputation for expertise and leadership among the students and the school, this reputation alone can serve as a substitute for leadership. The students know that this teacher is good and will sometimes modify their behavior because of the teacher’s leadership ability.


Neutralizers are the opposite of substitutes in that these are things that block leadership and lead the teacher to spend time trying to manage instead of leading. An example of a neutralizer would be the absence of any of the ideas presented in the substitute section of this post. When these ideas discussed above are missing from a classroom, a teacher cannot get many other things done because the focus of their work is on managing behavior.

Another neutralizer is a poor or a lack of communication. This is related to the previous paragraph. If students do not know what the teacher wants them to do, they will find something to do themselves. Again this takes away from the learning experience and leads to chaos in the classroom.

Some neutralizers are outside the teacher’s control. One example would be family problems in the homes of students. In this day and age of broken families, students often have unstable home situations that often bleed over into the classroom. There is little a teacher can do about the home setting, and if home problems impact student behavior, it will also neutralize leadership.


When there are a lot of neutralizers, this means that there will be little leadership. The teacher is not able to set aside management challenges and has to focus on controlling students. People generally do not like to be controlled but would instead manage themselves. If there is no system in place to allow this, the teacher has to be the one to control students. Rather the goal should be for the students to follow the example of the classroom through the expectation of the teacher and the standard of peers, which serve as substitutes to overt control of behavior.

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