Adam Voigt: Do you know an overbearing ‘Alpha’ teacher?

For decades, we’ve built classrooms and schools pretty much the same way.  Think about it for a minute.  Most schools are built a lot like egg cartons with the learning spaces separated by four walls.  It’s something of a “divide and conquer” mentality where we separate or batch the students by age and then into groups of a manageable size for one adult and let them do their thing.

Within the classrooms, there’s also been little structural change.  Most students have a place where they are expected to “work”, a pivotal teaching point at the front of the room and a key adult who sets the content, the agenda and the learning practices to be employed.  It’s a big responsibility to be the Teacher in this context as you assume the position of the alpha gorilla in the troop (yes – that’s the correct collective noun!).  After all, it’s you who takes full responsibility for your own work and for that of the rest of the pack.  You’re in charge.

Recently, schools have embarked on some never before seen architectural progress.  Especially since the “Building the Education Revolution” Program of 2010 we’ve seen a spike in innovative and more open learning spaces.  The walls binding us to our rectangular confines are being brought down and we’re sharing key learning spaces along with large resource areas, outdoor learning environs and breakout rooms designed for 1-1 or small group instruction.  Entire schools are being built with this thinking pivotal to the design process.  There are significant possibilities for reaching more students through their preferred learning styles and this can only be a good thing.  This is a genuine commitment to differentiation of the learning program.  Yay for us and open spaces!

However, many schools are struggling to use these types of spaces effectively.  Teachers bemoan noise level problems, supervision issues, collaborative planning challenges and the trickiness of simultaneous instruction occurring in one room.  So should we go back to the egg carton?

I’d contend not.  When we take a long reflective look at the problem, the support for our Teachers to change an instructional model and practice set that has been in place for generations is often, frankly, non-existent.  What we end up with is Teachers attempting to employ pedagogy designed for a confined space within an open space – and it just doesn’t work.  It’s a square peg in a round hole.

Further, we then allow a hierarchy of power to develop in learning communities by some kind of osmosis when we simply ‘plonk’ teachers together in a big space.  To use the gorilla troop analogy, the alpha gorilla emerges quickly.  This is often the more experienced Teacher, a Senior Teacher or sometimes the most extroverted.  Without proper planning, the alpha gorilla will assume a larger responsibility for the troop than the other gorillas.  They take the more important instruction roles, they are the “go to” gorilla when behaviour is an issue, they supervise the performance of the other gorillas, they provide feedback and they decide when it’s time for the troop to move on from a particular activity. 

And exactly how does this ‘Alpha Teacher’ phenomena impact the key stakeholders in our learning spaces?

1.Alpha Teacher.  This Teacher should be leading – that is facilitating the improvement of the other Teachers.  Yet they are hogging all of the important tasks, depriving others of the opportunity for professional growth.

2.Other Teachers.  These Teachers revert to spectating.  They marvel at the Alpha Teacher’s immense skill, power and influence.  Yet they fail to understand that this comes far more from strategy and practice than it does from personality.  Strategy and practice can both be learned and improved.

3.Students.  They swiftly decode the pecking order of the room in order to afford respect, compliance and value according to the order that each Teacher has assumed within the troop.  This consigns the least experienced Teacher to a school year of disrespect (mostly when the Alpha Teacher is busy).


This simply isn’t ok.  And all Teachers should be aware of the human dynamics at play when they are working collaboratively.  Even more so, they should plan to establish them and great collaborative partners always plan ahead.  They’ve decided how they will practice together (inclusive of explicit co-teaching roles), how they will instruct together, how they will deal with conflict and how they will deal with student poor behaviour choices – before they happen.  They are focused on teaching process above teaching outcomes and are genuine about acknowledging each other’s strengths alongside targeted areas for professional growth.

There needs to be more to new architecture than opportunities for students.  Amongst the curved tables, beanbags, tablet hubs and interactive whiteboards must be greater opportunities for Teachers to learn from each other – to team.  And this needs to be inclusive of opportunities for the old to learn from the young and for the extroverts to learn from the introverts.

The extinction of gorillas from our rainforests is a most undesirable goal.  The extinction of gorillas from our classrooms is fine by me.

Adam Voigt

Adam Voigt is the Founder & Director of Real Schools. Built upon years of experience as a successful Principal, Real Schools helps schools to build and sustain strong, relational School Cultures. A speaker of local and international renown, Adam has delivered a TED Talk and is the schools/education expert for The Project”.

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