Good Teacher, Bad Teacher Part 2–Power Poisoning
Written by Jim Knight.

I started reading Robert Sutton’s new book Good Boss, Bad Boss because (a) I was interested in what the book might teach me about leadership in organizations, and (b) because I have found all of Sutton’s books to be insightful, practical, and helpful (and, I might add, very entertaining). I expected, of course, to learn a lot about being a boss. What happened, though, totally surprised me:  as I read Good Boss, Bad Boss, I found my head spinning with the parallels I noticed between good bosses and good teachers, especially with regard to one of his main themes, Power Poisoning.

Power Poisoning, especially has implications for anyone who embraces the profession of teaching.

Sutton references many studies to support a fundamental assertion of his: power poisons our ability to understand our subordinates’ needs and damages our ability to empathize with their experiences. In particular, Sutton references Dacher Keltner’s research studying power dynamics.  One especially fascinating study Sutton mentions  is Keltner’s “cookie experiment:”

Three-person student teams were instructed to produce a short policy paper.  Two members were randomly assigned to write it; the third member evaluated it and determined how much to pay the two “workers.” After about thirty minutes, the experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies.  It turned out that a little taste of power turned people into pigs: not only did the “bosses” tend to take a second cookie, they also displayed other symptoms of “disinhibited eating,” chewing with their mouths open and scattering crumbs.

The “cookie experiment” is just one study from Keltner’s fifteen years of studying power. Keltner (quoted in Sutton’s book) summarizes what he discovered about the potential hazards of power in graphic and dramatic terms:

People with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s front orbitofrontal lobes … a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus, the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially appropriate behavior.

Power, Sutton explains, doesn’t affect everyone the same way because of course “there are empathetic and civilized bosses.”  But power can poison our ability to see the world through other’s eyes if we are not careful.  “There is ample evidence,” Sutton writes, “that power turns people into insensitive jerks.”

Few people have more direct power over others than teachers. Like a boss with plenty of reports, teachers observe, direct, evaluate, reward and punish students.  And like good bosses, teachers need to be vigilant to ensure they don’t let power poisoning change their perceptions.

Thus one important task of all teachers, whether in kindergarten or college, is to avoid Power Poisoning.

There is much we can do to fight Power Poisoning, but the most important strategy may simply be to go out of our way to deeply understand how our students are experiencing our class and our school.

We can deepen our empathy for students by creating time for one-to-one conversations with students, by asking kids to do assessments of their feelings and not just their learning, or simply by taking the time to carefully observe our students to try and sense exactly how they are experiencing school.

We can also deepen our understanding of our students by taking classes that we find challenging (I gained a deeper insight into learning while having a significantly frustrating time understanding instruction in a class on how to use my little digital camera, for example). And we can lean a lot about our students by sitting in other teachers’ classes, if they don’t mind, so we can carefully watch how students experience school.

The simplest way to better understand our students might be to take a moment each day to focus on one student in every class and ask, “how is she or he feeling about this learning experience right now?”

Few things are more damaging to learning than the power tripping that occurs when teachers let power poison their perceptions and limit their empathy.  And few things are more nourishing to learning than teachers who clearly understand how students feel. Empathy can be like miracle-gro for kids.

We can avoid Power Poisoning by walking a mile in our kids’ shoes. When we do so, my guess is we will find that our better understanding of our students often empowers them to be more open to learning.


  1. Jenny

    Fantastic stuff. Far too many teachers have gotten away with this nonsense for years, and too many young emotions and minds have been devastated. Bring it on, Mr. Radical. I can’t wait to see the next post.

  2. Nanette

    Definitley interesting concept to think about….. Agreed that most folks are uncomfortable when learning something totally new, or when getting frustrated, but I think this really calls attention to how many people don’t even think about doing it, or very quickly dismiss any situation that places them in that situation. I have to force myself to do it (put myself in that situation) some times, but it keeps me honest (I think). I appreciate the questions you pose that educators may ask themselves when “in the moment” to help them remember that there are many different lenses through which to view a situation. Definitely, keep it coming!!!!

  3. Denise Lambert

    In my experience, I have seen teachers use power poisoning -not only in regards to their students (and sometimes even their parents) – but I have also seen teachers bullying other teachers and administrators and teachers bully each other. We all need to remember that we are working towards a common goal. When we demean or put down one of our own, it hurts all of us. There is no room for prima donnas or inflated egos in our business!

  4. Jennifer Sikes

    The empathy aspect is so important. Once when teaching third and fourth graders, I asked them to created illustrated memoirs. I decided to complete the project myself as a model. I clearly remember sitting at a small desk watercolor painting the pages of my book. My arm became quite tired and sore. I had so focused on the cognitive demands I was placing on my students, that I hadn’t even thought about the physical aspects of the assignment. How enlightening! I think it is good practice for teachers to do some of the assigned work they give, just to get a reality check on the time, mental, and physical pressures we place on our students. This is especially true for middle and high school teachers who are only one of six or seven that a student sees in his/her busy schedule.

  5. Jennifer Espejo Harasimiuk

    To extend comments on bullying between teachers:
    In my experience and observations, this type of bullying behaviour runs rampant in some schools, sometimes to the extent of the new administrator himself being a victim. Sometimes the position of power to poison doesn’t necessarily come from one’s title or actual hierarchical position within a school or district; it can come from one’s sense of entitlement, ego, and the like. Being powerful can come from one’s perception that he or she is “powerful” and power poisoning is often fed by the desire to remain powerful. I’ve found that this is the most dangerous, for want of a better word, type of power poisoning; it cannot be reasoned with and is difficult to correct.
    I wonder how we can explore ways to correct this type of behaviour amongst ourselves as teachers, so that we can truly become the group of collaborative professionals we know is most effective.
    I’m looking forward to future posts!

  6. Greg Schnagl

    I recently stood 9,990 feet atop the run they call “94 Turns” at the Canyons ski resort in Utah. My friends, avid skiers as they are, believed my athletic ability to be substantial enough to see me through to the bottom of this mountain slope. My muse? A first grader in my class. He begins every assignment with the phrase, “This is too hard!”
    I thought of him. I thought of how my friends believed in me they same way I see the potential in him. I felt an intense amount of empathy for him as I stood their in the wind. I made it down just fine.
    my friends saw me through, as I will continue to do so for my student. Only now, I’ll have a small bit of understanding for the stress he feels several times a day.

  7. Mia

    We need to always be reflective; I would say…. you can know a good teacher (leader) after awhile, it all depends on the future of the children. Most of the time, a good leader will try to do everything to help individuals to understand, be successful, and give them the best advice for their future. Never take leadership lightly!

  8. Kathryn Coffey

    You are SO right that we can deepen our understanding of our students by taking classes that we find challenging—last May I began learning to play the fiddle and definitely keeps me humble! I honestly know just how they feel when learning is difficult for them and I have become much more patient.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *