This was a difficult article to write; I actually started it several years ago. Why has it been so hard? Two reasons; one, I miss my dog, and two;  to be brutally honest, I am really, really bad at being calm-assertive. It takes a huge amount of effort for me; it doesn't come naturally. 

This article is for all the teachers out there who, like me, are trying to figure out ways to be a better leader in the classroom. The dog training book, Cesar's Way, is simply one of the most profound books I've ever come across on the subject of leadership. 

Yes, I know it's about dogs, not children, but bear with me! Believe it or not, there are some poignant correlations between leading a dog on a walk and leading students in a classroom. Have you ever heard people say about teachers, "S/he means business!" That internal steeliness, the ability to maintain strong leadership, is hard to describe and downright elusive for a lot of people.

So, here goes! 

Toby, our beloved black Labrador mix
My husband and I adopted Toby and Little Ricky (a rather eccentric Chihuahua)  when our good friends' daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of three months and they could no longer care for the two dogs. 

Toby was my dog, she was the one we kept when our friends' lives stabilized enough for them to invite one of the dogs back into their home. 

She was gentle, affectionate, obedient, and a wonderful companion as long as we were at home

However, my beloved black lab mix was absolutely terrible on a leash!

Every single time we went for a walk she would try to drag me down the street - my arms would ache from the effort to keep her at my side. Sometimes I would try anchoring the leash by wrapping it around my hips;  when my son was a baby I would attach the leash to the stroller so Toby could help pull it up the sloping hills in our neighborhood. She was a "puller" - she thought she was supposed to lead us, not the other way around! 

While at a thrift store one day I found the book, Cesar's Way. I had heard of Cesar Millan before; I knew he had a television show called "The Dog Whisperer," so I grabbed that book thinking, "I will give this a shot!" 

From then on I learned to carry myself differently from the inside out; learning to be calm-assertive not only with Toby, but with my students as well. As an art teacher, especially a middle school art teacher, calm-assertive leadership is vital! 

How did I teach my dog to walk at my side instead of dragging me down the street? The secret was a simple change in my attitude (along with lots of repetition and practice!)... Teacher attitude is the pillar of support for everything else that happens in a classroom. All efforts at providing quality instruction, motivation, and discipline will crumble if the teacher is unable to maintain strong leadership. 

Here are 5 things I learned by applying Cesar Millan's advice for being a "pack leader:"

Toby's favorite position for relaxing
 1. Leadership is not a form of intimidation or control; it is a form of influence. Believe it or not, I never had the desire to lead or influence anybody; the idea actually makes me a bit uncomfortable! I have always been one to leave people alone and wish to be left alone! I am extremely independent and an introvert to the extreme; it is simply a miracle that I wound up being a teacher at all. I have always had the attitude that there was nothing I could do about the behavior of other people, so why bother (I was wrong). 

I never understood anything about influence until becoming a teacher, and I didn't understand how to be a strong leader until I read Cesar's Way. A lot of teachers in my past tried to use fear and intimidation to control their students, so for the first few years of my career, I thought that was what I had to do with the "tough" kids in my classes. I was wrong! 

Leadership has nothing to do with controlling someone else; it has everything to do with trying to improve the lives of others. It is servanthood. 

2. A good leader has the heart of a servant and understands that discipline exists for the benefit of the "pack" (or children!) Instead of thinking about my own comfort, I send the message that, "I am here to take care of you... I have rules and boundaries... I discipline you because I love you." Providing structure is not easy or comfortable, neither is having to correct behavior. However, it is in the best interest of the dog (and children!) to do so.

Cesar Millan says dogs need exercise, discipline, and affection, exactly in that order. He also says that Americans lavish affection and attention on their dogs but do not exercise or discipline them correctly (the same might be true for children as well!) This recipe makes for neurotic dogs who will be much more likely to take on bad habits. 

So many teachers are afraid to hold their students accountable, as if they are being abusive if they issue a consequence or correct bad behavior! Discipline in and of itself is not abusive, it is exactly the opposite. Discipline, if done correctly, is a very healthy thing. We discipline because we love. 

3. Having positive energy/thoughts (and controlling the negative ones), is the only way to be a strong leader. Cesar Millan says that a dog will not trust or follow a human who is "unbalanced;" feeling frustrated, angry, anxious, or otherwise negative. So, whenever Toby's behavior annoyed me, I wasn't able to lead her effectively. I had to learn to control my own response to her behavior before I could teach her better habits. Dogs will only truly follow a leader who is calm-assertive. Children? They might comply with your instructions regardless of your attitude, but they will never really "buy in" to what you are teaching unless they trust you. I am human, so I know it is pretty unreasonable to expect never to get frustrated! The key is in not allowing that frustration to affect those around me. Last week, I had a rough time managing a kindergarten class. I was still feeling pretty stressed when a high school group came in a few minutes later, so I just told them about it. They understood, gave me a few minutes to just be quiet, and we still had a great class! 

4. My body language affects whether or not the dog (or child!) perceives me as a leader. Both dogs and children can sense whether or not you are in charge. They know! Am I walking erect, with shoulders back and my head held high? Or, am I looking at the ground, with sloping shoulders? 

If I don't "feel" like being a leader, I can pretend to be one: 

From Cesar's Way:
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
"The best actors learn to dig deep inside themselves, to use the power of thought, feeling, and imagination to transform themselves into different characters. I asked Sharon to concentrate on a simple exercise: to think of a character she identified as being calm and assertive. Because of her (actor's) training, Sharon immediately understood what I was asking her to do. Without hesitation she answered, 'Cleopatra.' I then suggested she 'become' Cleopatra every time she walked (the dog.) Right before my eyes her posture became straighter and her chest higher. She raised her head and gazed imperiously around her as if she were the queen of all she surveyed. Of course, the dog had never gone to acting class but because he picked up on her energy shift he had no choice but to become Sharon's 'scene partner'... he instantly became more relaxed and less fearful." 
5. Non-verbal communication is extremely effective. As a matter of fact, giving verbal instructions to my dog was utterly useless while training her. What DID work was leading with firm tugs on the leash when she started to pull, and walking in circles. I would sometimes even turn around and walk in the opposite direction, trying to teach her to follow me. It took daily walks for several months to see a difference, but she did eventually learn to walk calmly at my side without pulling!

Lecturing students is counterproductive - how many times have you tried to talk a child into behaving rather than enforce a consequence? Which works better? Kids don't know the reasons why they act up, but they know when they are wrong. Getting into a verbal sparring match with kids is useless. Two of my favorite authors, Michael Linsin and John Rosemond, are staunch supporters of using very few words when disciplining children. 

3 vet techs. trimming Charlie's matted fur
My sweet Toby passed away in 2013, and just a month later Charlie the Shih Tzu was brought to our doorstep. He was a mess, a one year old shaggy, scared, dirty, wild little thing who had spent months alone, locked in a kitchen. His owner was terminally ill and was unable to care for him. We took him in with the idea of providing a foster home for him, but four years later he is a permanent member of our family! He has come a long way since then, biting and bullying people, running away, peeing in the house, tearing everything up, you name it! Charlie used to be the worst behaved dog we've ever known - my husband despised him for a long time. Now, even he sees that Charlie is a pretty good dog, thanks to the wisdom of Cesar Millan. I love him!

While writing this article, I heard my son yell at Charlie to get out of the kitchen (it is our house rule that if someone is eating, the dog stays out of the kitchen). Yelling? Oh, no... I explained to him that a dog will not likely obey you if you are frustrated or yelling. It is much better to CALMLY and silently use your body to communicate what you want. I told my son to use his arm to gesture, "Get over there," and if the dog doesn't do it he can get up and walk toward the dog, who will most likely comply by moving back. If the dog respects and trusts you, it will obey you. I can pretty much guarantee that the dog knows exactly what you mean! Dogs and kids both have an uncanny sense in reading true intentions! 

Charlie, our stubborn Shih-Tzu

Further Resources:

Meaning Business Part II; The Body Language of Commitment, Fred Jones, educationworld.com

"Seven percent. That’s how much speaking impacts your students. The other 93 percent is attributed to non-verbal communication. Part of that 93 percent is the way you use your voice—tone, volume, pace, enunciation, etc. The rest is body language." Michael Linsin, Body Language and Classroom Management

"Most teachers talk too much. Their voice is a looping soundtrack to every day—reminding, warning, micromanaging, and guiding students through every this and that. If you cut the amount of talking you do by a third, and focus only on what your students need to know, then what you say will have greater impact. Your words will reach their intended destination, and your students will begin tuning you in rather than tuning you out.How To Speak So Students Will Listen, by Michael Linsin

How To Improve Classroom Management By Talking Less, by Michael Linsin

"An adult does not demonstrate power to a child by yelling or threatening. True power is calm and purposeful." John Rosemond, family psychologist and author

"Obedience on the part of a child to legitimate adult authority figures is an act of trust; to wit, the child trusts that said adult is always acting in his or her (the child’s) best interest, even when the child does not like what the adult has done or decided. The child trusts; therefore, the child obeys. The opposite is equally true, by the way." John Rosemond, family psychologist and author

"Great leaders don't need to act tough. Their confidence and humility serve to underscore their toughness." Simon Sinek

Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek, YouTube

"Right or wrong, we in America expect our leaders to project a charismatic energy that infects and energizes everyone around them - consider Tony Robbins. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr .projected an energy that was what I call 'calm-assertive' - the ideal energy for a leader....... In our human landscape, (calm-assertive personalities) are few and far between, but they are almost always the most powerful, impressive, and successful people on the block. Oprah Winfrey ..... is the epitome of calm-assertive energy. She is relaxed, even-tempered, but undeniably powerful, and always in charge." Cesar Milan, Cesar's Way

article by Mrs. Anna Nichols



Last year, I had a tough 6th grade group at the end of the day. Out of a class of 32 students, I had 10 boys (TEN!) who consistently created issues for themselves and others; ADHD, ODD, IEP, 504, you name it - we had it in that class! After months of consistent, fair accountability, one by one I was able to win over these rebellious boys BECAUSE I fought to maintain a good attitude toward them NO MATTER WHAT THEY DID (and it wasn't easy...)

My attitude is invisible, but it colors every interaction I have. Nobody can see them, but my thoughts paint a peaceful classroom environment or a stormy one. My attitude is a very powerful thing; it IS the pillar of classroom management. Just like a tree trunk supports all the branches and leaves, so my attitude supports a positive, productive learning environment. Do I have the attitude of a strong leader? Am I consistently, firmly and kindly holding students accountable? Am I speaking positive words, seeking out good things about the kids? 

image credit; pinterest.com
That 6th grade group was a struggle every day, they tried to start fights with each other, they complained about every project, and several defied any and every little instruction I gave. However, the light eventually came on! 

They finally began to settle down and enjoy the class (and me) because I forced myself to believe in them, to see them for what they COULD BECOME. Because I was determined to enjoy that class, and EVERY kid in it, regardless, my group of 6th grade boys began responding positively to me, the previously hated teacher! Finally, after THREE MONTHS of struggling with disruptive and defiant behaviors, the students began smiling at me, joking with me, being respectful, and working hard. Win!

Atti-TOOT-ers, by Jo Noseda, (YouTube); this hilarious video is about how Mrs. Noseda deals with bad student attitudes in her elementary classroom:

Am I focusing on the good in in my students and colleagues? If my day is going poorly, am I choosing to laugh instead of to get annoyed? If the kids are acting up, am I consistently following through with my classroom management plan in a positive, affirming, caring way? Or, am I allowing my irritation to show? 

Failure is inevitable if I allow a negative, complaining attitude to take over. Success follows a cheerful attitude; a cheerful attitude follows positive thoughts. 

Our attitude as teachers sets the tone! 

Fact #1: There is an invisible power struggle in the classroom; students will seek to gain power over other students AND the teacher. Whether this is wrong or right, this "dominance" behavior happens quite often and it can be infuriating! I have learned the hard way not to show that I am upset when this happens. The times I gave in to negativity and became angry or annoyed at the kids, the atmosphere in the room became toxic. Positive words are the antidote to that poisonous air! Finding something, anything, good to focus my mind on is healing both to me and to the kids. 

Fact #2: We give away our power when we get upset. Classroom management expert Fred Jones is famous for saying, "Calm is strength; upset is weakness." Students think it is hilarious when teachers lose their cool, and some kids will purposefully push buttons just to see the show. They do not have much respect for teachers who are easily upset. But, they respect and admire a teacher who remains pleasant and calm even in crazy situations!

Fact #3: We can strengthen our students, and they us, when positive words are spoken. Even when disciplining, remember that we are helping students by holding them accountable. I say, "I care too much about you to allow you to behave this way..." Also, teach kids to speak positive, encouraging words to each other (and to teachers.) Have them practice encouraging each other and their artwork. If I hear kids complaining or being overly negative, I will nip it in the bud! My classroom is a "No Complaining Zone!"

This video by author and speaker Brooks Gibbs sums up the power struggle really well: How To Stop a Bully. It isn't necessarily about the student/teacher relationship, but this kind of dominance behavior happens in the classroom between students and teachers. Students do try to intimidate us; sometimes with blatantly disrespectful language and sometimes with a subtly defiant attitude. 

How can we deal with the power struggle? By remaining positive and calm, no matter what. Also, by refusing to argue with kids and by holding them accountable for their disrespectful behavior. "Having high expectations is part of caring for and respecting someone." Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion

So, what is the invisible pillar of great classroom management?

It is simply the teacher maintaining a pleasant, joyful, calm-assertive attitude. 

Principal Gerry Brooks (on dealing with negative people): Like White On Rice

Stay tuned for our next article; "What My Dog Taught Me About Classroom Management; Having a Calm-Assertive Attitude for Leadership."

Further resources: 

Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion

"As a man thinks in his heart, so is he." Proverbs 23:7

"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." Philippians 4:8
"So encourage each other and give each other strength, just as you are doing now." I Thessalonians 5:11

photo credit; pinterest.com

article by Mrs. Anna Nichols



"I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it." Pablo Picasso
What is "Growth Mindset?" This is an idea originally developed by Dr. Carol Dweck, based on the fact that our abilities and intelligence levels are not "fixed;" they can grow and improve with time and effort. When a student gives up in frustration, crumpling up the paper, they are suffering from a "Fixed Mindset" - they really believe that they simply can't draw. However, if we understand that our attitude and work habits determine success rather than our current abilities, achievement can soar! Purposefully teaching Growth vs. Fixed Mindset can help any student from age 5 - 105. Also, it helps when the teacher demonstrates how to turn a mistake into something beautiful. You don't have to start over every time you mess up! For more information, check out this article: "Dr. Dweck’s discovery of fixed and growth mindsets have shaped our understanding of learning."


Art projects that help students realize they "can" do art: 
non-objective middle school marker designs based on line types

  • Non-objective style pieces such as Piet Mondrian designs, scribble designs, or Jackson Pollack action painting 
  • Sculpture based on design, not drawing skills; kids love to build with their hands! 
  • Playing games such as "Exquisite Corpse," where students collaborate to make something that is funny, not serious at all
  • Pure design assignments such as quilts, African textile designs, etc.
  • Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain exercises such as drawing upside down or blind contour drawing
  • Have students do a pre-instruction drawing before tackling any kind of realistic style assignment (portraits, figure drawing, landscape painting, etc.). They can compare their pre-instruction drawings to the final piece and see growth! The final piece will not be "perfect," but it will be a whole lot better than the pre-instruction piece!

artwork credit: doodlealley.com

Essential Steps To Turn Art I Students Into Artists, article by Matt Christenson, theartofed.com

Room To Grow, by Anna Nichols, practicing Growth Mindset in middle school through critique

Erik Wahl: The Art of Breakthrough Thinking

The Power of Belief - Mindset and Success, Eduardo Briceno,  TED Talk, Youtube, recommended for high school or middle school

                                                              Embrace the Shake, Phil Hansen, TED Talk, Youtube


Photo credit: Kim Brodie

Craftsmanship takes time, patience, and effort and is part of what goes into making our artwork look great. However, all the little imperfections are what give the piece character and make it interesting! There is no such thing as perfection in art; to err is human. 
Making Art Fun For a Perfectionist Kid, arthistorykids.com, article by Lotus Stewart

Class Dojo Growth Mindset Episode 1: A Secret About the Brain, Youtube (to view all 5 videos of this excellent animated series, click on this link)

Regina's Mistake; Reading Rainbow, Youtube (features a reading of the children's book as well as interviews with 3 artists)


Beautiful Oops, by Barney Saltzberg, children's book, (for middle/upper elementary.. faster pace narration)  Beautiful Oops, by Barny Saltzberg, for PK-1st, much slower pace)

The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds, children's book, (narrated by American man, slow) The Dot, (narrated by English woman, more animated)

Ish, by Peter H. Reynolds, children's book


Zootopia, Try Everything (Shakira), Youtube


               Salt in His Shoes; children's book about Michael Jordan as a boy, by Deloris Jordan, Youtube

               The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes, by Mark Pett, Youtube

credit: lightbulbs and laughter