The Story of a Pseudo-Transformational Educator


Think about how limited a painting would be when the canvas you wish to paint on is already dirty or narrow. Think about how fragile the mighty castle built upon the sand truly is. There is a lot of emphases these days on what a great leader is and how to become one. Many spend countless hours writing about the different styles of leadership one can emulate. However, I feel as though some emphasis on the educator is necessary. After all, they are the ones helping to guide the minds of those who have no choice but to listen.

James McGregor Burns introduced the concept of transformational leadership in his 1978 book, “Leadership.” He defined transformational leadership as a process where “leaders and their followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation.” Bernard M. Bass later wroteLeadership and Performance Beyond Expectations” and said that transformational leadership…

  • Is a model of integrity and fairness.
  • Sets clear goals.
  • Has high expectations.
  • Encourages others.
  • Provides support and recognition.
  • Stirs the emotions of people.
  • Gets people to look beyond their self-interest.
  • Inspires people to reach for the improbable.

At least for me, the preceding sums up what anyone could ever ask for in an educator. Yet the irony of the excitement professed by those that are lucky enough to be in the presence of such an educator escapes us. I contend that transformational educators are rare and often overshadowed by their nemesis, the pseudo-transformational educator.

Pseudo-transformational leadership is defined by self-serving yet highly inspirational leadership behaviors, an unwillingness to encourage independent thought in subordinates, and little caring for one’s subordinates in general (Christie, Barling & Turner, 2011). I have said in other articles that “if your leader is putting you or your group in danger, disregarding your opinions or concerns, pushing aside or ignoring fundamental rules or regulations, or leading you to some place you know you should not go or simply do not support, your group needs to be able to identify this and act accordingly.” This is because, and I will say it again, “Pseudo-transformational leadership is very dangerous.

Students are led to believe that teachers must know what they are talking about since they are put into a position of authority in the first place. Sometimes even parents believe this. Teachers and professors are in a position to educate and inspire, but they are also in a position to do some real damage. Children are taught not to question but to absorb. This is an incredible amount of power when you think about it. It’s also quite dangerous. This is because each educator will bring with them a certain amount of bias to the classroom. As a result, we can often get varied results. This is to be expected, and parents should understand that often, teachers learn as they teach, which adds to the various results over time. Knowing who and what you are dealing with is essential if you want to ensure that true education is taking place.

  • Transformational Educator – a transformational educator would then be someone that would educate with integrity, be willing to learn, would be objective in the information provided, and encourage students to find their own way and develop their own thoughts. A transformational educator would provide support and recognition and inspire greatness and innovation from their students. They would stir the soul of the students and help them examine the information from all sides, leaving their own self-interest at the door.
  • Pseudo-Transformational Educator – a pseudo-transformational educator, would be an educator who is charismatic but tends to regurgitate talking points and propaganda. A pseudo-transformational educator would probably bully students that disagree and scare other children into being quiet for fear of lower grades if they chose to speak up. This type of teacher would more than likely be selective in the information provided, especially as far as curriculum is concerned. This type of educator would prefer their students to become clones of them and would stifle creativity and free thought unless it somehow advances the agenda of the educator. A pseudo-transformational educator would also teach based on self-interest, not the student’s best interests. And this type of educator would do all of this while attempting to make themselves look good, appearing to be the victim when the truth is revealed, and, of course, suggesting that everyone in protest is backward.

I would like you to ponder the damage pseudo-transformational educators can do. I would like you to ponder why these types of teachers are allowed to teach, even when such educators are exposed for what they are. Let me provide you with a simple example. What follows is merely my opinion and assessment of a particular situation that has come to my attention.

Jennifer Tilson McKinsey is a U.S. government and history teacher at Circle USD 375 in Towanda, Kansas. She studied at both Wichita State University and Kansas State University. Some would (and have) called her a qualified teacher. At the very least, she has the credentials for it. Unfortunately, she also has a long history of actions that are what some might call “questionable.” Innovation in teaching is great, though sometimes it can be scary; I get that. However, we need to ask whether or not she is a pseudo-transformational educator.

Back in 2011, the Wichita Eagle reported that McKinsey was discussing with her class how some controversial behaviors, such as defacing the flag, are protected under the First Amendment. To illustrate her point, McKinsey took an American flag from the classroom wall, put it on the ground, and stepped on it several times. This created quite a stir. Some were outraged, some were supportive.

A transformational educator might share how the Supreme Court has indeed stated that defacing the flag is a form of expression that is protected by the First Amendment provisions for free speech. That same educator might even go as far as to demonstrate the act. Of course, a transformational educator would also address how Congress has attempted to pass a constitutional amendment making it possible to prosecute flag burners or how leaders such as Hillary Clinton co-sponsored a bill that would have outlawed “destroying or damaging a U.S. flag with the primary purpose and intent to incite or produce imminent violence or a breach of the peace.” A transformational educator would at least review or discuss US Code Title 36 Chapter 10 Section 176 to help students learn about respect for the flag and then demonstrate that as well. That way, at least both sides of the issue were addressed, and students could then make up their minds.

We all need to understand the difference between exposure and indoctrination.

Unfortunately, the students who have commented on this have said that was not the case with McKinsey; that the other side was simply not taught. Today, her controversy continues, and the example may have gotten worse. In fact, numerous children have since reported feeling bullied by McKinsey and have told their parents that they fear going to school on the days they will have to be in McKinsey’s class. Why? Because McKinsey disagrees with their views. In fact, it was recently discovered that McKinsey was engaging in inappropriate indoctrination of her students using Edmodo. For clarity, Edmodo is a social network for the classroom.

Now, that may sound like a harsh claim, but understand that indoctrination is simply the act of teaching others to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. Let me demonstrate. Around November 10, 2016, McKinsey opened up a discussion board on Edmodo with the following statement:

Election results are attached – notice they are not complete since Michigan is still up in the air. Notice also the popular vote. We will have a president who won the Electoral College, but not get most of the American’s votes. Attached also are the “Exit Polls” which breakdown the data of who voted for whom. Trump won off the uneducated, white, male, and wealthy votes, while Hillary had the support of voters who were younger, female, educated, less wealthy, and minorities. There’s also a lot of other information here regarding issues. Feel free to comment and spark discussion – but keep it civil.

To begin with, McKinsey’s statements are ignorant, offensive, and intellectually flawed. This is especially true if you consider that Trump won with the votes of 54% of male college graduates and 45% of female college graduates. Consider that more 18- to 29-year-old whites voted for Trump (48%) than Clinton (43%). We also know that at least 8% of the black vote went to Trump, as well as 29% of the Latino vote. But then take those numbers and add a little more perspective. White voters, in general, who make up 69% of the total electorate, voted 58% for Trump. Non-white voters, who make up 31% of the electorate, voted 21% for Trump. These facts were evidently not discussed by McKinsey. Her statement was presented as “fact,” and there was no room for critical analysis of what she stated.

Hopefully, some of you will agree with those figures, and others will not. This is where I would like to point out how inaccurate polling data has become over the last decade and the fact the results were not finalized when she decided to have this discussion. This only further solidifies how non-objective and uncritical the conversation that followed could have really been. I find it ironic that McKinsey has stated on social media that she feels frustrated for having to constantly “justify what I do and defend myself personally from ignorant parent attacks.” Well, what do you expect with such bias?

Something else I would like to point out is how the election results and polling information she provided came from CNN – a network with a long history of deception and integrity issues. Perhaps we could consider this yet another missed opportunity by an American History teacher to discuss the need for second opinions or how it is wise to “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” – Thomas Jefferson. Ultimately, it would be a great topic to exercise critical thinking.

In the discussion that ensued, one student said: “It doesn’t matter anymore, Trump still beat Hillary!!!

McKinsey replied, “It does seem to matter to a lot of people since he didn’t win the popular vote. Why is it a good thing he won?

According to the students, McKinsey chose not to discuss the reason for the Electoral College, why the popular vote was irrelevant, the difference between votes cast versus counted, or the possibility of voter fraud, like how in Michigan, some votes were counted as many as six times. She chose not to teach about the Constitution or why the Founders fought against the idea of Democracy and that we have somehow eroded into an oligarchy. She didn’t use the time to discuss the history of racism or voter intimidation of the Democrat party, how that may or may not have played a part in this election, or how even Hollywood is taking up the issue as of late. McKinsey didn’t even try to explain how out of the 3,141 counties in the United States, the vast majority (at least 2,626) went to Trump. Instead, she pushed her agenda and provided statistical distortions to her students. Is that not indoctrination? Is that not something a pseudo-transformational educator might do? Had McKinsey waited for the process to be over, she could have discussed how Hillary Clinton lost more electors than anyone else in over a hundred years. What a great American history lesson!

How do a public government and history teacher miss so much? How do the administrators allow this to continue? Well, perhaps she is a pseudo-transformational educator who teaches by agenda rather than objectively teaching the things that matter. Perhaps the school enables her because they have a similar position. It’s hard to speculate at this point. Regardless, someone appears to be disregarding students’ opinions or concerns, pushing aside or ignoring fundamental curriculum and leading students to someplace we know they should not go or that the community simply does not support. What do you call this? Before we conclude, let’s dig just a little deeper just to be sure.

The Actual Poster From Her Class – What stands out?

Let’s discuss how she proudly displays a “civil rights” poster featuring the racist/terrorist group Black Lives Matter in her classroom while at the same time suggesting to a student that their profile picture of Harambe, the 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla that was killed at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, was racist because the tagline said “All Gorillas Matter”, and then removed the picture. Seriously? Is free speech reserved for McKinsey alone? Would her actions pass the Tinker test?

Maybe it’s a school leadership issue. Let’s discuss a recent basketball game that was themed “America.” The students wanted to fly a “Trump” flag in the student section, but because someone was offended, the students were made to take it down. Does this pass the Tinker test?

Frustrated Students

For clarity, the Tinker Test is a criterion set forth by the United States Supreme Court in the leading case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District [393 U.S. 503 (1969)]. The Tinker Standard is supposed to protect the rights of the First Amendment, which is freedom of speech, to school students. In theory, students are no longer bound to what their teachers and principals believe because they should be free to say and think what they want. Clearly, this is not the case at Circle High School. Maybe the Constitution doesn’t apply there.

Perhaps we should be asking why it is okay for both students and parents to be offended by the flag stomping, the Black Lives Matter posters, and the bullying of the children. Still, they are somehow not allowed to exercise their individual Constitutional Rights? None of this seems fair, objective, or balanced. One student even commented online about how angry he became when McKinsey slammed a fellow student who disagreed with her while she praised another student that had the same views as her. Would this pass the Tinker Test? What is going on in that school? Maybe it’s the leadership.

Webster v. New Lenox School District No. 122, 917 F.2d 1004 (7th Cir.1990), holds that public school teachers must adhere to the approach prescribed by principals (and others higher up in the chain of authority). Understand that curriculum that is not dictated by the federal or state level is decided within the district at the administrative level. Then anything left is determined by individual departments or educators. The question must then be: Is McKinsey doing a poor job teaching and violating the constitutional rights of her students, or is it the administrators who are enabling her? The problem may be a compound one, but clearly, pseudo-transformational leadership is a problem somewhere in the chain.

Some parents are rightfully outraged and pulling their kids from her class when possible. Still, McKinsey somehow hasn’t figured out that her actions contradict the desires of the community in which she serves as a state employee. The irony is that history and government are required courses, but the information provided in her classes (or not) is not being monitored despite repeated parental complaints. Of course, if they are being monitored, what does that really tell us?

Can you imagine the damage this can do? Keep in mind that this is merely one example of many I could provide. We have all heard stories from around the nation that echo a similar tone. I contend that pseudo-transformational educators are every bit as dangerous as pseudo-transformational leaders. Don’t allow yourself to be apathetic about it. If you believe students are impressionable, it’s an issue. If you believe that students are a product of their environment, it’s an issue. If students are told what a position is rather than being encouraged to discover their own, it’s an issue. If state employees are to do the community’s bidding, it is clearly an issue.

McKinsey remains unapologetic, even though parents have also reported being bullied by McKinsey, having received hateful emails when they disagree with her publicly. Where is the leadership? Here’s the point: a pseudo-transformational educator needs to be taken out of your child’s school, or your child needs to be in a different class because the long-term effects can be very damaging. This is true for the student, the community, and society in general. If this creates some tension, too bad. If this means discharging the teacher from service, so be it.

Let me address that point for a moment. Even tenured teachers can be discharged by carefully collecting evidence of their misdeeds, presenting that information to the administrators or board, and then suggesting strongly that the better course is for the teacher to leave. Remember, we are talking about your community, your tax dollars, and your child’s future here.

If you find yourself dealing with a pseudo-transformational educator, there are a few things that you can do. The following tips will help.

  • Parents need to form a committee and elect a representative to speak on behalf of the parents. This will be quite a task, but this person will be responsible for informing parents of any progress, meetings, or actions being taken and be the point of contact for administrators. I would also advise that this parent representative be a professional of sorts.
  • Individual letters from the different parents should be compiled, and copies should be made. Copies will eventually be provided to the administrators. Understand that the more voices that are heard in unison, the more you will be taken seriously. On a similar note, reaching out to other parents is a great idea.
  • A single complaint letter needs to be drafted featuring an overview of each complaint provided by the other parents. This document will undoubtedly be long but should provide the starting point for administrators.
  • Document everything and do it as soon as you can. Every conversation, every screenshot, every complaint, every date, every child affected, simply… everything. Don’t accuse, just stick to the facts and stay away from opinion. Again, do it as soon as you can. As time passes, details can become blurry.
  • Finally, try not to involve the children too much. Of course, you will need to document their side of the story, but be careful how involved you let them be. Remember that they have to confront the teacher every day, and you don’t want the student bad-mouthing the teacher; this will merely help the teacher in the long run.

Would you like more information? Check out the following articles:

The National Education Association: Engaging in Appropriate Conversations

Stanford University: Professor, Do Your Job

A change in education is needed. You might also like my article titled, “A Leadership Lesson About Change in Higher Education.

Additional Resources: 

Christie, A, Barling, J., & Turner, N. (December 01, 2011). Pseudo-Transformational Leadership: Model Specification and Outcomes¹. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41, 12, 2943-2984.