By Lori Kennedy, Jul. 3, 2018
An amazing thing happens when we expect students to be leaders. They lead. Challenging the philosophy that, by nature, there are leaders and there are followers requires educators to start early. Providing guidance and opportunity for development of leadership skills early on is essential. This is where we learn the tenets of how to get along in the world, and it’s also where “soft skills” originate that serve as building blocks of leadership.
The High Meadows School approach encourages leadership by offering guidance and opportunities that start with our youngest students, and carry through the years as they progress in social development.
As simple as it sounds, becoming a part of a community is the very first step. At home, many children don’t have to share toys or take turns, but when they begin interaction with their peers they realize the world isn’t theirs alone. Jamie may want to go down the slide right now, but if someone else is in mid-climb, he will have to wait his turn. Is that a challenge for Jamie? Quite possibly. In this example (and many others), teachers offer solutions without pushing one, so that a student can experience a situation and find the direction that works best.
As they get older, these same students encounter similar issues. In the Science lab, who will use the microscope first? During classroom conversation, whose turn is it to talk? Here, teachers don’t need to be as involved in the solution-finding, but instead model successful collaboration and compromise, inviting students to consider the perspective of other individuals.
In short, everyone must be part of something before they can help lead it.
Everyone Can Lead
We’ve all been in groups where one person seems to draw all the attention, dominating the conversation and directing others. But true leadership allows for multiple perspectives and respect for others’ knowledge and skills. In our elementary-aged lower school, all classes name themselves. It’s a democratic process, with classmates making suggestions. Some have multiple ideas, while others need to be invited to speak. Our teachers make it known that every voice is valued, and help students yield to one another so a discussion can take place. As well, classroom agreements must be developed and followed by each class. Everyone is responsible for upholding them, which means that students (not just teachers) can call class meetings to discuss issues around classroom behaviors or trends they observe.
Students work both independently and in varied groupings, so they can start to recognize and identify their strengths and where to apply them. Teachers nurture confidence by validating their self-discoveries and helping them to take ownership of their growth.
In our multi-age classrooms, more experienced students help less experienced students with academic work, knowing that in some areas they may guide and in others they may be guided. Our kindergarten and first-grade students are paired with students in fourth and fifth grade for a buddy program, in which the younger students are mentored and guided in multiple academic and social areas. The younger students want to improve their skills to impress their buddies and the older students feel pride in their mentorship.
With opportunities to step up in a variety of ways, students grasp the everyday aspects of leadership, and the positive impact they can have on others.
Numerous studies confirm the power of expectation on performance. Whether a classroom has assigned jobs or not, students are encouraged to pitch in where they see a need. In PreK, after they know the routine, students are expected to put away their things and carry them to carpool at end-of-day.
This idea carries through as they grow. If we expect them to solve problems, they will. As an inquiry-based school, students help develop classroom direction. We don’t give the answers; we expect them to tell us what the question is. This required responsibility then becomes built into their approach to learning, and to life. If someone doesn’t tell you what to do, will you do nothing? We ask them: what needs improvement? Identify the problem, and then fix it.
A group of fourth- and fifth-grade students were concerned about excessive plastic water bottles being used at our school, which emphasizes environmental stewardship. With support from their teachers, they researched a water fountain designed to fill reusable bottles and track plastic water bottles saved. After presenting their findings to school administrators, the students raised funds to install the water fountain on campus. To date, it’s saved 4,000 plastic water bottles.
Hooray for mistakes, misread situations and missed opportunities! Why? These situations lead to great leadership learning. Perfectionists don’t take risks that could reap great rewards. But by trying again, improving and knowing one failure isn’t the end of the world, students gain “Initiative-taking ranks very high.” perseverance and fearlessness, and lose anxiety over achieving perfection.
As a progressive school, we promote self-reflection. By getting to know students in both group settings and in one-on-one dialogues, our teachers help students learn about who they are as an individual and a learner. Part of that self-discovery process involves looking back at what they did and how they did it, processing and assessing. We view this to be an essential part of a holistic process.
Recently, I sat with a second-grade student who was upset with another student after an argument. I asked him what he thought the other student took away from their interaction. His attitude about the incident changed after pausing to think about a different perspective. Taking a step back allowed him to see the big picture, to develop a solution with empathy and awareness of needs beyond his own.
When we evaluate which qualities result in student success, initiative-taking ranks very high. A child who owns his or her learning gets much more out of their educational experiences. Our students are taught not to wait for something to come to them; they go to it. Each year, we embark on Emphasis, a three-week period during which all students (PreK-eighth grade) study the same subject, but in ways they choose themselves. Last year the topic was Cleopatra. Some students studied the Nile River, while others researched the Queen’s jewel collection.
This self-directed exploration and deep dive into a topic teaches students how to find what interests them and pursue it. When they have interest, they’re more likely to find success. When they are well-informed and prepared, they view themselves as a leader.
This occurs in regular classroom learning as well, with a self-directed approach. If an issue is discussed, such as what happens to trash in the ocean, we’ll invite students to research the issue and share their findings. A shyer child who may not speak up regularly would now have something that they feel confident speaking about. The more they identify an issue, explore it and take ownership of it, the easier it gets.
Freedom to Lead
We don’t let students tell us they’re not leaders; we help them develop their skills and identify ways in which they can be comfortable leading. Leadership looks different to everyone, and we enable them to find the areas where they can succeed. This may be speaking in front of a group about a class project, teaching a special skill to others, or applying their problem-solving skills independently.
During a meeting of our No Place for Hate committee, some lower school students suggested setting up a ‘buddy bench’ that could be used during recess. Their plan: if a student feels left out, they can sit on the bench. Then it is every student’s responsibility to check the bench and, if someone is there, find a way to include them. The obvious benefit was for students who felt left out. But the students who created it also felt empowered by putting their plan into action and seeing it make a difference in the success of their community. They devised the plan, put it into action, and secured buy-in from peers, seeking help from teachers only when needed.
Leadership in Action
By the time they leave High Meadows School, leadership is ingrained in our students’ character. We frequently get feedback from high school teachers and educators that our students are effective communicators and doers, often seen as leaders by peers. A recent graduate attended an alumni program and spoke about starting a new club at his school. He didn’t wait for someone else to do it. He identified a problem, took initiative, and included others: leadership in action.
Want to help students identify ways in which they can take a leadership role? Here are some open-ended questions to help get you started, no matter the topic or situation at hand:
- What do you think you can do about this?
- What would you like to learn more about?
- How do you see yourself getting involved?
- What makes you feel confident?
- What is something meaningful to you?
Lori Kennedy is in her second year as Lower Years assistant principal at High Meadows School (Facebook page here) in Roswell, Georgia. She spent her first four years at High Meadows as a learning support teacher. Prior experiences include a role as instructional coordinator at The Cottage School and site coordinator at Southwest Education Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Lori received her Bachelor’s Degree from Wake Forest University and a Master’s Degree from Southern New Hampshire University.
This article originally appeared on Innovate My School.