By Mariam G. MacGregor, author of Building Everyday Leadership for All Kids
Regardless of what grade level or subject being taught, it’s tough right now in education to fit everything into the typical school day. Instructional time is quickly absorbed by Common Core requirements, managing classroom dynamics, preparing students for standardized tests, conducting standardized tests, meeting administrator demands, and—most important but losing its footing on the list of priorities—creatively teaching the content one really wants (and loves) to teach. Ask any teacher—or parent, for that matter—if they have enough time to teach students or their children everything they feel necessary to inspire critical thinking and prepare them for their future, and most would answer, “No.”
Educators attempting to meet conflicting demands may find it overwhelming to have someone suggest they find time to teach leadership skills during the school day. But with the right resources and attitude, infusing leadership into existing lesson plans or family conversations can become a natural part of the classroom culture.
Promote the Use of Leadership Language
As the adult leader in a classroom or home, committing to using a “leadership language” throughout the day is the first step to making leadership “common core” in your setting. This means using terms like “conscientious” instead of “nice” when describing student behavior toward one another. It means recognizing student decisions and classroom interactions as “independent” and “confident” and “well thought out” in place of hollow compliments such as “nice job” or “great” or “good work.” And when students, no matter their age, do something that demonstrates leadership, acknowledge it as such—“You approached (or handled) that situation as a leader”—especially when they resolve a tricky social situation that way!
Encourage Relevant (and Meaningful) Youth Leadership
Participating in organized or positional leadership roles like student council or leading an athletic team is not in every student’s wheelhouse. But all kids attending school sit in classrooms each day, which creates organic opportunities for them to lead every day. Asking students to facilitate labs or teach topics to the class are examples of those opportunities. Even first graders can teach math problems and spelling words. Putting kids at the front of the classroom requires them to maintain eye contact with their audience, speak clearly, organize their thoughts, and authentically lead their peers through the lesson. In upper grades, students can work together or individually creating lesson plans on topics before teaching the topic to the rest of the class. The learning—and leading—become intense and personal because every student has an opportunity and a leadership expectation to teach. True leadership skills are developed because students fear having their peers complain about them the way they complain about their teachers if the lesson is a bust! Plus, you’re able to lighten your load in a way that’s rewarding and meaningful to everyone (and maybe earn some much needed appreciation from students who think teaching is easy).
Endorse Hard Work, Resourcefulness, and Critical Thinking
Sadly, for so many students, school today consists of following directions, complying, conforming, and filling in bubbles. While these approaches may seem like they’re efficient at getting a lot done in the school day, students are losing ground when it comes to being able to infer, deduce, and think critically. They are learning there’s a right or wrong answer to every question, when in fact, more answers to questions in life fall somewhere in the middle (or somewhere else on the spectrum). Build leadership skills such as problem solving, decision making, and resourcefulness by tying content to real-life examples. For example, when kids ask for help too soon, or want to give up when facing a challenging problem (in any topic), suggest this: “Imagine you’re caught in a trap and you’re the only one who can get you out. What are you going to do?” Suddenly, the problem becomes relevant to real life (well, okay, not many of us will be stuck in a trap, but the visual is helpful), because the student must rely on his or her resources and critical thinking to survive.
In a math class, ask students to design or remodel their own bedrooms (or something else that’s relevant to them), labeling each part of their room with a math problem (such as area, perimeter, angles, cost estimates, etc.) that would provide a contractor with the information needed to design or modify that part of their room correctly. The leadership learning is subtle here, because people often overlook the relationship of developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills to being a leader. More obvious is the use of revolving writing prompts around leadership topics such as quotes from contemporary leaders, mentors, and role models, starting first with having students identify how someone earns the distinction of being a leader (personally or publicly).
This is a mere scratch on the surface of ideas for fitting leadership development into the typical school day. I’d love to hear what others do to encourage authentic student leadership in the classroom and school halls. Share your successes in the comments area, or post them to the Free Spirit Twitter feed. And if you’d like to have me lead your team through a workshop on the topic, email me or reach me through Twitter at @mariammacgregor.
Mariam G. MacGregor, M.S., served as the school counselor and coordinator of leadership programs at an alternative high school in Colorado. While there, she received honorable mention for Counselor of the Year. Now, she’s a nationally recognized leadership consultant who works with schools (K–12 and higher education), nonprofit agencies, faith groups, and communities interested in developing meaningful, sustainable leadership efforts for kids, teens, and young adults. She founded Youthleadership.com (now mariammacgregor.com) to provide support to youth leaders and individuals working with them.
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