By Mariam G. MacGregor, author of Building Everyday Leadership in All Teens
It has long been my position that students are the most underutilized resource in schools today. As policies replace authentic learning with high-stakes testing, students are increasingly treated as data recipients and regurgitators. But this expectation to comply with policy instead of curiosity overshadows the learning achieved by engaging students in hands-on leadership roles. Because when it comes to inspiring other students to achieve at higher levels, learn new concepts, or take on greater responsibility, the best source of motivation isn’t test scores, it’s the enthusiasm of peers.
Throughout my career as an educator and talent developer, I often put—or advise the adults with whom I’m working to put—students into leadership roles traditionally reserved for adults. Peer-to-peer relational leadership inspires students to strive together toward achieving and behaving at their personal best. Below is a continuum model I’ve developed to demonstrate how students of every age and grade can serve their peers as tutors, mentors, coaches, or presenters, and dive deeper into each of these roles:
Peer tutoring is a great way to engage students to learn by teaching. In its simplest form, peer tutoring occurs when students partner together to master a concept. Each student takes turns teaching and practicing the concept. If tutoring efforts are more formal, the tutoring role can be structured by student tutors being selected (or self-selecting) and receiving training and support.
If your school is close in geographic proximity to schools with upper grades, older peer tutors can be partnered with younger students. Not only are older students serving as additional resources in classrooms, but this is also a natural way to build affinity along the matriculation path within a school district.
The positive benefits of peer tutoring are echoed in research on best practices spotlighted by the National Education Association, and peer tutoring is more deeply explored by ASCD and on the Reading Rockets website—a national multimedia education initiative by the PBS station, WETA, in Washington, D.C.
While peer tutoring effectively engages students as leaders, schools often peg high-ability students as tutors as part of their gifted and talented learning plan. Unfortunately, consistently doing this means academically advanced students repeat the concepts they already know and miss out on learning the higher-level concepts they desire to know. A better approach to peer tutoring is to identify ways all students can tutor others.
Humans are wired to connect. At no time in life is this more evident than childhood and adolescence. New friendships are built easily because at this age, the desire to fulfill the need to belong is strong. Even when using social media platforms, teens seek feedback, approval, and disclosure about shared experiences from others who have “been there, done that.”
Knowing this reinforces the value in creating peer mentoring efforts focused less on academics and more on championing others and navigating social politics. Peer mentoring is a win-win proposition because students trained as mentors benefit as much as the peers they’re mentoring. By helping others achieve a certain goal, make healthy day-to-day choices, resolve conflict, or think through problems they’re facing at home or school, peer mentors also:
- Gain personal satisfaction and clarity in their own lives
- Develop patience, insight, and understanding
- Learn lessons in citizenship through working with the community
- May experience cultural, social, or economic backgrounds different from their own
- Improve leadership and communication skills
- Gain experience for future careers in any industry
- Build emotional and social intelligence
The prevalence of coaches for professionals—instructional coaches, executive coaches, career coaches—has grown in recent years. And for good reason: Coaches reliably provide objective feedback designed to guide people to improve their skills. Peer coaches focus on helping others get better at a specific task—learning better time management skills, building better communication skills, or mastering a difficult skill in a talent area such as music, art, theater, or athletics. While mentors serve as advisors and sounding boards, peer coaches first step back from the situation and observe what’s going on, then provide their peers with specific tips and techniques. Peer coaches also remind students that improvement requires practice, an important reminder at any age!
Today’s students can discern a good presentation from a bad one, and educators often use top-notch TED Talks or well-crafted YouTube videos when teaching. But seeing a good presentation is very different from executing a good presentation. Creating opportunities for students to present lessons or “stand and deliver” the results of research and team projects in front of classmates teaches them valuable skills. A stronger sense of empathy for other presenters also emerges because students gain firsthand knowledge of what it takes to serve as an expert to an audience.
Kids and teens enjoy working together to solve social problems, achieve academic goals, and imagine the future. The reality of that future is that individuals with strong leadership skills, empathy for others, and social intelligence succeed at greater rates than those who lack sensitivity to the needs of others or who struggle in projects that depend on building relationships.
I currently engage a diverse team of thirty students committed to building the leadership talent of their peers by serving others as tutors, mentors, coaches, and presenters. How are students serving others in similar roles in your setting?
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, companies, and communities interested in developing meaningful, sustainable leadership efforts for kids, teens, and young adults. She’s also assistant director of the Neeley Professional Development Center at Texas Christian University. Visit her website (mariammacgregor.com) for additional youth leadership resource.
Free Spirit books by Mariam MacGregor:
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