By Mariam G. MacGregor, M.S., author of the Everyday Leadership series
It’s early in a new year. Attitudes are blooming with new ideas and optimism after the stress of the holidays, the year is a blank page, and kids are feeling refreshed and eager.
POP! That’s the sound of reality bursting your resolution bubble now that we’re a month into second semester! Because now what looms ahead are days of additional preparation for spring’s standardized tests, AP exams, college acceptance (or rejection) letters, national signing day for athletes, capstone testing for career tech certifications, and graduations—kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school.
It’s okay—optimism is still possible. As spring ramps up—with warm weather and increased vitamin D—keep students motivated with interesting, engaging, and workplace-relevant lessons that teach math, science, English, and social studies while building leadership and SEL skills, such as critical reasoning, interpersonal communication, respect, feedback, and conflict management.
Math usually doesn’t stand out as a subject area in which students can learn leadership. But because you can have students work together to solve math problems or learn equations, math is great for helping them learn public speaking and clear communication. Asking students to explain solutions orally in front of a small group or, if appropriate, the entire class, instead of on paper helps them learn how to shift perspectives (explaining what you know), eliminate assumptions (not knowing what others know), and be patient (learning what you need to know and respecting the struggle of others).
Integrating leadership into science lessons also can seem daunting because the subject matter in science is technical and objective. For this reason, however, science classes are perfect for teaching communication and feedback skills, which are incredibly necessary for successful relationships at work, at home, and with friends. These are two of the weakest skills I see when working with adult employees, regardless of age, position, title, or length of time in the workforce. The more opportunities students have to apply and practice these skills, the better off they will be in any job they might someday hold.
Leading Off the Page
Language arts is a subject area where leadership education naturally fits. You can easily select leadership-focused essay topics or assign literature that emphasizes leadership-type character traits (in positive and negative ways).
In addition to reading, discussing, and writing about leadership in literature, practicing peer editing also reinforces communication and feedback skills. Being able to read another person’s writing, manage one’s own judgment of the content (not the person), and then communicate with positive intent is an important skill for leaders in any setting. As a teacher, you know this firsthand. If you’re a parent, you’ll recognize when you do this poorly because your teenager will say you’re being “too critical” despite your intent to be helpful. I’m two teenagers in and can finally say, “Lesson learned.” I wish I’d learned it earlier!
Another fun way to inspire thinking about leadership is to assign monthly reflection prompts that require students to compose their thoughts in Google docs or another shared document platform where they can read what peers have written prior to adding their voice.
You also might invite students to brainstorm a list of words or quotes they associate with leaders and leadership. (This activity is similar to Mr. Browne’s Precepts in Wonder by R.J. Palacio.) Look for familiar words on the lists and spend a few class periods having students work in small groups to come up with a few statements that associate those words with leadership. For example, if the word chosen is kindness, the class might come up with questions or statements like these: What does it mean to be kind? Share ways you’ve been kind to others. Have you ever seen someone choose “mean” over “kind”? Why do you think this happens? Does being kind take strength? How does kindness connect to the leader you want to be?
A country’s dynamic historical, political, and cultural climate creates opportunities to explore civic discourse and evaluate leaders throughout history. Anchoring lessons in your classroom with a “leadership lens” can create an unbiased framework to assess power structures, decision-making, demographics, economics, and other factors affecting human well-being. It’s important to first teach and practice debate and inquiry methods to promote meaningful discussions of current events. Local (especially school boards where students can experience direct, personal impact), regional, and national elections are real-life civic engagement lessons that allow students to evaluate campaign tactics and apply critical-reasoning skills when observing leaders engaging with diverse constituents.
Social studies is also an excellent setting to teach conflict management, an important lifelong skill students will need in the workplace (and in relationships with friends, family, coworkers, project partners, and so on). When you teach about “conflict” (wars, disagreements, military maneuvers, coups) and “resolutions” (compromises, negotiations, amendments, treaties), the next step is to associate or connect these “big” issues to empathy and personal responsibility as individuals and leaders while preventing destructive groupthink.
These are a few ways to teach leadership in every subject. How have you done this? What go-to lessons or methods have you developed that nurture leadership in students while teaching academic content?
Want more examples? Pick up a copy of Leadership Is a Life Skill.
Mariam G. MacGregor, M.S., is director of employee engagement and organizational strategy at TCU and a nationally recognized leadership consultant who works with schools (K through 12 and higher education), nonprofit agencies, faith groups, and communities interested in developing meaningful, sustainable leadership efforts for kids, teens, and young adults. Mariam lived in Colorado for many years, where she served as the school counselor and coordinator of leadership programs at an alternative high school and received honorable mention for Counselor of the Year. She currently lives in Texas with her husband and three kind kids. Learn more about Mariam at mariammacgregor.com.
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