Elevating Student Leadership

What a privilege it is to be a teacher and school leader. For me, at the heart of this is empowering and enabling students to see themselves as leaders. When I started out teaching I realised pretty quickly that I found my happy place in those moments when you observe others finding their groove, grasping a new concept, ecstatic with a new idea, empowered to act, whatever you envisage when you think of that ‘aha’ moment of joy that leads to something more. So, naturally as I moved into different roles in teaching and learning and into the role of School Principal I continued to find ways in which to be fully engaged with others in helping them grow as leaders. What I had not anticipated was just how impactful the experience of working with student leaders would be.

I have observed so much about leadership, collaboration, motivation and being a team from working with various groups of students over the years. Here are just five of those memorable student leadership moments and what they taught me.

That time we had assembly scheduled for 08.35 the next morning and no plan in place at 15.45 the day before….

Picture the scene a slightly dehydrated, tired, distracted school principal meeting with an energy super-charged group of second graders after school for their regular Student Council meeting. The thinking had been that a plan would be in place for the assembly outline, students would write some ideas and script so they had an idea about what to say. We would rehearse and prepare ready for the morning. In reality – the plan was not sketched out at all, the idea had not really been thought through and the group were not yet clear about their purpose.

My learning – sometimes we need to lean into our team-mates, our colleagues, our group members to lead and take charge and really let go of the belief that only we can figure it out or pull it together.

The time when a student voice sets forth a vision and mission……

I used to stand on the school gate welcoming families each day and a new student in Grade 2 had just joined the community. We would chat in the mornings as he arrived and then one day he announced that we needed an environmental group to get everyone to clean up and ‘behave better’ towards the environment. He reminded me every day about this need and mission and how he would like to be a founding member. He persisted and spoke with passion and enthusiasm. He kept me on my toes to help him take some action. This all happened just as the pandemic hit so our physical bringing together the Eco School Leaders took some time but we got there in the end and what an amazing group of students and actions they engaged in!

My Learning – know your why, speak with conviction and seek out allies to enable action to be taken. It matters.

The moment when you are all planned for a whole school online assembly and then realise the students have other ideas….

Meeting agenda ready, slide-show outline prepped, planning for the morning mapped out – it was all sounding good for our Monday after school meeting. Students arrived, we began to delve into our agenda. Dissent amongst the members! “I thought about – I don’t like this.”, “I don’t want to do it this way.”, “I know we agreed last time but I changed my mind, how about this….” I observed as my vision for how the meeting was going to unfold unraveled, the planning became a giant jumble again and the slide show outline might as well be discarded. A sense of dismay and discomfort settled in as I realised these students wanted to rip all our previous planning apart and start over. In a moment of dejection I sat back, regrouped my thoughts and restrained myself from stepping in. I observed as they hashed out some big ideas. Initiated teams to work on different elements and ultimately created a much better plan and message than the slide show outline that had been prepped.

My Learning – Be willing to let go of your ideas, way of doing things and believe that others can elevate the collective vision and ideas.

The group of students who came to me believing that I had the power to enact their wishes…..

My desk and office where often a buzz with students dropping by with ‘to do lists’, ideas about how to improve, solutions to problems they observed and wishes for our school and community. In Grade 6, the students engage in the PYP Exhibition a culminating learning process where students work collaboratively to explore big ideas and concepts, and develop questions to delve into, that result in their taking action. A group of students arrived with a big idea and plan that involved physical changes to the school grounds – I attempted to ask probing questions, on reflection perhaps subconsciously hoping that they might lower their expectations about what was possible. It did not deter them. This group achieved what they set out to do, they were not put off by the many barriers and hurdles in their way and when they needed help they sought it out, independently and respectfully.

My Learning – Aim high, dream big and ask the questions everyone is afraid to ask.

That time when Student Council meetings became really rather boring……

Student Council meetings were a regular meeting routine in my diary, around 20 dedicated students meeting every week after school. We had a routine, we had an agenda, we had essential agreements, we were all really eager to contribute and take action. However we were all honestly a bit bored. Meetings had become mundane – our feelings, as vocalized by a 3rd grader, “I’m bored. This is boring.” We all felt it, and knew it. So what next? We dove into an inquiry to ask questions to generate some ideas and ‘what if’s’ to see how we could adapt and change. In the short term this led to changes in our meeting habits, in the long term it led to structural changes in our Student Council and the set up and timing of meetings.

My Learning – Be adaptable. Tune into the feelings of a group and rather than try to ‘fix’ things, ask questions to gather input to solve any issues together.

Finally, my biggest learning over the years is that peer to peer voice is truly powerful.

Students listen to other students. Engagement is higher when students have opportunities to be leaders in the room.

So, why not prioritize it more? What if we (schools) looked inwardly to not only seek out, but actively carve out opportunities for students to lead more often, more authentically and with more agency?

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