When we think of leadership, we often think about someone in charge of a group of people - making decisions and guiding them in a direction. What if we take that thinking off the table and reconsider leadership as a way to guide ourselves into opportunities and methods that improve our skills? I want to share that idea with you today in this post.
My proposal is simple - it is a “train-the-trainer” model, and here is how it works: an “expert” trains a small group of individuals, giving them enough skills and knowledge to be able to take what they have learned, and implement those skills and knowledge with another group of individuals. So it grows from the center out, as a ripple effect.
When I started thinking about leadership this way, I was still teaching chemistry. In school, we often ask students who have a stronger understanding of the content to support students who might be struggling. Unfortunately, we don’t express to either student that this grouping has much more value than just helping one student better understand the material. Leadership skills (confidence, communication, and listening to name a few) are being developed, and both students are stepping out of their zones of not learning (comfort and panic) and into their challenge zone. I loved this method so much, but when I was a chemistry teacher, I didn’t know how much power (and individual growth) there was in using this in all areas of education.
Later in my teaching career, I stepped into a leadership coach position for students at the high school. In that role, I took the idea already embedded in the leadership program where the leaders (junior and senior students) worked to help freshmen develop study skills. I paired that methodology with what I was doing in my chemistry class. Some of my senior students were in their second year of the program, and they had acquired skills that the new leaders hadn’t. I asked the returning seniors to build their training by sharing their skills with the new leaders. It put them in a leadership position and encouraged all of them to try - which built up their confidence. When I saw how well this was working, and how much it added to the power of this student leadership program, I took it one step further. I asked students to share their ideas and knowledge with the entire group of leadership students. I saw that this model of sharing knowledge and skills was infinite. Hence, train-the-trainer!
As a teacher, I never wanted to be the one with all the knowledge - it seemed so one-sided, and I took this concept I learned in the leadership program back into my chemistry classroom. I don’t know if I realized how I integrated this model into so much of my teaching those last few years in the classroom. It truly set me up to create the best possible programming for Peers not Fears.
When I left the classroom, I had so many ideas on how leadership could be developed. I created a curriculum, I shared segments of that curriculum with all ages, and it worked every time. Some groups needed more guidance and direction, but it still worked! I am now using it in three schools, all of which have different populations of students. One is strictly high school - feeding students into a community college, another is grades 5-12, and the third is K-8. We are using this model in all three schools, but with different end goals in mind.
I am excited to report that no matter what the end goal is, no matter what the age range is - the type of leadership model I use, the train-the-trainer model works - because it is about empowering individuals. I think of how long I spent thinking I was the expert in my classroom, I was the one holding all the knowledge. I have since (with the invention of the internet) realized that can no longer be the model in the classroom, in ANY classroom, for ANY discipline. So what is our role in the classroom as educators? We need to step into the role of the trainer. Allow students to develop alongside you and their peers. Help them see their value in the learning, and their strengths in the knowledge, and then allow them to share that with others. You are most likely already doing this in your classroom - pairing stronger students with those who need some more guidance, just elaborate on that in all areas and see the incredible growth in everyone when you do this.
When we pair students up, there is often pushback - the problem with using this approach is that we label certain students as a leader, leaving the other students either unlabeled or labeled as a weaker student. If we take those labels away, then we allow all students the opportunity to develop something with each other. For example, the skills I mentioned above - communication and listening. I will label myself as the weaker student in this story, the one who struggles to understand the content of chemistry. As the labeled weaker student I have to know how to tell the labeled stronger student when I don’t understand what was explained. Here I am teaching the other student to think about their delivery and modeling. If I don’t feel that I am also providing value, I want to reject working with the leader, or smarter student (however we labeled them), and the model is unsuccessful or just moderately successful.
I came to these realizations after thinking for so long that I was “just” a teacher - just this, just that - maybe I didn’t think I was bringing value to my relationships because I had labeled myself in a way that restricted growth. I started building Peers not Fears from the ground up, with very little money invested (or available). I saw that I had to bring something to every relationship, and that changed how I saw myself. It was incredibly empowering, after feeling so little power in the system I was working in as an educator. I had to embrace this and share it with others.
I use this model in all of my programming, which requires me to think three steps ahead. Sometimes it is hard to get my clients to see the end goal that I see, but they all love the possibility that it is self-sustaining, and I wonder if that is where we go wrong when we LABEL leaders as president, captain, CEO, etc. The label implies that without that leader I cannot make my own decisions, and I cannot bring anything to the table, because I don’t have that label.
As we start this New Year - take a step out and see what someone else brings to the partnership - in EVERY one of our partnerships, there are at least two people, and both of those individuals bring something of value - especially when we take the labels away, and empower both to see their value. Leadership is something that we develop, and we must always be developing it, no matter how high we get on the ladder we are climbing. No label should prevent you from building a new rung if you are already at the top! When we do that, we model to others that the climb is a marathon, not a sprint - and it never ends!