The educational system is designed to prevent students from becoming their best selves. I am not sorry for saying this, because I have seen it first hand, and have heard experts share things that make me know this is fact. We have a ranking system that pits the top students against each other to get that prize. We limit the number of students who can be in specific classes, because they aren’t smart enough. We judge merit and money based on standardized test scores. We only have a few positions that students can hold that are deemed ‘leadership’ positions - sport captains, presidents of clubs, and...well that’s really it for most schools. Even if you have a few more, are there enough leadership positions to go around?
I argue the way education is set up right now, students are restricted from taking risks. When can they take a risk without fear of losing ground in class rank, course selection, or in running for president of a club? It’s just not safe. Right now, I am not sure teachers are changing that, because who doesn’t want the best students in their AP class? Administrators and counselors aren’t changing, because what school wouldn’t want a high percentage of their graduates going to college, or better yet, prestigious schools.
I name Barrier 1 as the educational system itself.
If I asked you to describe the group of student leaders I had in my leadership program, most of us will assume they are really good, hardworking students who follow the rules, and never challenge authority. That’s what I initially thought too, honestly. When I wasn’t the advisor to the program, and even as I started my work with those students, I thought I was going to have 40 students who did everything right. I have described in other posts that there are so many other versions of a student leader, that if we limit our view of who can be a student leader, then we put up those barriers for students as their teachers.
Whatever you define as a leader, know this: ‘The System’ is not identifying the students I will talk about in this post as leaders, but we can start tomorrow. As you read about them, think about the leadership potential in these students, and offer places for them to experience the risk of taking a leadership role, or any risk. The most important part is that they NEED to know YOU will have their back when it goes wrong.
When I pushed my administration to allow me to accept some students who I recognized needed to work on their leadership skills, I got in a little trouble with ‘The System.’ These students made mistakes, and they challenged the system. Since these students were not measuring up to the assumption of what a student leader should be (or what the system expected from them), I got pushback - in one case, a meeting discussing a student’s email. I was told by an administrator that these are student leaders, and that they should not be sending an email that challenges decisions. I humbly accepted the chastisement, but actually, I wish I had a voice when that happened, because what I should have said was, “Yes, I believe they should. Wouldn’t you rather be approached by students who had concerns, instead of having students sit in silence?”
The problem was twofold - yes, the student likely didn’t approach the situation as a conversation so much as a confrontation, but the administrator also didn’t deal well when someone challenged them.
It wasn’t until I stepped away from the program that I realized how much these students were learning, and they weren’t perfect, nor should they be. It was us, as teachers and administrators, that already assumed the students should have a certain level of leadership - ‘The System’ was preventing them from having the opportunity to learn and grow.
Bobby was a student that the leadership program was good for. It wasn’t that he wasn’t good for the program, it was that he gained more from the program. This is why programs that teach leadership can bring so much to the community. Bobby and I had a really rocky relationship, and I was fearful that my relationship with him was so fraught with conflict that I was not helping him develop into a leader. Bobby grew up in a home that promoted the idea that some people were better than others, and he often wanted to speak and be heard, instead of listening. Some of our conflicts were over how his opinions were hurting others in our class, and even our greater school community. When you believe some are greater than others it is hard to listen to the voices of the minorities.
He was never afraid to share his view about who was better and why. Needless to say, there was a lot of conflict between the two of us, and also between many of his classmates. At one point he stepped so far out of line, I thought I was going to have to remove him from the program. In this particular instance, leaders in the class had a huge blowout - it was very divisive, and as leaders often do, they shared opinions, but aren't always as talented at the skill of listening. In particular, Bobby had shared some very negative things about me and some of his classmates.
When the class calmed down I approached Bobby, he and I had some time to discuss our perspectives, and talk about why we said what we did. Initially, I was confident the previous teacher had made a mistake by accepting him into the program. In order to remove him, I wanted to document all the things I felt he had done wrong that year (we were already in March). Through that process of outlining the things I believed he had done “wrong,” I realized that he had also grown tremendously. While he may not have changed his opinions of others being better, he was willing to listen more, and that is exceptional. It wasn’t just me who saw that growth, others in the class started to see it as well. I did not remove him from the program, but rather spoke to him about that growth, and my own growth through my work with him. Both of us taking a moment to admit we were wrong, and even apologizing for some things that we both did, was a humbling moment for both of us.
We have to remember that leaders are not born, but are created.
I am confident that Bobby grew into a leader who was able to share his thoughts with others in a more compassionate way. I also was able not to take things so personally.
Another story involves Johnny, a boy who had a very bad reputation at the school. He applied to be in the leadership program as a sophomore, and hadn’t really matured. Many of his teachers had a negative opinion of him, I didn’t know him much beyond the opinion that others shared. Two teachers, however, had a soft spot for him, and I wanted to know why. His advisor spoke highly of his work with students with disabilities. Johnny was a Best Buddy (a program designed to pair abled students with disabled students), and a very popular student who made other kids laugh, much to his teachers' chagrin. A popular student who accepted and enjoyed the company of students with disabilities? I couldn’t define a better student to be a leader.
The other teacher who spoke up about this student was his basketball coach. He called Johnny the ‘King of the Dipshits.’ He told me that he reminded Johnny of his potential leadership on the court, and that leadership could be compromised by his tomfoolery in class. Johnny always listened to this teacher, who he respected as a mentor, and worked harder. With these conflicting viewpoints, and a very weak application, I wanted to take a risk on him, one I knew could backfire.
He and I met to discuss what it meant to be a leader. I told him that being a leader comes with an expectation that EVERY teacher will be comparing him to what they believe a student leader should be. I wanted him to know he might have a very steep learning curve, but it was a voyage I was willing to embark on WITH him, if he was willing to work with me.
His first year as a student leader, he faced a lot of challenges, but he met with me every month, and we discussed things that he needed to work on, as well as things he needed to be aware of. I had his teachers contacting me with their disappointment in him as a leader. This is the challenge - to make leaders, we have to work to build them up, but ‘The System’ assumes they are already there.
I was fortunate that Johnny was in my program for two years. Year two was no easier than year one, for one exception, we had a relationship. As an academic teacher, how my students perform is a reflection of me. Johnny took an opportunity to showcase his basketball skills in front of the school at a pep rally, and acted in a way I thought was inappropriate as a leader. Initially, I was mortified. We still had our monthly meetings, and I expressed my disappointment in his behavior. He also expressed that he had been given the ball and instruction by the principal to lead an activity. I was still mad, but I listened to him, and we both took some time to cool down.
That night he sent me an apology, but more importantly he said he understood how I might have seen the situation. I was so proud of his growth. At the next pep rally, he helped plan, and we had a Unified basketball vs Teachers competition. Johnny worked with a student who was in a wheelchair, unable to communicate, unable to really move any of their appendages, and made sure that this student had an opportunity to shine in front of their peers.