Updated: Nov 25, 2020
How can we create opportunities for all students to become leaders in our schools? When leadership is seen as a prize to be won, everyone loses. But in reality, that is how many students are developed into leaders. Who are the leaders in your school? Typically, it is the sports team captains and the presidents of the clubs. How are they chosen? Captains are usually chosen based on their skills at the game, or through seniority. Which of those characteristics are leadership qualities? I am not sure that either of them are. Student body presidents are often chosen based on their popularity and confidence, but I am not sure those are true leadership qualities either.
For my program, there is an application process. The application is not challenging to complete for many students, especially ones who already see themselves as leaders, but for some students the fear is, “I'm not a leader. Why should I apply for this program?” I know this first hand, because I've often had conversations with students I know would be good for the program, and when they respond, “Why should I, I'm not a peer leader?” it often not only surprises me, it breaks my heart.
When I look for students to be leaders for my program, I often have to go against the mold of what teachers expect leaders to look like. I think a leader is someone that is empathetic, compassionate, and a good listener. Of course there are other qualities, but for me these are the ones that stand out as having the greatest impact on building culture and community.
When I started working with the peer leadership program, the teacher who handed it over to me said his greatest challenge was diversity within the program. He felt so many of the peer leaders fell into a mold that resembled a cookie cutter model. It was and still remains true - the popular, well-liked, strong minded, confident students often are peer leaders. When students see it as a prize, and it is one they have yet to win, they wonder why they should bother trying once again.
I have a long list of kids that I have seen this happen with, and so often these are boys. An interesting observation I have heard is that in high school, girls are more advanced than boys, and have more advantages, but that ends after high school. But think about it - who will you want to watch your children? Who is more organized, and has better time management? Usually girls. In fact, often more than 50% of my peer leaders are female. This often has me speaking to the boys to get them to apply. I can’t say this is a fair situation, but if you are looking for a diverse population, if nothing less, having 50% boy:girl balance is definitely something to shoot for.
One of my favorite leaders was Jackie (name changed), Jackie was also known as Molly Stark, after the wife of the general our school was named after. Jackie has the biggest heart, and some of the most school spirit and the determination, drive and dedication of any student who wants to be a leader. Jackie’s first application came to me when she was eligible as a sophomore. Her application contained all the pieces of what I was looking for in a leader, but one of the steps of the application is a group interview, where I ask students a few questions with 8-10 other peers and they have an open discussion. Jackie was scheduled to come to her interview, but got nervous and didn't show up. She was not accepted that year into the program. It is an important part of being in this leadership program that students have at least the ability to sit among their peers and be willing to speak with them. In full honesty, I was also apprehensive to accept Jackie into the program because of her intellectual challenges. It is unfortunate that, at the time, I was absorbed by my own preconceived ideas of the limitations of intellectually disabled students.
Jackie applied again for her junior year. I had gotten to know Jackie a lot better by then, and had the opportunity to speak with some of her teachers, coaches and other students who knew her well, and they all expressed the same thought - she was a leader. This time, we helped her be more comfortable with attending the group interview, but I still had some hesitations about her ability to be heard by her peers. Jackie had a speech impediment, but to me that was something I didn’t want to prevent her from joining the program. I wanted her to be a part of this program, and so I discussed potential scenarios with Jackie’s advisor and biggest advocate, and the head of the Life Skills program, which is for students with intellectual and physical disabilities. She was as committed as I was to integrate Jackie into the student leadership program. After we came up with a plan to make Jackie a liaison to both programs, we sat down with Jackie and asked if that would be something she was interested in. Through this conversation, we also had put in some steps for Jackie to become further ingrained in the program the next year.
It was such a treat to have Jackie as part of the peer leadership program. As our liaison, she was instrumental in planning a Best Buddies, Unified Basketball competition versus the teachers (see image of PR piece of this event), which happened at a pep rally for the school. This pep rally was one in which there was 100% participation from the crowd. This would never have happened without the integration of Jackie in the peer leadership program. Jackie was involved in team building activities, and she connected my student leaders into the Life Skills program. This was a great opportunity for me to think outside the box, and to find a leader who was different. It was also a great opportunity for Jackie to develop communication and peer interaction skills.
Fortunately for Jackie, she was accepted into IMPAACT , (Inspiring the Mastery of Post-Secondary Achievements in College and Career Training) a program for students with disabilities at the local community college. Unfortunately for the peer leadership program and our high school community, Jackie was able to graduate from high school and transition to the next step for her education and life. I was very lucky to have been a part of Jackie’s time at my school.
How have you found ways to include all students in opportunities?
If this inclusion is something your school struggles with, I encourage you to try ways to build connections, even little ones, and share this post with someone else. If you think the ideas I am sharing could be useful in a training session for you or your school - please contact me today for a discovery conversation to see if we are a good fit. I really want to spread the world with strong, confident leaders. I can work with teachers, students or your own children, there is really nothing we can’t try.