girl reading a book sitting on a roof topAt Bearden High, they believe it’s never too early to cultivate leaders

The April 2016 issue of Principal Leadership contained an illuminating cover feature focused on cultivating student leadership. This article is meant to augment that story through a case study of how we are developing student leaders at our school in Knoxville, TN. What we found out is that it’s critically important to use a variety of tactics to build world-class student leaders.

Here are the steps principals can take to build leadership capacity:

1. Start with the youngest students. Recently, our football team’s coaching staff went through a regime change. This regime change created a situation that is quite typical when a new coaching staff takes over a team: a losing season. A losing season does not make for happy stakeholders, but I knew that this was a temporary setback. The coach I hired was investing in the underclassmen, honing their leadership skills. The next season was a winning season because the roots planted in the youngest members of the team had germinated and the team was strong and united. Investing in the leadership skills of the youngest member of a team or club is a philosophy we have at Bearden High School. Under this philosophy, we produce strong leaders by the time they reach their junior and senior years. 

2. Create programs that intentionally teach and develop student leaders. To increase the intentionality of student leadership development, we increased the rigor of our current school leadership program by offering leadership as an elective course. When I first arrived at my school, both Leadership 1 and 2 (two leadership courses) were the same class, and the students enrolled were often considered the upper echelon of our student body. While the course was called “leadership,” it was essentially developed so the school had “working parties” to do the bidding of the class sponsor and to host activities such as school dances and our annual fundraiser for Second Harvest. This is the same leadership model that author Jodie Stewart-Ruck cited in the beginning of her April 2016 Principal Leadership feature article “Advancing Student Leaders.” However, we realized this model was not necessarily the best approach for us. 

We decided to split Leadership into two separate courses and offered more sections of Leadership 1 so that all types of students could apply—not just those who already held leadership positions in the school. In its new format, Leadership 1 teaches students leadership theory and allows some application of skills through hands-on components such as student mentoring and participation in service projects. Ultimately, the new design of Leadership 1 puts more ownership on the students; students have a voice in choosing the projects to which they devote their time. There is also a component of the class in which students teach their peers a lesson. Leadership 1 also includes a book study, but the students facilitate the discussion rather than teachers. 

Leadership 2 lets students apply the skills used in Leadership 1 by chairing student service committees and completing action research that uses qualitative data to solve a school or community issue. Students in Leadership 2 are the ones that drive the activity of the course while the instructor simply facilitates and advises. Many of these Leadership 2 students continue their intentional leadership skill development by shadowing the leadership instructors for their senior experience, further building the collective leadership capacity of our school.

3. Empower the right people. At Bearden, student leadership is so much a part of the school culture that it is a point of conversation during staff interviews and the hiring process. It is important to note that developing school leaders is not the same thing as being the sponsor or faculty adviser to one of the clubs at your school. While club sponsorship is often part of developing student leaders, it is not the goal. Instead we intentionally choose to use the club as a platform for developing student leadership. Using club events as a backdrop, adult leaders should facilitate reflective, growth-oriented conversations that purposefully lead students to learn leadership principles. Every opportunity a club has to organize, serve, and do fundraising is simultaneously an opportunity to develop student leaders. This should be done in a formal setting with the entire group membership.

4. Teach the right curriculum. Many schools dedicate time to develop leaders in the form of a leadership class. It is important that leadership development programs have a systematic balance among theory, principles, and real-life experience to influence the school culture, other students, and the community as a whole. We have chosen to use John C. Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership to provide an essential theoretical and practical knowledge base and common language while building leadership capacity. While this book was written for adult leaders of all facets of the private and public sector, it can be used to launch conversations with students about leadership principles that transcend all ages and facets of life. Regardless of the curriculum chosen, be sure to use it as a jumping off point for real conversations with students. 

It is also important to understand that the curriculum does not stop with an elective class or written curriculum, or after student government activities. Our county curriculum for the leadership class is about two pages long. However, our leadership department has created a detailed course map that balances leadership theory and practice with a vision for servant leadership. We feel it is essential that school leaders teach students that the problems and challenges within their community and their world are within their sphere of influence. As school administrators, it is important that we allow students to explore, make sense of, and impact their community and their world. 

5. Refuse to accept the status quo. The only real consistency in life seems to be change; the same is true of the educational sphere. With each change that has come along, we have kept developing student leaders in mind as a core value. With the recent state mandate of Response to Intervention, our schedule is undergoing some major renovations in implementation. We are planning to offer a 4×4 block with a 45-minute “skinny” to accommodate for intervention. 

While it was very clear what we were to offer students needing remediation, we had significant brainstorming sessions about how we could use this time to develop student leaders. While the details are still being refined, it is clear that we will have many new leadership opportunities for our students, such as work-based learning with specialized focuses like peer tutoring, a writing center, and a technology help desk. Another course we will offer will be a freshman seminar that will be run by student interest groups such as sport teams or clubs. We are also allowing our peer-mentoring group to have a class. This new schedule presents many exciting possibilities for furthering our abilities to develop student leaders at our school. 

Rachel Moran Harmon is the technology pedagogy and content knowledge coach at Bearden High School in Knoxville, TN. 
John C. Bartlett is the principal of Bearden High School. 

Sidebar: Making it Work

How to implement a successful student leadership program at your school:

Be systematic. Begin leadership development with the youngest students, and select the right people to lead these development efforts.

Rock the boat, if necessary. Teaching student leaders how to develop a vision of a better world gives the leaders, school, and world hope for a bright future. 

Empower students. There is nothing more frustrating for students than for them to develop a vision, be empowered with the tools for leadership, and then have the adults place restrictions on their actions.