I have to admit I was apprehensive the first time I handed over the master locker key to a group of ninth-grade boys. Their hands were full of king-size candy bars and anonymous letters written to other boys they had identified as needing a boost. Most of the recipients were younger (seventh or eighth graders), and all were facing challenges in their lives—some were struggling under the weight of their parents’ divorce or a sick parent, some were having social problems at school, and a few had disabilities.
The boys understood the power of that key. I had given them strict instructions to go only to the lockers of the identified students and drop off the candy bars, and they felt the trust and responsibility of the key in their hands. They finished the job quickly and returned to the conference room panting and full of excitement. “Nobody saw us, Mr. Whitaker! We were like SEAL Team 6!”
“Great work,” I congratulated them. We reviewed what they had just accomplished and how important it is as a leader to keep an eye out for people who need help.
This was my ninth-grade Boys Leadership Team—a group of students I had handpicked and notified before the school year started. The group consisted of eight students from various walks of life: athletes, musicians, high achievers, socialites, tough guys, and skaters. Regardless of their backgrounds, they were all leaders in my school. They were leaders whom I wanted to utilize for the benefit of all students; leaders whose influence and talents I wanted to harness in order to build and enhance the positive culture of my school.
When I started the group in my first year as principal, I had three primary goals in mind. First, I wanted to do everything I could to foster a positive climate in my school. Second, I wanted to work with a group of students whom I could teach and influence positively. Finally, I wanted an advisory committee that could keep me apprised of the pulse of the student body.
A school’s culture is created largely by the adults who work in the building. However, the work of the adults can be enhanced by students. Students impact the behavior and attitudes of their peers, which accelerates the efforts of the adults. This was my primary goal in creating the leadership team. I wanted these boys to become role models for other students. I wanted other students to see them helping their teachers, cleaning up trash, and sitting next to isolated students at lunch. In addition to these visible actions, I also encouraged the boys to do a lot of anonymous acts of service. They deliver candy bars and gifts, write notes of gratitude, and clean up the school grounds. We’ve even had a few events beyond the school walls—for example, visiting a nursing home and singing carols with the residents.
Instruct and Influence
The Boys Leadership Team meets once a month during our school’s FLEX time to discuss ideas for service and learn about a leadership topic. I usually facilitate the lesson, though assigning a boy or group of boys a topic to teach would also work. I teach topics such as goal-setting, integrity, kindness, perseverance, service, and gratitude. Some boys in the group are already model citizens and leaders. Others may be leaders, but are not necessarily known in the school for being generous or kind. Working with these young men, in particular, allows me an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of my students. It benefits me to have a regular opportunity to teach, it benefits the boys individually, and their implementation of the lesson benefits the school collectively.
An additional purpose for having the group is to have a student advisory committee that can keep me apprised of current concerns or situations brewing at school. The group has given me insight and perspective on teachers’ grading policies, hurtful rumors that need to be addressed, problems in the halls, and classroom management issues.
The boys leadership group has been so successful that one of my assistant principals started a girls leadership group. We sometimes combine forces, but usually meet and act independently. The girls group has a different style and emphasis. The girls take a more formal approach—they have a polo shirt with their name and Girls Leadership embroidered on it, and they are pictured in the yearbook. The boys have elected to be more subtle, and sometimes even anonymous, in their approach.
The boys have generally chosen individual service opportunities (like buying a gift for a boy in need), while the girls volunteer for bigger schoolwide service opportunities (like attending the seventh-grade orientation to help new students find their classes and open lockers). The girls have also shown more interest in activities beyond the school, like serving in homeless shelters and similar activities. The girls have also shown a preference for a slightly larger team—the boys group usually has eight to 10 students, while the girls group usually has about 12 to 15.
These variations show that different groups will have unique dynamics, preferences, and emphases. Perhaps your school’s group will emphasize service in the community, or maybe you prefer a combined group with students of mixed genders; regardless of the design or details, having a student leadership group that works with the administration can be a great asset to your school’s culture.
Getting back to the students at the beginning of my story, after an end-of-year breakfast burrito party (that has become a tradition after seven years), that first group has moved on to high school and eventually college and work. I see some of them occasionally and one of them regularly.
One particular student was a disruptive influence as a seventh and eighth grader-he introduced himself to our faculty by shoving lunch rolls into the exhaust pipe of a staff member’s car. His home life was in a state of crisis; he had just moved to our school because his mom relocated to Utah after a very public and turbulent divorce in their home state. I wanted to help him, and I knew he could help me. I recruited him for the group, and he was a great asset during his ninth-grade year. He now works for a successful catering company that our district (the largest in Utah) regularly hires for events. We are always so happy to see each other, and I am so proud of who he has become.
After this year’s burrito party, I’ll reflect with my boys on what they’ve learned, what they’ve accomplished, and most important, whom they’ve helped. I’ll encourage them to take these lessons with them to high school, where they can continue to be leaders and a positive influence. Some of them will act in official roles as student body officers and team captains. Others will quietly invite a new student to join them and their friends at lunch or pick up a piece of trash in the hall. I hope that in some small way their time as a leader in our school helped them. I know they have definitely helped our school.
Mark Whitaker is the principal at Mountain Ridge Junior High School in Highland, UT, and 2016 Utah State Principal of the Year.
Editor’s note: Since there were more male students at the school who struggle academically and behaviorally, male students initially were chosen as role models and mentors. Subsequently, a girls group was started.
Making It Work
Follow these steps for implementing a student leadership team at your school:
- Establish the primary goal of the group. Do you want it to be a service group, an advisory board, or involved with at-risk intervention?
- Identify the selection process and dynamic for the group. I’ve had some years in which most of the participants were model citizens and other years in which most of the participants were disruptive boys I was helping to reform.
- Determine meeting frequency and format. I utilize a business format with an agenda and specific items to accomplish, though a casual format would also work.