My school, like many at this time of year, is thinking ahead to and planning for next school year. The calendar is set, we are thinking about all-faculty and all-school reads, and most relevant to this post, my community is actively engaged in the process of selecting student leaders. Our school community takes student leadership positions seriously. These students are held up as role models for their peers, are integral in discussions about substantive issues, and are held to high standards for behavior. I have a great appreciation for this aspect of our community, as I think the learning possibilities are immense for students and provide some of the most valuable experiences a student can have in a high school setting.
As our school and others look to grow the next generation of leaders, I would like to think that we are providing them better examples for their leadership than are found in the media. We see daily examples of corruption and scandal, and we do not celebrate the hard, often unseen work of skilled leaders. I am thinking of those that give their time and talent to a cause, yet do not step into the limelight or others who pay an even greater price. It is on the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that I found myself thinking about leadership and how we construct these opportunities for students.
Too often, the word “leader” is synonymous with power or positional authority. Make no mistake, this link is not unfounded. However, the opportunity to teach leadership skills to adolescents should be divorced from a “named” leadership position (e.g. class president, dorm prefect, etc). How are we teaching students to stand up for the rights of others, especially those without a voice or the ability to easily affect change? Do students feel empowered to do so if they are not in a “named” leadership position? Are we motivating and cultivating students to assume the responsibilities of leadership for the the right reasons (in service of others) as opposed to the wrong reason (resume building, self-interest)?
As you and your school move through this election season, I hope you find time for conversations with the majority of your students who will not wind up in an “official” leadership position. How will you help them grow into a leader and give them an opportunity to give back? This strikes me as the best form of student leadership and an apt tribute to Dr. King and others that have gone before us.