Steering Leadership Development in Adolescents

I frequently find myself discussing the concept of leadership with colleagues, parents, and students.   Likewise, we all frequently evaluate and make important decisions about and based upon leadership.   Invariably, the debate arises over what exactly comprises this construct called leadership. Having worked with, followed, and led people ages birth to 95, I feel like I have a very simple definition of a leader that can satisfy any assessment of the construct.  The single requiste for a leader is that people follow.  While seemingly overly simple, this trait is really the only component that all leaders share. The reasons why people follow represents an infinite set that is almost undefineable.   As an educator whose focus is primarily on the adolescent experience, I have unwaveringly embraced the philosophies of differentiation as a paramount guide in program development.  So while we differentiate instruction in math, English, science etc, according to student readiness, interest, and preference, we need to likewise differentiate other parts of their experiences.  Uppermost on the list of programs that are still following traditional models is middle school leadership programs.  If we walk into the majority of independent middle schools in this country, we will likely find a student government approach where there are officers for each class who have been voted into office by their peers based on a diverse set of criteria.  These officer cabinets typically run through cookie-cutter periodic meetings, plan a dance, some fundraising bake sales,  perhaps a class trip or other events.  While there is no doubt that the officers are getting a good taste of civic process and some basic leadership experience, there is a better way through differentiation to provide civic and leadership opportunities for more of our students.  
Through a steering committee program, more students can get involved in community leadership initiatives based on projects that are interesting to them, taking on roles that they are both prepared to do using modalities and skills that they prefer to share. 
We have implemented this philosophy at our pre-k through 8th grade school with tremendous results. The initial step is to encourage students to share ideas for projects of an entertaining and benevolent nature. In other words, ideas for fun and beneficial projects. Upon determining that the projects fit with our school’s mission, we offer the grade level from which the idea evolved the opportunity for volunteers to form a steering committee. This committee, in conjunction with a project sponsor (adult), steer the project. Within the steering committee, student chose roles that they prefer and have a loose-tight structure to execute their individual roles and the committee objectives in their own way. The experiences are meaningful as the projects are student generated, student led, and student executed. Further, participation is voluntary, so invariably, students choose projects about which they are passionate, and for which they have a particular acumen. The results are that students get to lead in areas of choice and skill. This year’s Fall Festival event was organized and executed by a team of 6 seventh graders and one parent. Our first ever fall dance party/ movie and pizza night was steered by a team of 4 seventh grade girls. The process they developed was the model for a series of similar events for other student groups this past month. Currently, a group of 9 sixth graders are working with the Red Cross and a local hospital on a Blood Drive. Subcommittees for digital media communication/advertisement, in-house advertisement, day-of-logistics/communication with Red Cross, and schedules/appointments have been created and each group is autonomously working, while collaborating appropriately with other subcommittees.
The positive results of this approach is that all students have the opportunity to create and develop, lead and serve and choose and execute in a community minded way. We are developing creative, process-oriented, collaborative and benevolent leaders.


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