By Lisa Stutts, Special Education Teacher at 2015 National School of Character: Northern Parkway School

Can all students be leaders? How do we empower leadership in our school?

All students can be leaders.

We as educators may need to shift our mindset to believe it. We all can fall into the trap of having our “go to” students; it’s routine and easy for us and we do it without thinking.  Some students may appear as natural leaders, while others need much more training. It is those students we need to make sure we give several opportunities to develop their leadership skills, and as a parallel develop their character. Just as we scaffold and modify classroom work, we can do the same with leadership. We need to trust and empower our students to be leaders at their individual pace.

Teachers need to find creative ways to provide leadership opportunities to all students.

Classroom Jobs

Many teachers have class job programs. Do you think of class jobs as part of your character education / leadership program? Well, they are!

Teachers must be mindful and deliberate about teaching character education and providing leadership opportunities. Jobs allow the building of responsibility,  respect and caring. Class jobs also teach important work skills including time management, accountability and productivity.  

Always have a substitute for class jobs-to fill in when a job holder is absent, this enables more students to get involved and feel a sense of responsibility as they “fill in.” Students in our class would quickly identify a student’s absence and the substitute would seamlessly start doing the job needed. This ability to initiate and follow through was impressive. Teachers that reinforce evidence of good character will frequently see leaders emerge. Verbal reinforcement of character builds confidence and a positive sense of self. Students who are showing a lack of confidence or anxiety may need to pair up with another student to complete a class job. It is critical for the teacher to meet with the pair and discuss how they will work together. The teacher should choose a simple job that can be completed with success. It is just as important to slowly let each student work on his or her own after working together for a few sessions. This will promote mutual respect and independence. At the point of independence the teacher should verbally reinforce both students. Reinforcement should always include a specific example, never just “good job”. Let students know they are leaders, praise a specific accomplishment and tie in core values.

Peer Mentoring

A class mentoring program is another great way to promote student leadership and build character. Class mentors can serve several roles.

Peer tutoring is a wonderful chance to foster leadership opportunities all year while building character.  Peer tutors should always  be changing based on content being taught. It’s very important that teachers change tutors on an ongoing basis. There will be some students that could be the tutor all the time, but teachers should include all students. All students have strengths with something to offer. Tutoring is much more than just pairing students so one can provide help. Peer tutors are leaders and should be trained by the teacher and each other to model instruction while demonstrating good character. Teachers need to provide mini lessons on feelings around struggling with academic work before the tutoring begins. Ask students to discuss a time they struggled, have them turn and talk about the experience. The class can come back together and create a word splash of feelings.   

I also suggest the book, “Thank You Mr. Falker”, a wonderful story about a boy struggling to learn how to read.  All of this groundwork builds community and acceptance of the wide range of levels in the classroom. It is critical for your classroom leadership program.  Teachers need to make sure all students have a chance to be in the role of tutor, and yes, it’s possible.

Leaders need flexibility, communication, and problem solving skills. These skills need to be taught and modeled throughout the school community. Some students will respond as leaders quickly, others need time and training. It is those students we need to develop as leaders. All students, under the right set of circumstances can lead. As educators we need to create these opportunities often. Leadership in the classroom allows students to get ready for higher education, the job market and life’s challenges in the 21st century, while building a foundation of good character.