Growing Leaders – Time Well Spent

We started the year differently than we have in the past. The focus of the first two weeks of school was on growing leaders and setting up the culture for the rest of the school year. Reflecting now, I think it was time well spent.

Our middle school program is housed within a high school that is almost one hundred and fifty years old. Three years ago, after looking at the needs of the community, it was determined that the school would have classes 6th – twelfth grade. The first year we had one 6th and one 7th. Last year we added 8th grade. This year we have two 6th, one 7th, and one 8th grade classroom. As we grow in numbers, we want to develop the supports needed to help our students transition into the high school grades.

Last year we developed an advisory program where the students met in small groups with teachers to talk about habits, goal setting, and personal development. I worked with 7th graders who started the year rolling their eyes and asking to go for a walk outside. By the end of the year they had mission statements and personal calendars. I learned how to be just cool enough for them to trust me and just stubborn enough that they would at least try.

This summer we consider the additional students and decided that we wanted to get things going the right way – the first time. We identified leadership as a goal to address.

We divided the students into “8-day” groups. There were representatives from each grade level in each group. This created a situation where the 7th and 8th graders could model behaviors and habits. They could also work on redefining themselves as leaders in the middle school. Everyone had a chance to get used to their new role for the new school year.

For example, 8th graders were asked to hang back and make sure the cafeteria was restored to order after our morning assembly. This was an opportunity to model leadership through service. For some this came naturally. They heard the direction and did what was asked. For others, this was not their habit. They required additional directions and explanation for why and what they were expected to do.

Another request made of those students was to help the 6th graders set up their iPads. We have a 1:1 program that takes time and energy to launch each year. The older students were able to use their skills and knowledge while pairing up with a younger student who needed to learn how to log into programs, send email, and format documents. This area was instantly embraced as the students enjoyed the opportunity to “show off.”

We also created opportunities for collaboration within the “First 8 days” program. Our art teacher asked students to illustrate one of the habits we addressed on a canvas. The canvases would be divided between the classrooms as reminders throughout the school year. It was exciting to see the small groups work through the steps of brainstorming, creating, and clean-up all taught by the students themselves. These skills will prove to be helpful in the art room as well as with our group projects as we start the year.

As we came to the end of the 8days, we teachers were tired and ready to move on to our core subjects. I wondered if we would be able to reflect and see the value in what we were doing. Late in the day on Friday, I got my answer.

A high school student walked down the hallway outside my room slamming his fist into the lockers as he went. Bang! Bang! Bang! I stepped out to see what was going on. When I returned to my students after making sure the situation was addressed they asked what was going on. I explained he was angry and needed to calm down. They asked nothing else, but someone said, “So he’s acting like a soda bottle rather than a water bottle – he needs to work on that.”

It’s still not utopia around here. Leadership through service might not resonate with some for a while. Habits are hard to develop. Sometimes we have to fail and forget to really learn. But at the end of two weeks there is a spark. Seeds have been planted and with a little attention I think good things are going to grow.