Why do student leadership?

About a third of my work in leadership training is with youth organizations, with an emphasis on true empowerment of youth leaders to contribute to the organization’s work.  It takes effort, so I was recently asked “Is it worth all the effort to have student leadership?”

I said yes, and here is my full answer:

Many would agree that it isn’t worth the hassle if the only thing you gain is some better role-modeling or extra worker bees.  If, though, you actually train and empower students for the below three purposes, then you’ll have less stress, more productivity, and you’ve provided a developmental opportunity (think “differentiation”) that will benefit them later in life.

1-Extra “workers” – lots of directors/coaches/advisors stop at this point, and being a leader in a program where this is the only purpose of “leaders” can then be only about the title, or students can feel used, not empowered.  Combined with the other two, below, it just becomes a component of the big picture of what it means to lead/serve. (I could tell the story of Jordan, who is director of Greek programming at a University in Illinois. He is a prominent student leader on campus.  He directly attributes that to the fact that he completely organized band solo/ensemble stuff at our school – ballots, music ordering, judge copies, scheduling, etc.)

2-An information conduit and a strategic planning team.  Even the best directors/coaches/advisors will sometimes lose touch with “what’s going down.”  If you’ve ever been blindsided by growing discontent, or made a mistake in reading the reaction to a change in procedure, you know how valuable this can be.  To have a trusted group of students who you can ask “how’s it going?” or “how’m I doing?”  is valuable– and you wouldn’t want to do that with just any student!  Further, those students can identify ways to improve the program that you might not think of, or have time for.  It can be as simple as changing the room decorations.  My favorite example is that my students solved a problem that had been plaguing me — last-minuteness.  Not quite tardiness, but a rushed feel.  They identified the problem as traffic flow, and re-did the location of required equipment, and designated the right doors to use.

3-Apprentice “teachers” – if your student leaders help teach, everyone grows.  Ever have trouble fitting in a make-up music lesson?  Have a section leader do it.  Are you the only coach on the field, yet you have to teach a player to block in a specialized way? Have a team captain do it.  Getting way behind on your own to-do list?  Delegate some paperwork to a student — they’ll learn more.

These are things that make a real difference.  Directors/coaches/advisors can lose faith in the notion of student leadership when it’s poorly implemented, or student leaders are ill-equipped to lead peers and become bossy and annoying, or when they only serve purpose one, above.

Just as you wouldn’t expect every student in your organization to be a top performer, it’s unfair to expect that every student has the aptitude to truly develop as a leader.  Exposing everyone to the concepts is great; expecting everyone to lead is unfair.

In some states, it’s the law to demonstrate a commitment to “differentiation of instruction” – so much easier to do in activities than in social studies class.  Taking your most promising leaders and developing them is another way to do that.

It is absolutely true that leaders will always lead, just as readers will always read. And so, great reading teachers will make sure that natural readers are exposed to a variety of the best literature.  Let’s also send natural leaders down the right path.

2 Responses

  1. Samantha
    | Reply

    I was given leadership opportunites before I hit junior high. I was leading an elementary kids choir at a time I still had to be picked up from the Wednesday night practice by my own mom! I was choosing music, training kids, disciplining and organizing programs (never mind I can’t sing to save my life.) The confidence it gave me to lead later in life was invaluable. Thanks for not taking the easy way out — teaching students to lead makes better leaders later. And that makes everyone’s life better!

  2. Alan Feirer
    | Reply

    Cool story, Samantha – drives it home.

    Thanks for engaging!

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