When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it—but all that had gone before.Jacob Riis
Student leaders are a necessity if we expect to have high quality school programs. The day of the teacher “doing it all” is simply a part of history. Although many people are adding extra staff members to their programs, it is still important that students take on many responsibilities. (The education that comes from this is a real bonus to these “leaders” as they take on the various responsibilities of life.)
Often, however, our enthusiasm about getting the extra help — combined with the eager student’s desire to have a leadership position — can create a situation that results in confusion and disarray. The teacher is forced to spend time “sorting through” the problems caused by miscommunications, hurt feelings, overstepped boundaries, bruised egos, irate peer groups, false accusations, etc. Is it all worth it? Wouldn’t it just be easier to forget all this student leadership stuff and do it yourself?
Although the temptation is often there to give up on this seemingly endless backlash of problems, we might want to take a closer look at our preparation of these young people for their given set of tasks. So often, student leaders are chosen based on, who has seniority, who is most popular, whose mother is booster president, and on and on. All of these “reasons” certainly have validity; however, the purpose of a leader is to lead. If the selected leaders do not have this ability, then the effort is fruitless. In fact, it is unproductive from every aspect and will cause digression instead of progression.
Many of these problems can be avoided if the student leaders have some guidelines. We have all experienced the student leader who simply is not motivated or assertive in handling the responsibilities. Conversely, there are those who are so aggressive that they bulldoze everyone, including us. There are those who are “afraid of hurting their friends’ feelings,” and those who “have no sense of diplomacy.”
There is no right or wrong way to lead. There are no strict rules because every situation demands a different set. But we can help student leaders with some general “dos and don’ts.” This way, the leaders will have a head start accomplishing their goals, and you will avoid the frustration of always redoing what was not done well in the first place or repairing the damage done by an immature misinterpretation of position.
First of all, when students choose to take leadership roles, they must understand this means giving up some privileges. They are now expected to deliver on all the assumed rules of their new position: to be on time (or maybe a little early), to be professional (they are now a role model), to have a positive attitude (their attitude is reflected in all of their followers), and to maintain a high standard of excellence (as they go, so goes their group).
In most cases, they will give up some of their popularity. Jealousy runs rampant, and there are always those who think they can do the job better or should have been the one selected, etc. This is part of leadership, and to let them think the position will be all fame and glory is simply a gross misrepresentation of what lies ahead. Leadership is a lot of hard work and the privilege of doing the work is often the only reward there is. To expect more will lead to certain disappointment!
With this in mind, it would seem advantageous to prepare these students mentally for what lies ahead. We must give them the tools to deal with their peers, adults, friends, and even us. When one becomes a student leader, the communication level adjusts. There is a higher level of expectation and a degree of greater confidentiality. If the “expectations” are not met or the “confidentiality” violated, the trust level needed to develop a good leadership style is destroyed.
Here are some guidelines for traits desirable in a high-quality leader. It can serve as a “checklist” for your existing leaders and as a good prerequisite for developing future leaders.
High-quality leaders have:
High energy levels
Because leaders are often asked to “go the extra mile,” it is important they have a high level of energy to maintain a busy schedule, to perform last-minute duties, and to be the hardest worker of the group. The followers rarely will outwork the leader. The leader sets the pace!
Good listening skills
This is such an important “secret to success”! Not only is this important when taking instructions, but it is mandatory when working with others. Listeners are few in number, and we all appreciate someone who has time for us. A great rule for leaders: keep your mouth shut and your ears and brain open!
A role model is three to four times more of a teacher than a teacher. If the leader is to gain the respect of his or her followers, then self-confidence is a must. None of us wants to follow someone who lacks confidence. We want secure, assured leaders paving the way for us.
High levels of integrity
Leaders understand the ultimate importance of truth. They will always use complete honesty as the basis for any and all of their choices. Any deviation of this will, ultimately, damage the group.
Sensitivity for others
Truly great leaders operate from a position of “we–us” rather than the popular “I–me.” They are an integral part of their group. They constantly avoid a posture of “being above” the other people; rather, they put themselves in the follower’s position and accommodate their needs. They sense the mood of the group, as well as of the individuals, and this atmosphere is of constant concern.
A willingness to fail
Yes, they admit to being human. They are quick to admit their mistakes and equally as quick to correct them. They never push the blame on any unsuspecting scapegoat but realize there is more strength in truth than in “looking right” at another’s expense.
Senses of humour
Although there has to be a disciplined focus on the goal, it is often necessary to “lighten-up” and allow the followers a chance to relax, laugh, and then get back in action. Humour and silliness are not the same. Humour supports forward motion while silliness restricts it.
They do not react with undo trauma to problems, but realize that within every problem lies an opportunity for growth and forward progress. They welcome problems as a chance to test their leadership and gain self-improvement.
They realize that most comparison stems from insecurity. Their goal is not to “be better than someone else,” but to “be the best they can,” thus allowing their group to be the best it can. Competition turns into cooperation and all “competitive spirit” is used to improve the situation for everyone.
The desire to care and share
They will never hurt intentionally, even though they understand there will be times when individual wishes will be overlooked in favour of the group’s welfare. They understand that part of leadership is “taking some of the heat” for those unpopular decisions, and they accept this responsibility with strength and dignity. Their sense of caring is ultimate and their willingness to share every ounce of talent and ability is top priority in their actions.
Is that all? Of course not, but it is a healthy beginning to outstanding leadership. If these ten attributes were a certainty for all of our student leaders, the rest of the task at hand would be simple. We have created a framework for the best, and leaders worth their salt will want to be the best. Isn’t that why they wanted to be leaders in the first place?
Student leaders are an important part of any first class school. Our position as teachers offers us a rare opportunity to create a living lab for these special young people who are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty. Let’s get them started on the right foot.
Take the lead in teaching them what it is all about!