This year I have been working with our 7th and 8th graders to explore leadership, one step of many as the school continues to refine and strengthen our approach to metacognitive skill growth in our students.
One source for my workshops with students this year is NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School. In the summer of 1997, I spent three weeks in the Absaroka and Wind River Ranges of the Rocky Mountains on a NOLS Outdoor Educator course. One lesson that has stayed with me ever since--and one that our students internalize quite effectively through their time at Mark Day--is that leadership is required of all: being an "active follower," in NOLS parlance, requires that all members keep the group's goals and safety in mind just as persistently as the group's designated leader does.
In our discussion, Upper Division students identified what leaders BELIEVE, what they ASK, what they DO, and HOW THEY MAKE OTHERS FEEL. To quote our 7th and 8th graders, good leaders BELIEVE that we will get better if we try, but it won't be easy. They believe that everyone has potential. They believe in keeping their group safe, that everyone should participate, and that everyone should be treated as an equal. They believe in the ideas of others. They believe in kindness, respectfulness, hope, fairness, and generosity. Our students believe good leaders ASK how people want to be included, ask for a different perspective, and ask how they can improve the welfare of their group. They ask, "How can I help? What's your opinion?" Among many different ideas, our students believe that what good leaders DO is to care for people, work hard, encourage everyone to try their best, include everyone, work hard, stay positive, inspire people to make a difference, and did I mention work hard? Finally, students said that they believe good leaders HELP THEIR GROUPS TO FEEL confident, accomplished, cared for (repeated a number of times), encouraged, and included. They help people feel inspired to make an impact, to feel that they can always improve, and "to feel not good if they don't try." (We paused to have a conversation about the value of difficult conversations when we are leading members of a group, and how being able to talk about something difficult is just as important in advancing a group's goals as celebrating the good news is.) Students said leaders help people to feel ready, to feel like their best selves, and to feel inspired to do better.
As I listened, I was so impressed with how our students defined those elements of leadership, both in big, philosophical ways and in practical habits that good leaders employ. Our students are able to discern crucial facets of leadership, and I particularly appreciated the highly refined sense of empathy that underpins so much of what they articulate. Even more rewarding is to see students' leadership in action around the campus and far beyond its borders. With their kindergarten buddies, in the drama productions and athletic teams, in mentor groups, off-campus in community engagement, standing up to speak in class and at assemblies, and in many more arenas, our students practice active leadership every day. Our graduates head out from the campus with a depth of leadership experience that serves them well as they take the next steps that carry them far from campus, in turn inspiring all of us here on campus with what they do next.