Leadership development is one of my favorite parts of my job. I love to watch shy freshmen grow into vocal and respected leaders as seniors. We have a number of different leadership positions at my school that include student government, student led clubs, team captains, and event leaders for orientations and admissions events. These opportunities are open to all students, and to ensure their success in the various leadership roles, I have developed a method for guiding leaders to feel confident. The steps include training, modeling, and trusting and it is a process we go through every year.
Train Your Leaders– It is important to be clear with student leaders about what is expected of them. I have found that when student leaders are well prepared they are the most successful and confident in their role. At the beginning of the school year I start with a conversation with the student leaders about what leadership does and does not look like. I use the example, leadership looks like wearing your uniform properly and supporting school policies. I like to make the caveat that leadership can also look like questioning school policies in a respectful way. I follow up with what leadership does not look like. Examples are being habitually late for school or being unkind to others on campus.
From here I let the student leaders come up with their ideas of what leadership does and does not look like. It is important to have buy-in from student leaders when holding expectations, and a culture is most solid when accountability comes from within the group.
Once general leadership expectations are set, we are able to get into the specifics of what leaders should do at certain community events. Before an event, I usually provide a training session for preparation. Depending on the setting, a training for student leaders can be 15-20 minutes before an event, like a small student panel discussion, or if we are training for a large event like a freshman orientation, a few hours or sessions could be needed. When I train leaders in preparation for an event, I make a training manual for students to refer to. We go over the manual together and practice. The manual varies, depending on the event, but it can be a list of times and locations the leaders need to be in, an outline of what they need to say, where supplies are located, or simple reminders like “don’t forget your iPad.” I find that more information is better in the training manual.
Model For Your Leaders– One of my coaches in college used to say “the most important form of teaching is modeling,” and as I have progressed in my career with students, I have learned that this is absolutely true. I feel deeply that it is important for me as a leader to model school policies and expectations for students and adults on campus. For example, we have a no cell phone in the hallways policy. It is the most violated rule at school. I always do my best to uphold this rule myself and keep my phone in my pocket when in the hall. I practice being present with students passing by because I know they are watching me and my relationship with my phone. To me, leadership is doing the right thing, even when it is the hard thing.
When training student leaders for an event I demonstrate what students are supposed to do or say, show them where the information is in the training manual, and have them join in in a fun way. For example, when we practice public speaking, I model how to hold a microphone and speak clearly into it. I usually exaggerate too to get a few laughs. I have each student take a turn with the microphone so they know how and where to hold it and how loudly they need to speak into it. If they have to read names, I ask them to practice pronunciation into the microphone confidently. Next, I pair them up with a partner or form small groups to practice and give peer feedback.
Trust Your Leaders– After student leaders go through training and have seen models of expected behavior, trust them! I believe that when students are prepared, they will rise to the occasion, especially when they feel proud of the work they have done to get ready for the event. One of the things I train my student leaders to do is make younger students feel good and comfortable at school, not bad.
“Write that in your training manual,” I say. “Make students feel good, not bad!”
And then they all scribble the phrase down as quickly as they can.
I saw one of my leaders do this exceptionally well at freshman orientation this year. We had a new student tell their orientation leader that they go by a different name than the one pre-written on their name tag. At this moment, I could have stepped in, but I let the leader handle the situation. The orientation leader did not skip a beat, smiled and said, “Thanks for telling me, let’s get you a new name tag.” The freshman immediately felt seen, safe, and comfortable at school. I trusted the preparation my leader had gone through and she, in turn, modeled our school’s hospitality to a new student. It was a full circle moment.
After training, modeling, and trusting student leaders, it is important to give feedback to complete the leadership growth cycle. I use the common positive feedback sandwich style of feedback. The evaluation starts with what the student leader did well, layered with some constructive room for growth, and ends with encouragement and reminding them what they did right. I always want my leaders to know that I see and appreciate their effort to put themselves in the vulnerable position of leadership. It is not easy being a leader, and not everyone is willing to try, but I do believe that every student can lead with the right preparation. Leadership practice makes confident leaders.