Fostering Student Leadership at Shady Hill

Recently, the Parents Council hosted the final Let’s Talk in its 2018–2019 series. Mark Stanek, Serena Wilkie Gifford, and Laniesha Gray talked about what student leadership looks like at Shady Hill and gave examples of how we promote it.
Mark opened by defining several dimensions of leadership—that it can be developed and taught, that it is multifaceted and multidimensional, and that management is not the same thing as leadership. He offered girls sports as an example of how leadership can be fostered. He mentioned studies showing that girls’ participation in middle-school sports correlates highly with leadership positions in later life.
Next, Serena spoke about the Lower School’s focus on community and community building. “We define leadership,” she said, “as upholding the values of the community, and we celebrate and recognize people for doing things little and big that reinforce the sense of community. As members of the community, students have a responsibility to behave respectfully, follow rules, support their friends, and model behavior that reflects our values. Leadership doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re out in front. It’s more about participating in community, whether that’s in the classroom, on a team, or in one’s family, for instance.”
She explained how fourth graders, as the oldest students in the Lower School, are given specific leadership opportunities. “They know the expectations of the community and can serve as role models. For example, they recite poems in Assembly, raise the flag on The Green, and serve as guides at Morning Drop-Off. In Middle School, eighth graders have parallel sorts of opportunities. For example, in assemblies, they recite declamations and play leadership roles in student government, the performing arts, and on sports teams.”
The conversation shifted to leadership in the Middle School. Laniesha characterized it by saying, “We talk about it as leading from where you are. The focus isn’t on the idea of the traditional leader who is always out in front. Anyone can lead by using their gifts and strengths to make a positive impact on their community. Students also come to see that leadership is collaborative and the way you show up can be different depending on the setting. Sometimes it’s important to be assertive. Other times, it’s important to listen and follow someone else’s lead.”
“Reflection,” she continued, “is also an important part of leadership. In the eighth grade particularly, we do explicit personal-leadership work. For instance, students take a leadership inventory to understand where their strengths and growth areas lie. Like the conversations we have with students about the kind of learners they are, we work to have students understand that leadership styles are similarly varied. It’s important to be self-reflective and self-aware and understand what one brings to and needs from a group.”
“In PODS—small groups of fifth through eighth graders and a faculty advisor—and in our Partners program, we encourage older students to serve as role models. In affinity groups and the Gender-Sexuality Alliance, we help students hone their voices and skills by having them think about how to make experiences personal and authentic. In these examples, and in general, we give people useful vocabulary, try to demystify group skills, and show the importance of building consensus when leading.”

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