By Pam Clifton

Putting others first is something eighth-grade Osage Middle School students hoped to do. They approached their teacher, Carla Bradley, and explained that they wanted to create a walk-a-thon. One of the girl’s grandparents was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, so the students planned to donate all proceeds to the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Missouri.

Because of the school’s Leader in Me program, the students applied their leadership skills to a community service project that was important to them.

Although Bradley helped guide students in their efforts, she says they were the ones responsible for the bulk of the work, including collecting fees, selling concessions, and marketing.

Bradley says the girls’ efforts in raising nearly $300 were a direct result of their involvement in LIM.

“It was very hard to give up so much control because you fear that students are going to fail, have a terrible experience, and never want to lead again,” Bradley says. But stepping out of the way to give the students an opportunity to succeed—or fail—was the most important lesson that she could have given them.

Bradley, a seventh- and eighth-grade ELA teacher in the School of the Osage District, was nervous at first. But the girls took the project step by step, beginning with the end in mind, being proactive, putting first things first, and working through what they needed in order to make their idea a success. These philosophies are part of lessons in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens that the teachers implement at Osage Middle School.

Together, the staff is making student leadership a priority through the Leader in Me program, which is a whole-school transformation process where students gain leadership and life skills. The idea that every child can be a leader is the focus of this program. The Osage teachers are increasingly integrating the habits into their daily curriculum throughout various subjects at their school. They participate in ongoing training throughout the year to be a student-centered school.

According to Bradley, staff- and student-centered action teams at her school have grown over the last few years. In addition, a spring conference night showcases their Leader in Me and project-based learning accomplishments. Students plan and lead monthly assemblies and other programs and events like the Veterans Day ceremony, field day, Kindness Day, and Halloween activities. They were also responsible for painting a mural near the athletic entrance. Parents are informed monthly of student-led efforts.

Teachers are also incorporating student leadership roles into their classrooms by using common language, participating in monthly staff learning, and maintaining a bulletin board to highlight student-led leadership practices. Some even have sessions to guide students in working on leading school and community events.

Bradley says although the school is still new to the Leader in Me program, they have already noticed big changes. Before, school assemblies had little student input. Now, students lead the assemblies.

“We see their voice and choice in these every month,” says Bradley.

Eighth-grader Derek says he has learned a lot from student-led leadership through the lessons. “I am looking forward to taking these lessons and using them to work through a project this year,” he says.

Jack, also an eighth-grader, says LIM is mostly common sense “but it’s good to be reminded of these things.”

Clayton, a seventh-grader, says the lessons are really fun. “It makes sense to use these lessons in your life and school.”

Even though some of the ideas are fairly common-sense ideas, Bradley says that “implementing some of them into your daily life is harder than you think. It takes practice and discipline, but the results are worth it.”

The Ste. Genevieve R-2 School District also makes student-led leadership a priority. Rachel McDaniel, a social studies teacher at Ste. Genevieve Middle School, has had her own success with student-led leadership. She trains her students to run her classroom with a sub when she is gone on matches as the girls and boys golf coach. She trusts her students and expects them to run class just the way it is when she is present. McDaniel says it is a bit rocky at first, but students soon gain confidence in their roles in leading the class in her absence.

“The success of the classroom relies on their choosing to make it happen,” McDaniel says.

Before the LIM practices were implemented, a representative from each department at the middle school piloted the program. They started small and tried lessons that aligned with the school’s curriculum and Seven Habits and then added classroom roles.

It was the pilot program’s success, in addition to her own, that led faculty to give student-led leadership a try. After staff found that students were more engaged in classrooms and willing to run the room when a substitute was present, it became easier to convince others. The fewer behavior referrals was a recruitment tool in itself. There was less to deal with upon return from an absence. The most difficult part of this process was getting comfortable with giving the substitute and the students the same plan and trusting the students enough to not abuse their “power.”

McDaniel uses GoGuardian, the school’s Chromebook monitoring software, to check on students’ progress frequently for her first few absences. When she returns, she speaks to any students who did not stay on task. After three years, McDaniel has seen a dramatic drop in behavioral issues. Where she was writing several discipline referrals when she had substitutes in her class, she now deals with fewer discipline issues.

Even though Ste. Genevieve Middle School is not officially recognized as a Leader in Me school, McDaniel says the district’s elementary schools are. She explains that LIM is designed with elementary schools in mind so there are some practices that must be altered based on students’ grade levels.

Middle school teachers participate in monthly surveys in order to suggest groups in which they want to lead students. Once details for the groups are finalized, students choose their top four groups based on reading the drafts of these groups. Then students are placed in their highest-ranked choice, or LEAD group, with eighth graders getting first priority. When groups first meet, the teachers are in charge but soon relinquish control slowly each week.

The school’s LEAD groups include interest-focused groups like Spirit Club, All About Hair, Fantasy Sports Club, ceiling tile art, Dragon Chords, Sports Leadership Group, and more. Service-focused groups such as building-wide recycling and the Teacher Helper group are designed to help others and more. There is even a group called Eighth Grade Celebrations Committee that plans activities, seeks donations from local businesses, meets with administrators to propose ideas, notifies parents and students of event details, and works with a budget. Another unique LEAD group, Rock Band, is working on creating a student-driven rock band that writes and plays its own music.

McDaniel says the program gives students the chance to interact with teachers in a non-academically focused setting. She also enjoys watching “wallflowers lead a group or a committee because they are passionate about the topic or cause.” McDaniel says she has also heard attendance is very strong on LEAD group days.

There are a few negatives with the program. Some students are resistant to all groups, so teachers must guess which groups these students would most enjoy. Also, there are many great ideas but cost can become an issue. Limited time is yet another issue. The 40 minutes once a week dedicated to LEAD time is not enough to accomplish big projects in a timely manner.

However, McDaniel says the positives far outweigh the negatives.

“We have always told our students this is OUR school,” she says. “Their involvement, pride and leadership are vital to the success of our school.”

Ste. Genevieve Middle School staff have chosen to trust students, push them and empower them.

“Our students are willing to step into leadership roles more naturally and are comfortable to take the necessary risks on the path toward success. It’s a beautiful thing,” says McDaniel. 

Pam Clifton teaches sixth-grade English Language Arts and reading at West County Middle School in West St. Francois Co. R-4. She can be contacted by email at pclifton@wcr4.org.