Student Leadership: Meaning What We Say
If you look at the mission statement of almost every Catholic school, you’ll see that somewhere the word leadership is mentioned. Most schools aim to inspire leadership among their students, or they say they do. This year I’ve been prompted time and again to reflect upon what we mean when we say we want our students to be leaders. It’s not enough to put it in the mission statement. It’s not enough to tell the students they are leaders. It’s not enough to teach them the skills that lend themselves to leadership. It’s not enough if we’re not willing to listen and respect them when they try to lead.
This year, more than other years I’ve taught, has been marked by a number of students with strong moral convictions hoping to make our school a better place. I love that about them. I have the privilege of working with our student government officers. They have been at the forefront of the attempts to make change at our school. However, many of their attempts to voice their opinions and make real change have been met with indifference and resistance from the administrative body at our school. From trying to start a support group for LGBTQ students, to participating in the student walkouts across the nation, to organizing a fundraiser for cancer research, the students were denied an opportunity to lead. I think it’s fair to say that students hear their fair share of the word “no” throughout their time in school and many times the reasons behind that “no” are solid. However, in a number of cases this year it wasn’t just that students were told no, it’s that they were denied any sort of real meaningful dialogue about issues that meant a lot to them.
“We say we care about community here, but we don’t. I’ve been awarded for my leadership skills and it’s a lie….They only want me to be a leader when my opinion matches theirs.” These were the remarks of a student just days away from graduating. It broke my heart to see her so disappointed and disillusioned when I’d watched her work so hard for causes she really believed in all year. She had been elected by her peers and had been given awards for her leadership by administration, but was not being treated like one. It made me think about the leadership awards and societies that we nominate students for. Are we nominating people who show true leadership amongst their peers, or people who are polite and follow the rules?
As an educator who comes to work for the students, but whose livelihood depends on the school, I’ve felt like I was between a rock and a hard place this year. What is a teacher’s role when there is a conflict between students and administration? When students come in sad and discouraged, how can I support them in a meaningful way? In a number of instances, students contemplated breaking a rule that was set in order to demonstrate how much a particular issue meant to them. It seems counterintuitive to encourage them to practice civil disobedience against the very people who employ me, but it feels disingenuous to tell them to let it go. I suppose some people might say that if it’s a private school, students don’t have to be there and could choose to leave if they are unhappy, however that could certainly not be called community.
How do we make room for dissonance and dissent within a school that promotes one unified student body? How do I teach students to meet a response of “no” with respectful resolve to try again? In many ways this is an issue that extends beyond our schools and into society. As an educator I feel called to listen and to help, but feel like my hands are tied by an administrative body that does not practice what it preaches. I’m not sure that I’ve found a way to navigate this issue yet, but it seems to me like we all need to get more serious about promoting leadership within our school communities or stop using the word if we aren’t prepared to support it.
The author teaches in a high school in Massachusetts.