Award winning Teacher's Advice on how to change school culture

Written by: Karl Karkainen

“Anyone can step up and lead. Anyone can step back and serve.”

For teachers who are in charge of either creating or developing a student leadership program in their first year as an advisor, it can be an exciting task. But where can a teacher who has the enthusiasm to build their school’s student leadership program get started?

The entire process begins with creating a vision that answers some basic questions:

  • How can all students identify leadership qualities in themselves?
  • Where can students receive opportunities to practice the empathy-building skills learned in leadership class to make their learning authentic?
  • How can students work with school staff to develop a school theme that lasts throughout the entire school year?
  • How can students be encouraged to buy into a vision where every student feels they belong at school?

In our school’s student leadership program, we have developed a vision to empower all students to believe that they are leaders with the phrase that "Anyone can step up and lead, and anyone can step back and serve."

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The goal would be that every lesson and project-based activity in our student leadership classes would relate to this vision as students come to understand the initiative and confidence required to create a positive difference in their world. It is also just as important that students understand that leadership is about empowering others and building influence through service.

Leadership is for everyone, and everyone deserves to feel they belong at school. Student leaders must take ownership in helping to create this positive school environment. In the CharacterStrong Curriculum, students have opportunities to learn about themselves with a personality assessment. Some students at first do not believe they are leaders. But they soon learn that while we are all born with a distinct personality, all personalities can be vehicles for developing the character muscles needed to step into the role of a strong, positive leader. Another component in the curriculum is recognizing conflict, both internal and external, and understanding that there are strategies to show leadership by responding positively in difficult situations.

In addition, there is an emphasis on learning the “Eight Essentials” that are designed to help anyone to build their influence and improve their relationships with others. Examples of these Essentials, such as kindness, commitment and acceptance, are important concepts meant for every student to understand. Being aware of these Essentials also helps keep me accountable as a teacher. Am I showing patience with all students? How about committing to what I say I will do?

There are four words that start with the letter “S” that can help new advisors in organizing their vision for what student leadership activities look like at their school - Service, Supervision, Spirit and Speaking. With each “S” comes a question for students to think about and twenty possible examples of how to answer it:

Service - What did you do for others today?

  • Taking a field trip to volunteer at a community food bank or retirement center
  • Organizing classroom competitions to collect items for a food drive
  • Writing thank-you notes to staff members (especially the unsung heroes)
  • CharacterDares that challenge students to participate in activities such as helping out their parents around the house without being asked
  • Supporting local Special Olympics athletes at a Pack the Gym Night event
  • Creating displays to bring awareness to important causes
  • A global project - it brings the school together when there is a common goal
  • Helping the custodians with clean-up at an event
  • Reading with a first grade classroom

Supervision - How are you taking responsibility as a leader?

  • Taking turns monitoring recycling, compost and garbage bins at lunch
  • Creating a small garden at school and taking care of sustainable plants

Spirit - How can you make everyone feel they belong at school?

  • Choosing one day of the week to greet students at the main doors as they arrive at school
  • Building excitement for a variety of school events (club competitions, sports games, music concerts, dances, etc.)
  • Selecting spirit days that provide all students with opportunities to participate
  • Writing and delivering birthday grams to students
  • Creating a hallway display that features everyone’s name in the school

Speaking - How are you communicating how we should treat each others?

  • Opportunities for students to use their voice in Veterans’ Day and Martin Luther King assemblies
  • Student voice being present in morning announcements with inspirational quotes or references to a school theme
  • Field trip to 4th and 5th grade classrooms to teach a lesson on one of the Eight Essentials and build excitement for middle school
  • One way to create common purpose in our school has been developing a theme for the year. Students this year decided on the theme of Choose Love. They have carried on this theme be presenting monthly discussions to homeroom classes on Eight Essentials topics and facilitating conversations based on impactful videos and how we can apply these lessons into daily life at school. Then, support this theme on the video announcements.
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When students see their peers acting as positive leaders, they will want to join in and experience what it looks like to build influence for themselves - whether by joining the general elective leadership class or by building on these principles during sports, clubs or in the classroom. Ultimately, the lessons that students learn through social-emotional learning experiences both in and out of the classroom help them to understand more about themselves and others better. Since leadership is all about relationships, these lessons will prove to be relevant and valuable to students both now and in the years to come.

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About the Author: Karl Karkainen is a leadership teacher at Enumclaw Middle School in Enumclaw, WA and was the 2015 Washington State Middle Level Adviser of the Year. Karl is constantly challenging his students to be CharacterStrong by serving others in their school, home and community. Karl's students frequently publish videos showcasing how they are choosing to love others in their building, interviewing students on SEL topics and much more. Subscribe to their YouTube channel here and follow them on Twitter @emswolfie to see some of the amazing activities they are doing to serve others!