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5 qualities that boost student leadership in the classroom

Paul CancellieriJune 6, 2016

Leadership is fast becoming one of the most overused educational buzzwords. Everyone, it seems, is interested in promoting student leadership qualities and building the skills needed for this generation to become trailblazers of business, government, and nearly every other field. The benefits of being strong leaders are clear, and educators obviously want the best outcomes for our students.

But less clear is how we reach that goal — or even what the qualities of a good student leader are.

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I spent more than a year at a new leadership-focused all-boys public school in Raleigh, North Carolina, as part of the founding faculty. While I was officially a middle school science teacher there, I was also responsible for teaching and assessing the school’s leadership curriculum, as were all members of the faculty. As a teacher, I had two questions going into this work:

1) What exactly were the qualities of a student leader that we would be teaching?
2) How would I have time to teach them when I had a full science curriculum that my students needed time to master?

The answer to the first question came quickly. We partnered with the General Hugh Shelton Leadership Center at NC State University. The main leadership tenets of their multifaceted system boil down to this:

Model the Way
Inspire a Shared Vision
Challenge the Process
Enable Others to Act
Encourage the Heart

All students participate in a leadership camp experience in which they learn these principles through hands-on activities, personal reflections, and group discussions. As a result, students in my classes all had a basic understanding of this part of our leadership curriculum. It was then my job to find ways to reinforce it and assess it in my science classroom.

… leadership is a skill that can be taught and developed without isolating it completely from the normal workflow of a classroom.

I started by thinking about what these leadership practices would look like in science. I considered examples of leadership during normal classes and lab activities and asked students for their input. Together, we recognized that good leaders help their entire team be more effective by encouraging each team member’s best effort, making informed decisions, and resolving conflict with fairness and empathy. We compiled a list of opportunities to identify positive behaviors, such as during lab activities, group projects, and even class discussions. The key for me was that any tool or strategy couldn’t take away from science instruction and would ideally complement it.

So, my goal in class was to give every student a chance to be a leader and receive feedback about their performance. Armed with a simple leadership rubric, I chose random group leaders each time we did any sort of group activity — lab, review, project, and so on — and tasked them with displaying one of the leadership practices. We do enough group work that every student eventually served as a leader.

After the activity, students evaluated their leader, and the leader evaluated himself. With instructions to be respectful and constructive in their feedback, these “leadership reflections” followed most opportunities for leaders to show off their skills. In as little as 10 minutes, my students gave and received meaningful feedback and grew as leaders.

This system isn’t perfect. There were individuals who did not appreciate criticism from the group and team members who were not respectful in their responses. I dealt with these as I would any other behavior problem in my class. It also led to some extra paperwork for me to review. But my biggest take-away was that leadership is a skill that can be taught and developed without isolating it completely from the normal workflow of a classroom. And the benefits of doing so can be powerful.

Photo credit: Len44ik /

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