Approximately three years ago, during my journey towards a degree in educational leadership, I was encouraged to read, review, and dissect our school’s mission statement—not in an accusative way, but in a way that begged the question, How can we be better? And there embedded in our school’s mission statement were the following words: prepare servant leaders. From this came the inspiration to create a unique leadership program—goLEAD—that would develop and empower young people to lead today.
Becoming More Intentional
As I thought more and more on how our school prepared servant leaders, I continually asked myself, How well are we doing this? We have incredible students who are doing phenomenal things both on and off campus. We have dozens of opportunities for students to lead. We have fantastic programs like Chick-fil-A Leader Academy and Cobb Youth Leadership that both help train students in leadership.
Yet, I wondered, how intentional were we as a school at equipping these young men and women to lead once they graduated and entered the world at large? The thought of doing leadership intentionally was the spark that got the engine running on developing a two-year leadership program, which would strike a good balance between learning about leadership and experiencing what it means to lead.
Leadership as Curriculum
In the fall of 2017, I endeavored to create a leadership program that would serve as a curriculum versus a co-curriculum. Retreats, conferences, and other short-term leadership training opportunities provide excellent ways to share leadership with students and are oftentimes the only ways that students can receive leadership training. However, I believe that students also need a sufficient amount of time to solidify their leadership skills, which is why I sought to implement the leadership program solely through a curriculum-based approach that would provide students with the necessary time to learn, practice, and reflect upon leadership––both theirs and that of others.
Moreover, high school students already have a rigorous academic schedule, and most students participate in multiple co-curricular programs including athletics, clubs, the arts programs, and multiple other options for students to choose. Adding a leadership training class outside of their already packed schedule had the potential to leave students feeling overwhelmed and time-challenged.
For these reasons, I proposed offering this leadership program as a part of their daily curriculum––a course option in their daily academic schedule. This change would allow students and instructors to devote the necessary time to deeply develop leadership skills and behaviors.
Professional Learning Community
After spending several months preparing ideas, writing documents, performing multiple analyses on my own rationale for the program, and having many conversations with other educators, I took the idea to our academic council for approval. It was from out of this meeting that I was provided the unique privilege and opportunity to lead a professional learning community (PLC) during the spring semester of 2017. The PLC was an opportunity to include numerous educators from lower- to upper-school teachers, as well as to provide a platform for feedback to the development of the program from my peers who often had more years in education than myself.
This PLC group helped to create the detailed application process that we now require students to walk through before they can enter the program. This group also oversaw the selection of students for the inaugural year of the program in the Fall of 2017. The inclusion of teachers and administrations from various backgrounds was key to providing the insight needed to help create this unique curricular approach to leadership development. This cooperative group effort was instrumental to the development of the leadership program and is one reason for the program’s continued growth.
In the Fall of 2018, the goLEAD program officially launched as a two-year curricular program designed to prepare servant leaders through teaching leadership principles, collaborating with community and school leaders, and providing authentic experiences for students to learn, practice, and reflect on their leadership. Three critical components of the program design are classroom learning, leadership experiences, and structured reflection.
In the first year of the program, students read and discuss academic content from books, scholarly articles, and other resources. They also analyze their strengths and areas of growth through a variety of instruments that give them insights into who they are as individuals, how they best lead, and how they can work better as a team.
Upon completion of their first year of the program, students commented on how they loved having class time dedicated to bettering their leadership skills. As one student explained, “The goLEAD program is different than other programs in that it is almost daily training, rather than a once-a-month program. It is more interactive and discussion-based where we discover leadership through guided, but not lectured, conversations with our teacher.” Students want to know and trust that they have a voice in the classroom. They are seeking a safe environment in which to share and debate their thoughts openly as they learn.
Experience is a critical part of intentional student leadership training, and providing opportunities for students to practice skills and behaviors is a foundational pillar of goLEAD. During the first year of the program, students engage in actual hands-on experiences in leading, such as working with faculty and administration through group projects designed to practice and hone their individual leadership skills and behaviors.
One administrator who oversaw students working on a project said, “The opportunity as student leaders to participate with faculty and administration in the development of a program that could positively impact the culture of the school inspired them. The experiential nature of involvement in an authentic and relevant school issue supported a level of interest and motivation that exceeded traditional school activities.” One student commenting on the program said it best: “training can sharpen the tools, but it will never be better than actual real-life experiences.”
The second year of the program is a continuation of learning through hands-on experiences and reflections, but this learning takes place in more real-world environments that are often outside of the classroom. Currently, our second year students are engaged in many leadership roles on and off campus, and they are thriving in ways that feed their individual growth as student leader-servants, as well as their future roles as community leader-servants.
Experience alone cannot cement learning. Reflection, through writing and discussing, must accompany the experiences students have. One of the inherent difficulties with co-curricular methods of leadership development is that it does not provide the necessary format for reflections upon the student’s leadership experiences that are necessary for them to be fully prepared to lead. Reflection is necessary because it provides a base for the students to understand leadership skills and behaviors, both their own as well as others’, from which they can then launch confidently into future leadership experiences.
As this program continues to develop, we are looking into methods to evaluate the success of teaching leadership as a curriculum. One such method being explored is portfolio evaluation, whereby students display what they have accomplished in the program. By having students both visualize and reflect on what they have accomplished, we hope to use metacognition as a means to solidify the principles, experiences, and reflections they have made through their time in goLEAD.
Leadership education as a curriculum is an absolutely critical component of education if we expect students to leave high school campuses prepared to provide meaningful contributions to the community at large— and to flourish in a world that is in desperate need of quality leadership.
- goLEAD website
- Growing Leaders website
- The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner (2007)
- Launching a Leadership Revolution by Chris Brady and Orrin Woodward (2013)
About the Author
Jason Beard, EdS, has worked in education for over a decade. He served as a teacher, coach, and mentor in private school education for the last ten years at Mount Paran Christian School (MPCS). He will begin serving as assistant head of high school at MPCS in the 2019-2020 school year. Jason holds his master’s degree from Georgia State University and his EdS from Gordon College. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.