Lessons in Leadership

Town Square Delaware features monthly reflections from Laurisa Schutt, executive director of Teach for America – Delaware and two TFA teachers who are teaching in Delaware schools this year.

“You’re a leader in this classroom.” Clearly, I had caught this student off guard as I called him to my desk early one morning in the fall of 2012. What he didn’t know is that I had been wrestling with how to build the idea of leadership into my daily lessons. I strongly believed that my student’s leadership could fill a void in our classroom and school, and dramatically change how students engaged with the curriculum.

Expecting an unrevealing response, I was astounded when he quickly responded, “I can’t be a leader. I don’t talk that much. Plus, we have so many smart kids in this class.” His look of disbelief took me be aback. I reminded him that his astute answers during the class helped three other students “get” the concept. His summary at the end of class beautifully translated the objective into a pithy ten-word response.

In this verbal exchange, I realized that I had a different kind of “knowledge gap” in my classroom. Students were absorbing information, but they weren’t recognizing the immense power of knowledge. To them, the information was just facts and data. They didn’t realize that the process could build a sustaining legacy of scholarship and pathways towards even greater success.

How then do you teach leadership, especially in the teen years when so many impressions are already cemented? How do you teach the human aspect of leadership in the classroom? As I pushed further into my own trials, I understood that my leadership skills developed through my own experimentation with promoting ideas and engaging in discussions. My leadership was nurtured, expanded, tested and polished by mentors and teachers. I didn’t need to teach formal leadership content, I had to provide the situations that allowed leadership skills to flourish.

This integration was not an easy process. We had to learn to lead together. I had to teach students to work together, especially when I was not immediately present and I had to identify my strongest candidates and put them to work influencing others.

I called students in after class or during lunch to have simple conversations: “You know, your table partner learns incredibly well from you. Could you help me when I’m working with the other groups?” We then grew to the more complex and empowering dialogues of, “I’m going to introduce this topic tomorrow. After a few practice problems, I want you to take over the classroom and show the other students how you would think about solving this.”

As I continuously improved my management of the classroom, I saw results not in the number of students participating, but rather the depth of the participation in each facet of classroom life.

By the end of the year, one of my proudest moments as a first-year teacher was watching this student emerge as a full-fledged advocate for his own education and for his peers. Over the summer, I received an email from my reluctant student leader as he began his first year of college asking for advice on how to succeed. I reminded him of his immense capacity to learn and lead in any realm and encouraged him to push himself to fulfill that role. His e-mail challenged me to think about my goal for this school year: How do I facilitate that end result for even more students in my second year?

This year has brought a new set of emerging leaders, and new challenges to bring their strengths to the forefront, but I have grown in my ability to create conditions for them to practice leadership. I think about how to make them shine and make sure they have bold, proud moments in different contexts in my class. That process by itself has created a different momentum. We’re evolving as a small community of leaders and engaged citizens, with me, a leader in progress, at the helm. We’re learning together. What will my third year bring?

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1 Comment

  • I thought TFA was pretty much over with, seems to have been ineffective in most Districts nationwide. I do remember the terrible teacher shortage and that if we didn’t double teachers salaries and pensions we were going to have to close all the schools. I guess there really never was a teacher shortage, but I’m glad you accepted the challenge.