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Teaching to Life: Building Leadership through Clubs

By Nicole Bell May 14th, 2014 3:00 PM

People say that leaders are made, not born, and that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as my school’s robotics season comes to a close. Back in August when I set goals as the team’s coach, I was mostly focused on supporting my students’ growth in critical thought and engineering, and on exposing them to the excitement of robotics and STEM careers. As I think back on this robotics season, however, I realized that I played a third, equally critical role – that of building leadership skills amongst my students.

Teachers are often called upon to teach topics outside of their content area. Chemistry teachers may need to re-teach decimals, while math teachers review reading comprehension strategies. Beyond these academic skills, teachers of all subjects end up teaching social skills: anger management, time management, interpersonal skills, and leadership, to name a few. These skills can be hard to teach, since many teachers were never trained in how to teach them.

Coaching a school team brings with it an even greater expectation to teach leadership, and at times I’ve found myself intimidated by this tall order. As I think back on this past year, I’m glad I was able to enrich my students’ experiences with resources like donated mechanics kits and the opportunity to attend three competitions instead of our usual one competition. Where my mind lingers, however, is on the ways I pushed my students as leaders and on the ways I could have pushed them even further. Reflecting on what worked, I realized that many of those leadership-building strategies weren’t elusive new methods – they were the same strategies I was using in my classroom each day to teach chemistry. Below is the advice I wish I could have had last August, and that I would offer to any teacher/coach planning for next year:

Step 1: Planning What and How to Teach

  • Break it down: When I plan for my chemistry class, I start by figuring out what I want my students to be able to do at the end of the year, unit, or lesson, and then I break down the specific skills and knowledge students would need to accomplish those goals. With robotics, however, I started with the broad goal of “teaching leadership” and it led me to build leadership skills in a more ad hoc manner. I think it’s more powerful to instead start by thinking about what leadership looks like in the context of your club, and then cohesively build the skills needed for that leadership. In the case of robotics, that would have been a large focus on how to train and direct peers clearly and respectfully, and how to identify what’s needed in a situation and be proactive about making it happen. Different teams might require a different focus, but having a comprehensive vision of leadership will make it easier to address the most important skills and pick the most appropriate methods to teach those skills.
  • Figure out where your students are: Differentiation is just as important for teaching soft skills as it is for teaching hard skills. Getting a sense of the team’s existing skill sets helps you figure out where to go next, so coaches should try to gauge students’ comfort and ability with taking charge, suggesting courses of action, and mediating conflicts. In robotics this year, I mostly gleaned this information through informal observations and interactions. However, I think it would have been valuable to also use self-assessment surveys like the learning style surveys I’ve used in class. I would recommend asking students to rank their own strength and comfort level on key skills, along with how they think others view them and where they’d most like to grow (which can sometimes produce a more honest self-assessment).
  • Address misconceptions: Part of the typical planning process involves addressing up front the misconceptions that students typically have for a topic. With leadership, a lot of people assume that leadership means ordering people around. This can lead some students to avoid leadership positions at all costs, while others order teammates around in an unproductive way. When I assigned students to leadership roles like safety captain this year, I had to be explicit about the types of interactions that were – and were not – expected of them, and I would recommend that any coach directly address key misconceptions up front as well.

Step 2: Teaching Leadership Day-to-Day within the Club

  • Teach the language: Academic vocabulary can often be a stumbling block to understanding concepts. If you don’t understand bonds or valence electrons, it’s very hard to think about what it means when atoms transfer valence electrons to form ionic bonds. Being able to own words and use those words to explain themselves gives students power, while a lack of certitude about how to say things often keeps students from saying them at all. My school’s instructional coach once gave me great advice on building leadership in labs – give students a specific role (like making sure all steps are followed), and then give them the exact language they should use to keep their teammates on track. I’ve been applying this advice with the robotics team, and I’ve given some students specific things they can say to advocate for themselves when they don’t understand something. I’d recommend that club leaders be even more proactive about this – instead of doing it ad hoc when moments arise, it’d be great to give students written language they can consult to prepare for hard conversations like correcting a peer when they’re doing something wrong.
  • Model behaviors for your students: A key part of learning a new skill is watching other people do it. Teachers often lead by example in social skills, but we don’t always speak aloud the thoughts that are guiding our actions. When modeling a math problem, we say things like, “I’m not sure what the formula is, so I check my notes to find the formula. Then I plug these numbers into the formula…” When acting as a leader, however, we rarely say things like, “I’m going to ask Cydney how she feels, because I value her opinions as part of this team. Now that she has spoken, I’ll nod so she knows she was heard…” To be honest, most of my explicit leadership instruction has been talking students through situations and role playing; I haven’t done much direct modeling of my own thought processes. I think there could be added value, however, in figuring out an appropriate way to show students that teachers aren’t born leaders — they actively think about how to best lead. 

Step 3: Building a Lasting Impact Beyond the Club

  • For students to succeed in a class, they need a sense of “I can” (they feel they’re capable of the work) and “I want” (they care about doing well in the class). I believe the same is true for leadership, making it critical to build the “I can” and “I want.” Without students feeling like they can and want to be a leader, any leadership habits that you build during the club season might not continue beyond it.
  • I can: With any type of skill, it’s helpful to build students’ confidence with small successes. For students who aren’t sure they’re capable of leading, having them complete small leadership activities and then noting their success can be useful. In particular, I’ve found it’s helpful to specifically point out what students did well. As with academics, general praise is nice but specific praise on things like using academic vocabulary can be much better for reinforcing what’s important. On the robotics team, for example, I like to keep an eye out for when a student explains something clearly to a teammate, sees a need and makes sure it was taken care of, delegates a task well, or doesn’t give up on a frustrating problem.
  • I want: At the end of the day, it’s not enough for students to believe that leadership is important and to be told that they can be leaders. They need to believe that they are leaders. A lot of people I’ve known didn’t think of themselves as leaders, but rather as people who got stuff done. When they were told often enough that they were a leader, however, they eventually started to believe it. At times, it can be important to make your confidence in your students’ leadership a matter of fact statement, not just encouragement for what they could become. I want each of my students to not just believe they are a leader, but to know it.