We live in a world that cries out for – and often doesn’t receive – strong leadership. Yet so many of us see public figures, decision-makers and opinion-leaders and consider ourselves to be incapable of taking on such roles. We must ensure the same is not true for our pupils. They need to see themselves as potential leaders, with an understanding of the qualities and competencies that entails.
The classroom hierarchy places the power with the teacher, but you can still create regular opportunities for pupils to show leadership in the classroom. Here are a few ideas to try in your lessons.
The ability to question perceived truths and form original, logical judgements is a fundamental leadership skill. As an English teacher, I often hear this referred to by exam boards as “critical autonomy”.
One of the most powerful tools for generating critical autonomy (which can be used in all subjects) is Socratic questioning. The concept is simple: begin with a basic, inarguable premise such as “the sky is blue” and, through a process of questioning, start whittling this premise down. Questions could include: “At what height does the air become the sky?”, “What about night-time?”, “Which shades of blue are we counting here?” and “What if we all have a different understanding of blue-ness?”.
Discussions like this empower students to apply the same thought processes to their learning, and engage in a more inquisitive manner. These talks also demonstrate the value of questioning statements that appear, on the surface, to be logically unassailable.
Some of the most inspiring teachers I have worked with are the ones who recognise how much their students can teach others. These areas of student expertise can be explored through traditional class presentations, which are immensely effective in letting pupils feel like leaders.
But there are also the understated, regular opportunities that come from knowing your pupils well. It could be as simple as asking how their chess tournament went at the weekend, seeking their advice on which film to watch or asking them to teach you a few words or phrases in their home language. When pupils start to see themselves as experts in something, you are enabling them to see their potential as experts in anything.
Most schools offer some posts with responsibility for students; prefects, sports captains, lead parts in performances and so on, and these can be incredibly important in developing leadership skills.
Many teachers and form tutors create their own frameworks or responsibility posts, too. I like to allocate and rotate responsibility roles such as daily notice reader, book dispenser, stationery officer, and class discussion chair (and you can get as creative as you like with the titles). This shows pupils that they can help their class to function more efficiently.
It also allows you to have private conversations with your responsibility-holders about their performance, and to thank and praise them for making lessons run more efficiently. The more you do this, the sooner you will be able to allocate jobs of greater complexity and importance.
Tracing the path
To many young people, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, the road to leadership remains a mystery. Wherever possible, we should include discussions of prestigious figures within our subject areas and explore how they came to become so influential.
Geography pupils, for example, will spend years seeing the name David Waugh on the spines of their textbooks, so why not spend some time learning about his career path? Where did he grow up? Which university did he go to? How old was he when he published his first book? This approach demystifies authority figures and helps students to recognise the pathways to leadership.
I have also seen excellent examples of homework in this area, including tasks like “Find the best university in the world to attend if you wanted to be the next Michael Faraday. Describe what you would need to do in order to get there.”
Cultivating leadership is not just about creating politicians, CEOs and managers (although it is important that our students don’t rule these life options out). We cultivate leadership in our students so that they know how to think for themselves and have the confidence to grow into the demands of an uncertain future.
Phil Brown is a writer and English teacher from south London