Teaching Opinion

Student Leadership: Fostering True Change

By Anthony Jackson, Shanna Bumiller & Brady Faust — February 22, 2014 4 min read
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What skills and knowledge does it take to go from learning about the world to making a difference in the world? Two Cincinnati teachers tell us about one change they made in their teaching to help their students make this transformation.

We looked at each other. As trained teachers who have learned to always be doing something, we couldn’t believe it.

We looked around us. Small groups were digging into deep, personal issues with each other. Students were leading development activities. Students were diving into solving major, systemic problems in their school. An entire leadership retreat was happening, without us. Even in our wildest dreams, we never imagined providing students with a platform to lead would cause such a drastic culture change in so short of a time period.

Skip back to August of this year. The idea began like all other things a teacher does: remembering how much we enjoyed our experiences as students.

Shanna had the extraordinary experience of attending and planning a student leadership retreat in high school. It helped her develop the leadership skills, self-confidence, and desire to have an impact on the world.

Brady saw that his school suffered from a lack of student leaders. He had great students with great ideas in classes, and yet the student body seemed to be meandering along without unity and a true vision to make their high school experience great.

Something needed to change. We needed to provide a way for students to have the opportunity to influence other students.

In a high school of almost 3,000 students, this was quite a daunting task. We decided the best way to make true change was to do what any great leader does: multiply their ability to influence. We felt that if we invested in developing the leadership skills of 12 to 15 dedicated students, they could invest in a group of a hundred students at a leadership retreat. Those one hundred would then be equipped to come back to Oak Hills High School and begin the process of righting a ship off course. A simple concept, which had major implications for the future of our school.

We began by identifying the small group of student leaders who would be responsible for making this happen. We asked school personnel to recommend students who were not necessarily the best and brightest, but showed leadership potential and had a passion to see the school be better.

After we assembled a committed group, we met twice a week up until the retreat. The first activity was for students to plan and implement the retreat for Oak Hills students. The kids were responsible for identifying locations, fundraising, establishing the process for nominating students to attend, scheduling logistics, and creating a theme for the weekend. These are invaluable skills that students do not learn in a classroom, but are important to many different professions in our world today.

The second task focused on training them to develop their own skills as leaders. They worked through skills such as influencing others, listening, adapting to adversity, responding to criticism and developing a vision for people to be excited about. We could really see these students developing both individually and as a group of young men and women who could lead a retreat and influence their peers.

After investing in this group for four months, 120 students signed up and were ready to attend the first annual leadership retreat for Oak Hills High School at a local camp.

And then the snow came.

School was cancelled and the camp was closing early. The retreat ended up being cut in half, forcing students to return early because of another snowstorm. We expected this to throw off our group, but were amazed at their ability to adapt and carry on with their desire to influence other students. For the potential disaster it could have been, the retreat went off flawlessly.

View a student presentation of the weekend.

The students led, they communicated, they shared their personal stories and developed plans to act at the high school when they returned.

The students who attended the retreat responded positively (both in their actions and feedback) to the message of the retreat and came back a different, more united group ready to multiply their own skills they learned in the rest of the school.

It has been two months since the retreat happened. As we reflected on all the students accomplished, we’ve realized that at the heart of it is a very simple concept: building deeper and authentic relationships with one another leads to students feeling valued and empowered to enact true change.

This is a lesson that can be easy to forget as educators who are bombarded with so many responsibilities, activities, legislation, and changes occuring every day in our schools. We have learned that whatever the process you use to try and change the culture of your school, it will be most successful if you give students the knowledge that you care deeply for them, and provide them the platform to share their ideas and act on those convictions.

Shanna Bumiller and Brady Faust are teachers at Oak Hills High School in Cincinnati, OH. Follow them and Asia Society on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.