Curriculum Opinion

Teaching Students How to Be Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 04, 2013 4 min read
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Testing the students’ ability to demonstrate their accumulated knowledge has been the focus of everyone’s attention. The skills and knowledge being tested are only part of the work we do and our students need. Sunday’s guest blogger Dr. Susan Madsen addressed three valuable insights about how to develop leadership in students. Today, we continue...

Gabrielle Giffords delivered the commencement address to graduates of Bard College. She said, "...be bold, be courageous, be your best.” When we think of those three words, certainly we can think of her; Gabrielle Giffords, shot, brain damaged, and in relentless pursuit of regaining her capacities. It most certainly must have been inspiring to all those graduates watching her unsteadily walk to the podium and struggle to give a compelling speech.

But if we dial back the clock to the days when those Bard graduates to whom she spoke were in elementary school, middle and high school, they likely sat next to students who did not read or write as well as they, who could not master their math skills, and who were challenged by thinking and problem solving. Those children, now also young adults, probably are not walking across a college stage this spring to be handed a college diplomas. Children of both kinds are in our schools...those for whom the path is clear and those for whom is laden with obstacles and burdens.

We are busy trying our hardest to help them learn how to read and write better, how to develop their math skills, and how to ask and solve problems in a grand effort to make them college and career ready. But Giffords’ advice reminds us of another essential consideration. Where do they learn to “be bold, be courageous, and be their best”? Is this an awareness that we hold? Or do we expect this is something that comes naturally for some and others simply don’t have the capacity or desire to do any of the three?

In classrooms, teachers regularly call on students who have not raised their hand. Ought we not consider the amount of courage it may take for that student to offer an answer? How does that child, in that instant, overcome fear and reluctance to speak, not just to us but in front of peers as well? For some this must be a terrifying risk. Whether the answer is right or not, do we think about how our response will impact that child and the next time he might answer? What about social courage? Who is the child who joins the isolated in a lunch room or stops the “teasing” by their friends? The first acts of courage are often unnoticed and yet they are life informing.

What does it mean to be bold? Actually, haven’t we taught children not to be bold? Children come to schools in which adults are in control of the environment. The scaffolding around all education needs to be creating environments in which children take risks, test their thoughts and pose their questions as they become confident seekers and creators of knowledge. Those bold ones will be college and career ready. They will also be life ready. And, they will know what it means to be their best.

Our lives may never ask us to confront the need for boldness, courage and doing our best in the way that Giffords, herself, has been required to do. Nevertheless, let’s issue a call for leaders who are bold, courageous and do our best. Every day, we enter school buildings with the thought about doing our best; at least we hope so. But, as we brush our teeth in the morning, do we think about how the day will call us to act boldly and courageously or do we yearn for easy days when those aren’t necessary? Of course, you chuckle, where have easy days gone? Each of us knows that every day now calls for us to live and model these qualities. It is how we will inspire children to trust them within themselves.

Later in the commencement day, Gifford’s husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, was speaking about gun regulation and was heard to say, “What we have been lacking is someone with the courage to not choose sides on this issue but to choose a new path.” He captures another undeveloped or unrefined skill for us to consider. Where do future leaders learn to work together, not polarize different perspectives into irreconcilable sides, but truly listen, deeply enough to find the common goal and a path to progress? If we, leaders don’t know how to do that, we must learn, lest our purported sophistication break us apart societally and place us all in harm’s way.

Skills such as these cannot be tested except in action. They have become diminished by being labeled “soft skills.” We should be fearful of a society where learnedness is absent such human skills. As a nation, are crying out for leaders who have these skills. We have pronounced our frustration with the two-sided behaviors of our leaders. Solutions require new thinking and new thinkers.

We need to expect more from ourselves. We must begin to implement learning for boldness, courage, being one’s best and listening as if this were a new math curriculum, systematically, vertically, and purposefully. We must expect of ourselves, and our faculty and staff, that we practice listening with an open heart, with patience and respect. How else will Mark Kelly ever have the opportunity to see what happens when someone sees and chooses a new path? Who knows better than he, the traveler in space who now watches, each and every day, as his wife struggles to do what used to come naturally. He deeply knows that investing in a tug of war does not demand wisdom and will not lead to a new solution. This is not a skill we can afford for only some to master. We must teach all of our children what leadership is, how to be courageous, bold, and do their best. This is essential curriculum.

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