Election Time: A non-political reflection on Student Leadership


My high school years were impactful for me, but not in the amount of knowledge I amassed or remembered. It was more about learning to navigate a treacherous but necessary path that would eventually lead to the prized treasures of popularity, good grades, and the right classes. I found my existence of daily chatter and laughter at the lunch table an adequate diversion for the time being.

I participated in many school activities like pep rallies, basketball games, dances and a few stints at public service.  Reminded of Kennedy’s call to action and service as a younger student, I ran for the school’s Student Council at least a couple of times to no avail. Chuckling now, I am reminded of the movie Forrest Gump, when his fans shouted, “Run Forrest Run!” That was me.

I had a few faithful friends who cheered me on even though I obviously lacked the “look” and was not quite up to a par with those who were in the right classes and seemingly favored by the teachers. I told myself over and over after those experiences that I was just not smart enough, or pretty enough, or popular enough to deserve being “chosen” and that I should just stop trying.

Not many young teenagers possess the poise and confidence to stand before a large group of peers and wax persuasively eloquent. It was obvious I couldn’t. I was an “above average” student from a blue collar family who just wanted to make the whole high school experience better for all of my peers. Being the determined person I am, I threw my hat into the ring one more time and won the VP slot in my junior year. With that bit of success, I pressed on to win the coveted “President” of the class in my senior year of high school.

Similar to our voters in the United States, my young classmates were in three different camps – those who were tired of me running for office, those who didn’t care and wouldn’t vote, and those who actually thought I could accomplish something on their behalf.  Apparently there were more of the later, and I was granted the job. Now, years later, I enjoy the perks of that service as I often plan our high school reunions. One is coming up soon.

There is an incredible opportunity in schools to promote youth leadership in a number of ways.  Most schools sponsor student councils or organizations in which students can experience a leadership role and participate in the planning and evaluating of school events, activities, and sometimes rules. Some offer leadership roles by way of  older students supporting younger students on the campus. There are also many other types of opportunities outside of school that provide students with leadership experiences, such as Scouts, Red-Cross, 4-H clubs, and various others.

What is rarely seen in school leadership roles for students is the ability to interact meaningfully with real issues that affect them. The school system is in power – not the students. This is by design, to keep order, but disenfranchises most students who may become complacent, docile, and in some cases rebellious.

“William Glasser suggests that 95 percent of classroom management issues occur as a result of students trying to fulfill a need for power. Power is not a finite pie. When we share power with our students, it doesn’t mean that we “have less power” —but it can mean we’ve created more possibilities for learning and leadership.” 1

When we give students as much participatory democracy as possible and more authentic learning experiences, we empower them.  There are multiple ways to do this in a classroom/school. Allowing them to design the physical layout of their classroom space, giving them the opportunity to choose topics of interest for lesson planning, and the ability to assess their own work is empowering. This can work surprisingly well. It takes commitment and determination on the part of the teacher and the student. It also requires the teacher/school to relinquish some power.

Studies described in The Harvard Education Letter identified intrinsic motivation as a key childhood characteristic among adults who became leaders. We need to foster relationships that hone in on students’ interest, hopes and dreams so we can build on these together. Schools rarely do this. Instead they provide a common curriculum in a vacuum of regulated procedures that suck the life out of real learning. Many smart teachers know this already and are striving to move the pendulum in the right direction.

Leadership Challenge: To all the parents, teachers, principals, school boards and central office leaders; please encourage and support young people taking charge of their own learning. That is how you prepare them to be productive and contributing adults.

  1. Ferlazzo, Larry. “Cultivating Student Leadership.” Education Week. February  14, 2012. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2012/02/14/tln_ferlazzo_leadership.html

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