Teaching leadership skills and concepts to elementary and middle school students is a lot like asking your cat to dust the armoire. Like that cat, our students sometimes look at us blankly when asked to take on a leadership role. Likewise, asking them what kind of leader they want to be or how they want to change the world can elicit noncommittal responses.

Leadership is an ambiguous idea to define. We can quote witty comments about leadership or use sports analogies, but does that define what leadership is? Merriam-Webster uses words like “to guide” and “to direct,” but that hardly encompasses what a leader does. So, with only an abstract definition, how do we identify, develop, and promote leadership in our concrete learners? I believe guiding students in the search for their voice is the first step.

At Holy Trinity Episcopal School, a very small, private school in suburban Houston, TX, there are years when our National Honor Society chapter only has one or two members. Our NHS meetings, events, and outings are usually combined with our NJHS events, and sometimes even our NEHS group. Those few NHS students must adapt and become mentors; they have to work collaboratively with young students who are in a much different stage of life than they are. Their peer support system is often limited to one other student.

The leadership skills and requirements for our NHS chapter look different than what you might find at a public high school with a 100-member organization. This brings us back to the ambiguity of leadership. Leadership has so many components, it varies depending on the environment. What passes for leadership in a fourth-grade classroom is different than what we see in a high school classroom. Therein lies the beauty of leadership. In its ambiguity, we find what we need to fit our diverse situations.

Identify Your Leaders

Identifying leadership in elementary and middle school students has become more important than ever with the move toward teaching social-emotional skills in the classroom. Organizations like NHS help in the identification process by giving teachers a starting place. Taking into consideration a student’s grades, teacher observations, and personal reflections allow advisers to distinguish students likely to become leaders. Is this system foolproof? Absolutely not. I’ve been fooled by students who were good at “playing school,” but never moved beyond following the leader. Are potential leaders left out in this process? Quite possibly. The most charismatic and devoted student leader I’ve ever known came to me in third grade without any functional literacy skills. We should never rely on a prescribed system of identification. As teachers get to know their students, we see their strengths and how we can develop those into useful skills in our community.

Once we have identified leaders, the real work begins. How do we mold them? Mentor them? Lead them? My answer has always been “one student at a time.” If we view leadership as presenting differently in different situations, then it would follow that the path these students take to fulfilling their potential will vary according to their needs and opportunities. As advisers, we must constantly hone our skills and increase our knowledge in order to model this adaptive ability.

Engage Your Leaders

This year, the national office of NHS and NJHS brought its State Summit program to Texas. The State Summit is billed as “hands-on experiential leadership development” and a “day designed to cultivate empowerment and leadership for student attendees.” I witnessed the truth in these descriptions firsthand.

At the Texas State Summit, my students heard from adult leaders, met peer leaders, and were inspired to become deeper leaders. They met leadership models like Eva Vega-Olds who challenged them to combat social injustice. My students came home telling me about a young man who taught them to “burn calories, not fossil fuels” as part of an initiative to encourage people to bike or walk to work. They were blown away by the difference between equity and equality because it was explained in terms they could relate to. One eighth grader who attended the State Summit summed up the difference like this: “I now realize that just because people are given the same things, does not mean they benefit in the same way. Equity helps everyone. Equality is unsustainable.” When students see others engaged, they also want to engage. The Texas State Summit afforded my students the opportunity to immerse themselves in a leadership culture. They now want to replicate that culture on our campus.

On our way home from the Summit, an odd thing happened. Students who had eyes only for their phones on the way to Dallas were sharing ideas and talking about changes they wanted to see. They were creating Google Docs and asking me to set up meetings with administrators on their behalf. They had discovered their voice. Change began happening on our campus immediately. Their leadership moved from being an abstract word they could use on college essays to a living, breathing part of their life. They began to see themselves as world-changers. They moved from lamenting about injustice to standing up and taking ownership of ending the injustice. They began to speak up and ask questions about the rationale behind school leadership decisions. All of this happened because the workshop presenters and keynote speakers took the time to look them in the eye and say, “You matter. I want to hear what you have to say.”

Give Your Leaders a Voice

Students on our campus have begun seeking their own leadership opportunities. On that return trip, a sixth grader decided she wanted to start a Best Buddies program on campus to give students a platform to develop authentic and lasting friendships between themselves and students with intellectual and emotional disabilities. As a result, we are days away from being one of the few middle school Best Buddies programs on a private school campus. This never would have happened if she hadn’t learned to use her voice. Another student has asked to start a nursing home-visit program. She sees the value in interacting with this underserved and often forgotten population. She wants to use her voice to let the residents in the home know they have value. Several students have asked to move into leadership roles in bringing solar energy and clean water to our partner school in the mountains of Haiti. They have recognized that their voice can reach farther than their local community. In each of these instances, we never thought to ask students how they wanted to serve, and they didn’t know they could ask. We often planned a service event and then asked students to show up without ever asking them to give input. We expected them to buy into our vision. Never again. The vision must be theirs. Their voices will be heard.

Of the four tenets of NHS, leadership is the hardest to teach. Scholarship comes naturally in a school environment; it’s what schools are designed for. Character, service, and citizenship—a fifth tenet emphasized by NJHS—are often schoolwide endeavors with administrative backing and curricular resources. Events like the Texas State Summit provide a venue for student leadership education and inspiration.

Recognize Your Leaders

As with all desired behaviors, when students take the lead on projects, come to us with ideas, or use their voice, we should reinforce those actions with praise and recognition. Two of my students came back from the State Summit bursting with inspiration. They channeled that inspiration into blogs that were published on the NASSP website. That validation of their voice has given them confidence in their writing ability, as well as a willingness to share that voice. Another group of students met with administrators and our food service vendor to bring about change in our school lunch program. Their preparation and presentation caused the school leadership to take notice. The students saw that their voice was heard, and it made them hungry to see other changes.

Author and educator Jeffrey Benson said it best: “Being leveraged and affirmed by a powerful adult can be life-changing for a young person.” This idea of holding students in positive regard is not a new one, but many teachers fail to see the importance of it. The structure of our society often doesn’t acknowledge this need in our children. By honoring students who exhibit the desired leadership skills for our community, we are encouraging them to continue these skills while inspiring others to reproduce those desired behaviors.

Reflecting on what student leadership means and how to develop it raises more questions than answers. We do know that leadership cannot be neatly outlined or contained. Leaders must grow and evolve to fit the needs of their organization and their constituents. Giving students a voice and a venue to share that voice will allow them to reach the potential of what leadership means for them and will allow them to grow into the agents of change they were designed to be. Once students understand our desire to hear them, they will begin to raise their voices, our work will begin, and our world will change. It is at this point that they truly become leaders. —

Laura Yarbrough is the dean of academics at Holy Trinity Episcopal School in Houston, TX.