Leaders work in teams, communicate their priorities, and learn from their mistakes. Leaders are humble, understanding that they don’t have all the answers. That’s the message Ciarra Hardtke, vice president of the West De Pere High School’s National Honor Society (NHS) in De Pere, WI, conveyed at the school’s 2018 NHS induction.

But perhaps the best way to learn to be a leader is to be a leader. “Through our own experiences, problems, and setbacks, we figure out who we are as leaders and what it takes to be successful,” Hardtke says. “Maybe what I thought was working isn’t, so you try to figure out what else works and not just accept failure. You get up and you try again.”

Research has long shown that civically engaged students get better grades. Now, as service leadership and engagement grow increasingly sophisticated, NHS and student council advisers have opportunities to enhance classroom performance by leveraging students’ desire to serve.

“We’ve opened up this whole new world,” says Andrea “Drea” Elzy, director of postsecondary education navigation for City Colleges of Chicago. “The classroom gives us so much, and it’s such a rich opportunity and a rich space to engage students, but what are those things outside of the classroom that are engaging students, and how does that contribute to an overall student experience?”

Drive Intentional Learning Through Service

The quality of a young person’s first foray into service learning and civic engagement can leave its mark, for good or ill, says Nathan Dietz, associate research scholar at the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute in College Park, MD. “If they don’t have a good experience, they may get discouraged with trying to make a difference.”

“It is incumbent on advisers to understand how they can introduce intentional learning in a way that allows for the learning to be tactile, the learning to be engaging, and the learning to be something that is application-based,” Elzy says. That’s the true benefit of service learning. For instance, if you ask students to name learning environments, their thoughts go places where teachers might not consider, she says. The train. The beach. Any environment that encourages people-watching and observation translates to lessons learned. The challenge for educators is “allowing” students to learn in any setting and aligning it with classroom learning.

Intentionality also extends to hyper-engaged students in danger of burnout, Elzy warns. Students get more value when the extent of involvement keeps pace with their personal capacities and when they dive deeply into the causes that motivate them. “Be thinking about what it is you’re passionate about early,” she advises students.

Maximizing the service experience and extracting cocurricular benefits rely on the long-standing service-learning standards for quality practice, Dietz says. Three primary best practices include:

  • Encourage long-lived service, through the semester and beyond. While quality is better than quantity, a long-lasting service experience with regular participation also instills the showing-up habit that makes service integral to “the daily pattern of your life,” Dietz says.
  • Let students plan and implement tasks, tackling the “day-to-day logistics of figuring out how to operate and manage a service project,” he says.
  • Promote student reflection because it “helps connect the service to the learning, and it also gives participants the chance to be honest about themselves, about what they saw, what they experienced, what they’ve learned, what they would do differently, and how they feel about it,” Dietz says. “Ideally, that happens with the guidance of the instructor.”

Successful cocurricular activities address community needs and current topics while integrating back into the classroom, Dietz says.

From there, it’s a straight line from passion to classroom. Cocurricular involvement should “get students to think about their interests, not act as a mere resume builder,” Elzy says. “If the resume doesn’t add to the content of your personal journey, then do we need to rethink why they’re engaged in that in the first place?”

Advisers aren’t reaching conclusions for students, but rather “opening up that path of conversation,” she adds. “It’s critical to operate with a lens around creating a culture of inquiry.”

Scott Goldstein, social studies teacher at Patuxent High School in Calvert County Public Schools in Lusby, MD, recruits student government members as early as freshman year, preparing them for leadership roles in higher grades. One of the most effective tools for assuring meaningful service experiences is requiring that students plan and carry out projects themselves.

“They get academic opportunities in writing, in team planning, in having to speak publicly,” Goldstein says. “Almost all of them have some academic facet.”

The Academics Connection

The civic engagement and leadership often required as a part of NHS also help teach the “soft skills” demanded by the businesses of today and tomorrow. “The soft skills are becoming the hard skills,” Elzy says. “Can students have a conversation? Can they look you in the eye? Can they engage in the way the real world will require them to, and does require them to?”

While students are trying to “make it through” by balancing schoolwork and extracurricular activities, they’re inadvertently learning real-world skills that are just as desirable as academic success. Here’s what advisers need to be making sure their students learn:

Time management. In her time at West De Pere High School, senior Hardtke learned planning and organizational skills through NHS and civic engagement that help relieve stress and allow her to juggle AP and college-credit classes with work and activities—everything from helping with elementary school bingo, making greeting cards at a retirement community, to organizing a blood drive.

Advisers must teach those time-management skills, Goldstein says. As advisers know, “Our best kids are being asked to do absolutely everything,” he says. The student government adviser for 34 years sees the connections between high-achieving students and those in student council and council leadership.

“If you’re able to keep a calendar, if you’re able to adhere to it, if you’re able to block out your time, then you’re able to do the things you want to do that matter both academically and socially,” Goldstein says.

And while the image of the high-achieving student run ragged holds true, Goldstein also sees the flip side. “Our kids who are busy are happier,” he says. “Our kids who are busy are better academically. We tend to associate busyness with success, and usually, they match pretty well.”

Communication. Learning to communicate with peers and in the community “helps students be more comfortable in the classroom if they need to do a group project or communicate with their teacher,” says Melanie Clarke, NHS adviser at West De Pere High School. Her student Hardtke experienced it firsthand when she worked with classmates and community leaders to organize a blood drive.

“You start taking a bigger role in your academics,” Hardtke says. “It’s easier to vocalize when you need help and when things don’t make sense.”

Collaboration. When Clarke issues team tests, her NHS students often take leadership roles, guiding classmates in making sense of problems and planning solutions.

Students who pursue excellence in leadership, engagement, and academics help elevate the academic climate of the entire school, Goldstein notes. “Classmates see role-model students who often go on to high-level colleges, and they aspire to be like that.”

And while teachers may see serious students sitting at desks, Clarke sees another side of her NHS members during service projects—blowing off steam, but with a purpose. “It’s nice to see them having fun during a blood drive, or on a fundraising walk, or wrapping presents for an adopted family,” she says. “It’s nice to see their character come out.”

Creating Opportunities

The final projects of NHS and NJHS members are “powerful tools” for equipping students with the capacity to explore their leadership styles while creating campaigns, programs, or mobilization efforts, Elzy says. Her office helps facilitate those meaningful projects through intentionally crafted partnerships with nonprofits and their CEOs citywide, infusing students into operations, she says.

Elzy always tells students, “There’s a difference between having a student at the table and having an ear. We can create an environment where students not only have a seat at the table, but they have the ear of their principals, of their superintendents, of the stakeholders who are going to be working with these students when they say they want to be in politics or want to be in the local business environment.”

Advisers and teachers should also bring an ear to the table, understanding the barriers to civic engagement and academic success, Elzy says. An “equity gap” demands that advisers learn “how to create opportunities for students who don’t have many resources,” crafting distinct paths to leadership for each unique individual.

Students may be parents themselves, have food insecurity, be engaged in the juvenile justice system, or live in troubled homes, Elzy says. Understanding those barriers, among individual students or peer groups, should inform “all the mechanisms in play that are creating an environment for this student to be successful.”

Filling the Service Pipeline

From 2014–16, UCLA Higher Education Research Institute’s annual survey of incoming college freshman found historically high increases in the desire to help others and be community leaders. And yet, Do Good Institute’s 2018 “Good Intentions, Gap in Action” report found stagnation since 2006 in young people actually volunteering.

Advisers stand poised to close the gap by feeding the desire to help while also building capacity that makes volunteer work fruitful and gratifying, Dietz says. “Young people want to make it a priority not just to get an education, but to learn the skills they need to make a difference in communities,” he says.

“The students who are actively engaged … have integrated into the campus climate and culture,” Elzy says. “They are more likely to cross that stage with a high GPA and the ability to complete rigorous coursework. They’re likely headed in a direction that’s going to be conducive to personal and academic success.”

The two go hand in hand. “We demand a lot of time and energy from our kids—and they can be very, very busy—but I still believe in the end that they’ll get more out of being involved in service, and it will do more for their academics,” Goldstein says. “I look at the most successful leaders here, and almost all of them are scholars.”

Diane McCormick is a writer based in Pennsylvania.