The start of the new year has brought many of us renewed vigor after 2020. I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on how you can help your students lower their shields, discover their passions, and grow as servant leaders on your campus.

After spending months teaching a leadership class virtually, I began to reflect on my effectiveness at recognizing when my students have their personal shields up that they use to protect themselves or their personas, and how I could help them lower those shields in order to truly develop as servant leaders.

As advisers, we can begin to help our students by showing them we care about their personal interests and passions, as well as making them feel empowered in our classes. We must comprehend that our middle level students trust no one and will resist even the most genuine offer of friendliness, so we must offer it continuously and never give up if we want them to develop as servant leaders.

Now, you may be asking, “Where do we start?” First, take a look at how authentic you are with your students.

Lowering Their Shields

Your students are very attuned to who is being authentic with them and who is not. When you are authentic, your students see your most genuine self. This leads them to believe that if you are willing to have this level of comfort with them, then they can act the same way with you. Creating this level of comfort is the start of helping your students lower their shields.

Next, consider additional steps that you can use to help your middle level students lower their shields in order to become confident servant leaders.

  • Laugh at yourself. You are probably thinking, “Why does this matter?” Look at it this way: Many of your students think you are perfect and that you can do no wrong. However, we are all human; we all have our flaws and imperfections. With that said, I want you to begin to admit when you have made a mistake and laugh at yourself in front of students when you do. They need to see that human side of you. They also need to know that it is OK to falter. We all know they will make plenty of mistakes throughout the year, too, and they will need your help with learning how to persevere when things do not go as planned.
  • Take time to listen. Lend a sympathetic ear to their problems, concerns, and successes; give advice when it is appropriate. We all need someone to hear our story. It is more meaningful than you can ever imagine.
  • Avoid acting superior. Your students already know you are the adviser and that you are in charge. Talk to them at the same level you would with an adult. They appreciate that same level of respect more than you know.
  • Be curious about their passions. All of your students are unique individuals, and you should treat them as such. They all have their own passion projects and interests that they are willing to talk about if you are willing to listen. I urge you to be curious when their eyes light up about something they are working on, regardless of whether it’s in or outside of school, and then think about how you can incorporate their passion into your council or chapter.

Discovering Their Passions

Helping students discover their passions is a key part of the leadership development puzzle. Several years ago, I had a student named Eli who would stand by me during every lunchtime activity as I played music using my DJ controller. I could tell he had an interest in learning how to use it, as he would ask me to help set up the controller and he’d ask many questions about the functions and features of the equipment. After a few weeks, I started to let Eli mix a few songs during both lunches, and he could not wait to show me what he knew from watching me. Of course, he would make a mistake now and then, and I wanted to see how he would handle the pressure from his peers. I would give him feedback and he would stay after school whenever he could to refine his skills.

The week before our winter break, I told our delegation I had an announcement to make during our meeting. I let the class know that I would no longer be playing music during lunch and that I would be handing the duty over to Eli because, after evaluating him for several weeks, I believed he was ready. Eli and the class were both shocked, but as an adviser it was one of the best decisions I had ever made. As a seventh grader, Eli began to play music for all of our lunchtime activities, which grew into him playing music at other school events (e.g., dances, back-to-school night, and open house). When he entered high school, he started playing music at pep rallies and other venues outside of school. I was happy to have given Eli an opportunity to embrace something he was passionate about.

Ask yourself: “When was the last time I helped one of my students discover something they were passionate about?” Start today. Choose one student and help them dig deeper into their passion. Once you have discovered a student’s passion, you should help them embrace that passion using every resource you have at your disposal. Here’s how:

  • Give them plenty of opportunities to fail and persevere. Provide your students with numerous social activities—let them figure out how to fail and persevere. Before I empowered Eli to play music during our lunchtime activities, I gave him many opportunities to showcase his passion for being a DJ, and he learned a lot through trial and error.
  • Encourage them to “seize the moment.” If we teach our students only one thing as advisers, it should be that opportunities do not often come around twice. I constantly tell my students “When opportunity knocks, open the door!” I encourage you to empower students to seize the moment when they have the opportunity to take action on anything they are passionate about.
  • Provide feedback. Teach them how to fail and learn from their mistakes through reflection and courageous conversations. By doing so, you will be developing well-rounded servant leaders.

The secret to helping students develop as servant leaders starts with you. If you only do one thing, start with being authentic and everything else will fall into place. You are the missing piece to the leadership puzzle. —

Anthony Rogers is a visual arts teacher, Associated Student Body adviser, and yearbook adviser at Palm Middle School in Moreno Valley, CA. In 2019, he was the Warren E. Shull Middle Level State Nominee for California.