As an educator, fully giving over the reins to students to accomplish a goal was somewhat daunting. I found myself asking: How will it reflect on my leadership and expertise? Will they focus? Will they be organized and mature and punctual in their planning and execution? Is saying “yes” to their ideas—which are sometimes lofty, sometimes too simplistic—wise? 

Then, a realization hit me: This situation isn’t all that different from the job interview scenario that requires the prospective employee to have experience, yet this job is the first experience that the potential employee is seeking. The employee needs to be given a chance to learn and prove their mettle. Similarly, student leadership will only become a definitive practice when it is both promoted and allowed to take place. 

The Journey

When I micromanaged both students in my classroom, as well as the members of National Junior Honor Society (NJHS) in my earliest years as a new teacher and adviser, respectively, I felt exhausted at the end of each class and each member meeting. I had created a culture where I was in ultimate control of each facet of project execution. At times, I was even frustrated because I was the one demanding myself to cover all the roles and requirements for the endeavor to come to fruition. And the students? Well, they were needy, unmotivated, and sometimes a bit unruly. 

Fast forward to today: I talk myself right out of any managing role and oftentimes out of a supervisory role, as the students have acquired the art of organization and delegation. The resulting empowerment of these 13- and 14-year-old students is awe-inspiring:

  • They form committees, research vendors and recipients of funds, and manage donations and fundraising. 
  • They create lists of required purchases to be made for the events. 
  • They speak with school personnel and other adults who manage the school calendar and approve activities. 
  • They send email correspondence to adults outside of our school who are included in the activity. 
  • They create schedules for sales and for extra meetings to effectively organize events. 
  • After all that, they perform! 

The Revelation in Leading

Celebrating student leaders and leadership is the most fulfilling part of my job as an educator. To truly let go and let them lead results in something much more authentic and more rewarding for the student leaders. And the adults? We revel in what the students have achieved.

These young people learn problem-solving, temperance, and flexibility, and they take pride in accomplishing a goal—one they set. And then comes the ripple effect. They are confident in reaching out to adults, to peers, to other authorities to inquire, “Do you need some help?” This only comes with knowing that they themselves are qualified and capable of following through with this outreach. 

When given the opportunity to lead, students become invested. They begin to see themselves as assets, worthy of dreaming big and accomplishing even bigger goals. 

The whole process creates hope and faith in people and helps to highlight what students want to spend their time doing, showing their dedication to humanity. Then this hope spreads to raise the bar for both students and educators in the entire school to be present in the lives of one another. 

It’s with great emotion that I, a retiring educator and adviser, look back at the immense success that the kids I’ve been privileged to advise have achieved. 

Amy Krueger is an eighth-grade language arts teacher and NJHS adviser at Rockwood South Middle School in Fenton, MO. She is also the 2019 Rynearson Adviser of the Year. 

Sidebar: What Leadership Means to Students

I recently posed the following question to past and present student leaders: “What is your perception, your appreciation, your reflection on what your experience in this realm has meant to you? How has it bolstered your confidence in leading, and how has this been a good thing for those around you?” Their responses below are the best testament to celebrating student leadership:

“This year I helped lead the virtual 2021 LEAD Conference as a co-emcee. When I was first asked to take part in this role, I was slightly nervous because I knew the importance of the conference and I was not confident in my ability to conduct it properly. However, I was also exhilarated at the thought that I would get to participate in something bigger than myself. Looking back, I am incredibly glad that I was able to be a part of the LEAD Conference because now I am even more confident in my leadership skills, and I will be able to take on more supervisory roles in the future. I am even more appreciative of the NJHS program because it gives once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to experience new realms of leadership. Additionally, I am now assured of my capabilities to express myself to peers and adults to change our school building for the better.”—Moriah Hayibor, eighth-grade member of Rockwood South NJHS

“This year I was asked as an NJHS member to help sell raffle tickets at a trivia night for Mrs. Krueger’s church. This was an amazing experience for me because I learned how to become a better leader in my school. When we sold the tickets, a lot of people bought them, and a lot of people didn’t. When they didn’t purchase any, I learned how to accept it and move on to the next people. I can use these skills to help me accept what has happened and do even better than I did before. I was thrilled when I was chosen to be a part of this opportunity because I love serving my community, and on top of that, I got to do it all with a few of my great friends. If I was asked to participate in something like this again, I would 100% say yes.”—Cade Hanse, eighth-grade member of Rockwood South NJHS

As a senior at Rockwood Summit High School, I firmly believe my leadership opportunities through the National Junior Honor Society were the springboard for my love of leadership. When I was in NJHS, I had the opportunity to organize the eighth-grade promotion and homecoming parade float. Experiences like these are full of growth and develop lifelong skills, friendships, and memories. From this, my work ethic expanded, teaching me to be a dedicated, passionate, and motivated leader in high school through the Rockwood Summit Silver Falcon Marching Band. As a section leader and mentor, it built my confidence, and inspired me to encourage and teach fellow students. As I reflect, each and every event was a seed planted that continues to grow in my new leadership opportunities. My confidence and capabilities are infinite.”—Grace Bailey, senior member of NHS and former member of Rockwood South NJHS

“Being in NJHS has given me multiple opportunities that have allowed me to grow as a leader both inside and outside the classroom. Being pushed out of my comfort zone to try new things, such as speaking at the LEAD 2020 Conference in Chicago in front of a group of people I have never met, has given me not only public speaking skills, but the confidence to try other things. Then, at the same conference during our large group session, being thrown on stage was definitely one of the best experiences of my middle school years. Once we began singing and dancing, I was able to see how the crowd responded, which was so rewarding. Seeing people I didn’t even know find joy in my singing and dancing made me so excited to be up on stage, and fed my energy even more. Leading the sing-off was an experience like no other, and I am so grateful to have had it!”—Margaret Schnieders, 10th grader at Rockwood Summit High School and former vice-president of Rockwood South NJHS

“As NJHS president during the heat of COVID, I had to adapt in many ways. First off, the other officers and I had to learn how to do meetings over Zoom. This was quite difficult, as many people don’t speak out as much online, and it is harder to connect with the members. Many places were also closed during this time, so it was hard to find volunteer opportunities. While it was hard to interact with the community, the community needed the interaction, as many people were lonely. Some service opportunities I was able to come up with included a new mental health committee and writing letters to people in nursing homes. The mental health committee was much needed for not only students but also many teachers, as it helped to give them a boost throughout the year. One main goal of our year was to eventually bring back our members for one in-person meeting. We had to set up contact tracing, social distancing, and make sure that masks were enforced. While it was a lot of work, it paid off and everybody enjoyed it. After that year of leadership during COVID, I feel that I am able to interact a lot more with people online. I am also able to interact with the elderly community better. I actually still keep in touch with one of the residents that I wrote to. Lastly, I hope that I was able to show many seventh graders how officers should act with the younger members. As president, you have to be able to enforce rules, but also connect with the students to help build relationships.”—Kenzie McClanahan, ninth grader at Rockwood Summit High School and former president of Rockwood South NJHS