Building Student Leadership in the Classroom

Elementary student gestures with her hands while sharing knowledge with her classmates.

Thinking deeply about subjects is a pivotal part of learning. Educators have always wanted their students to think about what is being taught, but the way they encourage that process is changing. Teachers no longer tell students what to think. Instead, they teach them how to think.

Today’s instructors seek to build student leadership through their teaching techniques. Student leaders go on to become independent thinkers who understand how to work as part of teams and have positive effects on organizations and communities.

What is Student Leadership?

Student leadership means students take active roles in their education and develop positive skills in the process. The goal of inspiring student leaders is to create a culture of ownership, collaboration and community in the classroom. Student leadership development helps create skills that the students can carry over to adulthood.

In the classroom, teachers can foster student leadership qualities through a process called Project-Based Learning or PBL. The Buck Institute for Education explained Project-Based Learning is a teaching process in which students learn through hands-on work on a project that addresses a complex question or challenge over a period of time.

Teacher, podcaster, public speaker and blogger Vicki Davis works to cultivate student leadership in her classroom and among fellow teachers. She writes about her methods on her award-winning website Cool Cat Teacher. She’s also written two books called “Reinventing Writing” and “Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds.” She believes PBL and other student-led initiatives can shape minds in unique ways and said:

Project-Based Learning and student leadership building, when done well, add meaning and relevance. They start students on a path to success and give them opportunities for leadership while in school, so they can speak the language of negotiation cooperation, esprit-de-corps and teamwork. One cannot start too soon helping students lead.

Educators work hard to motivate students to lead in their classrooms. How that looks can vary by class type and age, but the end goal is inspiring confident individuals ready to take on challenges using real-world skills.

How Teachers Facilitate Student Leadership Development

Davis has a lot of advice when it comes to facilitating student leadership in the classroom. Most of it comes down to listening to students and helping them communicate and shine in ways that feels comfortable to them.

As teachers, we must constantly be sensitive to the inclusion of everyone in class conversations. For example, when I have some students that dominate conversations, I’ll give each student three tokens as they enter class. I offer participation grades for the day based upon their “spending” of each token with meaningful additions to class conversation. Once their three tokens are spent, they must wait until everyone has spent their tokens in the conversation. This encourages students who are quieter to join the conversation while keeping one student from monopolizing it.

Other times, I may include a back-channel chat so students can participate via message as well as verbally. There are many meaningful ways to encourage conversation, but the best ways are not gimmicks are tricks. It is simply using a student’s name and asking him or her to join the conversation.

Grow as an Educator

Many teachers are stepping outside of the classroom to help their fellow educators inspire their students through new instructional practices, including Project-Based Learning. If you want to expand your education and become a teacher leader, consider an online master’s in education leadership.

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It’s also incredibly important to consider different personality types when encouraging student leadership. Differences and insecurities shouldn’t keep students from emerging as leaders in the classroom when inclusivity is encouraged.

While working with teams, I discuss the natural tendencies of introverts and extroverts but stress the importance of getting everyone involved in discussions because teams are more successful when people are included.

To encourage this in a team environment, I point out when I notice one person successfully including another. The best way to include people is to build habits of being inclusive in students. That is the kind of leadership we’re looking to nurture!

Cultivating a passion in students is a great way to bring out their innate leadership qualities. Project-Based Learning activities should be meaningful to the students and the community so classes can see the true effects of their hard work.

The best way to spark students’ belief in themselves is giving them the opportunity to do projects of worth. When a student can be successful in smaller projects and see impacts, they’ll proceed to larger projects of their own.

When students pitch project ideas to me, I’ll watch them to see if they’re passionate. If I don’t see passion, I’ll ask them why they are doing this project. If they answer something like, “It’s easy,” we’ll engage in authentic conversation about what matters and work to find a topic that matters to the student or students. The right project is the key to unlocking students’ excitement.

Giving students ownership of their education and true responsibility helps build accountable, confident individuals. It also provides them with marketable skills that they can apply to future endeavors. Student leadership in the classroom and PBL help students develop skills they might not have otherwise had the opportunity to grow.

Project-Based Learning is not learning something and then making a poster to demonstrate what was already learned. Students are learning as part of the process of creating the project. Therefore, they often take a variety of roles just as people take a variety of roles in a business.

For example, if students are creating an application, there are various roles for students, including project manager. For graphic design and websites, we’ll have an art director. Editors work to proofread and bring continuity to applications, websites and blog posts. Different projects may have different leaders, but when the project is completed, students not only have a sense of accomplishment, but a valuable skill and title for their future resume that represents an authentic learning experience.

Educators must adapt their teaching to bring out the best in their students and help them learn through meaningful work. This helps build true student leadership qualities that will benefit students throughout their lifetimes.

Student Leadership Qualities Teachers Cultivate

Student leadership qualities look different student-to-student. It’s important that all students, regardless of personality traits or learning types, get the opportunity to grow their leadership qualities in their learning environment.

Everyone has influence. Each person can lead in their own way. In many schools, most leadership positions are by election or appointment. Students who aren’t interested in clubs or extracurriculars may graduate from high school without appreciating or developing their leadership ability.

Teamwork is an essential part of real-world success. Therefore, it should be part of a real-world classroom environment. Every school should have at least one class, if not more, that brings to the forefront each student’s leadership ability and helps to improve and develop it.

Building student leadership is about a classroom mirroring and affecting the real world. Only then do students build the skills they need to be leaders inside and outside of school.

Examples of Student Leadership

In her time in the classroom, Davis has witnessed many students discover their leadership skills and apply those skills to meaningful work and learning.

I had three girls design an app called iCare, which gave students ideas for ways to be kind to one another. Those young ladies have each gone on to lead in ways that show people they care. One became a camp counselor each summer to help girls know they matter. Another one, who was the art director on iCare, was hired by a company for a virtual internship to make movies in Atlanta.

One of my students learned Adobe Premier in a movie making class and went on to job shadow a local company that makes movies for businesses. She had already managed film shoots and edited film through her Project-Based Learning activities. She was offered a summer internship.

Davis takes great pride in seeing her students grow in a changing world. She believes that their ability to lead in the classroom helps them succeed in their future endeavors.

A tenth-grade student named Casey Cox partnered with another student in Bangladesh. They co-created a video and studied trends in Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat. These two young ladies won a top award for that project. Casey is now in her 20s and is a leader in the Georgia-Florida-Alabama Water Rights negotiations. She was recently inducted into Leadership Georgia 2019. She blogs for Intel and has been to the White House. She was even on a recent episode of Sesame Street! All because she understands and uses 21st century skills and leadership techniques. It is a new world, and she was ready!

It’s easy to see that given the right opportunities, students will blossom to be leaders in fields that interest them, making a positive impact on society.

Impact Student Leadership in Your Career

Are you an educator inspired to make a true difference in the lives of your students by developing their leadership skills? Teacher leadership may be the route for you. In fact, it’s the route Davis took.

My job is a hybrid role. I teach four classes and have three classes dedicated to instructional technology leadership. When an educator is allowed to teach and lead, I believe it brings out the best in education. Teacher leadership is a valuable education path for many teachers.

Many teachers are stepping outside of the classroom to help their fellow educators inspire their students through new instructional practices, including Project-Based Learning. If you want to expand your education and become a teacher leader, consider an online master’s in education leadership. Campbellsville University’s Master of Arts in Education Teacher Leader program prepares you to lead and mentor fellow teachers and students.

If your passion lies with helping special education students, Campbellsville University offers a program specifically for you. Our online master’s in special education with a focus in teacher leadership will help you prepare to meet the unique challenges of students with emotional, behavioral and learning disorders and the educators working with them.