empowering student leaders

Empowering Student Leaders: 11 Fun Ideas That Promote Student Leadership and Allow the School Community to Flourish

It took me nearly 20 years in education to realize that spending more time “building leaders” than with “referral-getters” can change the culture of a school. I actually have the data to prove this!

If you were to complete an audit of the time you, as a teacher or principal, spent dealing with behavior as compared to the time spent building leaders in your school, what would the data look like?

When I first became a new elementary principal, I was in a school where nearly 500 office referrals were written my first year. That is nearly 3 office referrals per day. To some of you, that may seem like a small or normal amount per day. For me, I thought it was excessive and the amount of time I was spending on behavior was ridiculous. It was making me not like my job!

As a school, we first made sure everyone employed on our campus had the same training on a school-wide philosophy for how we interacted with students and each other as colleagues (www.hightrust.net). I personally believe High Trust Psychology is the strongest philosophy out there, but there are others with potential. This gave the staff and students a common language as well as a set of strategies to deal with behavior. We started using the term, “Behavior Toolbox.” We then made sure to have refresher courses and other professional development available to staff, as well as requiring all new employees to partake. Though there were several other things we did, this laid the groundwork for moving away from being reactive to being proactive with student behavior.

We started noticing that the more we created opportunities to lead, the more it became contagious. Students who were on the fringe of getting referrals daily or weekly were asking to take part in our leadership opportunities. We made sure to celebrate all these fabulous students. The referrals started to drop. In a five year span we went from 486 referrals in a school year to 98.

I am now a new high school principal, and I am implementing some of the same strategies for empowering students, and I can’t wait to see where we will be in five years!  Here are my favorite student leadership opportunities!

1. Read it Forward!

read it forward

Much like the Pay it Forward concept, our students wanted to raise community wide literacy. A group of students and myself came up with a concept of putting books into local businesses and restaurants for families to read and share the joy of literacy. We chose the book, Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin. We then came up with a script we were going to use in order to speak to business owners, directors of clinics, and other organizations. Students practiced these conversations with one and another, and myself. We then set up meetings and met with them to ask about putting the book in a high traffic area. We had over 20 locations where these books were located. Families could read these books, take them home, and drop them off at any one of the participating locations. Additionally, families signed inside the front cover when they read the book. After 10 weeks, we collected the remaining books we could find and calculated the families that read the book. Our best educated guess with the data put our books in over 2000 hands in our community during this span.  

2. Project Perseverance!

project perseverance

A student leadership team helped choose our theme for the school year; the concept of perseverance was chosen. Our school then created assemblies, activities, and tasks that helped build perseverance in our school. One of the projects they chose to do were videos asking people about a time when they persevered in their life. Each student chose someone from the community to interview. We had a set of questions and a format that was similar for the interview process. We then had students edit the videos by adding music, a common introduction and closing. We had several videos with over 10,000 views. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, even the mayor were interviewed. The videos that went viral were from cancer survivors and one student in our school who battled and has succeeded against all odds against sickle cell anemia.

3. Student Service Projects

As a school we wanted a way to get more students to lead and community service projects were a way to get many students involved. Students could choose a project that helped a school, local, state-wide, national, or even international cause. We had a basic structure and criteria for all the projects, as well as a timeline. They had to find a staff member that was willing to sponsor them and support the project. As a principal I met routinely with the students and supported their needs, but my main job was to help with the media and getting the word out to the appropriate supporters. 

4. Shark Tank

shark tank

Much like the television show, Shark Tank, students were formed into teams to create ideas that would help our school. We then built proposals and practiced presenting these proposals to interested donors. In the three years that we did this, students put up new basketball hoops, garnered a plethora of new technology like Chromebooks, purchased exercise equipment, put flexible seating in every classroom, and so much more.

5. The Amazing Shake

the amazing shake

Adopted from Ron Clark’s, The Amazing Shake, we created a handshake and communication contest in our school. We taught students the basics of an effective handshake, as well as how to start basic communication when you introduce yourself to someone. Students were then scored by several business leaders and community members to find the student with the best handshake and communication. 

6. Podcasting Personal Stories

podcasting personal stories

Podcasting has become a popular way to tell the story of your school. In the past two school districts, we have had a podcast that celebrated graduating seniors. We asked them all a set of questions about their school experience: what were the positives, advice they have for other students, people that they would like to thank, and what changes would they like to see in our school. These have been powerful for our staff and community to listen and celebrate. We are also using the podcast to tell so many other stories of our school.

7. YouTube Live

youtube live

Having our own YouTube Live channel has helped us to be able to communicate with our community and school, as well as other interested people. We do a live morning announcement show each day where our student body president reads announcements. The power is not only the information given out, but also inviting all different types of people from our student body into the morning show. We also use YouTube Live to stream other events in our school like the Grand March for Prom, Community Job Fair Advertisements, and more.

8. Telling Your Story

telling your story

Finding ways through social media, local media outlets, and more to tell the story of not only the amazing events going on in our school, but also the everyday learning. Based on the premise of who is telling your story, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. You may not like their version.” We use Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, website, local newspaper and television to document the learning and great things going on in our school. We goal for at least one story tagline a day. Data analytics tell us that an interview or presentation with pictures or videos with a tagline will reach more people than just a word post. Over the past couple years we have started to use our social media analytics to decide the best time for posts, understanding the target demographics of our stakeholders, and much more.  

9. Student Mentoring Program

The power of mentoring has an impact that is hard to calculate, but is definitely worthwhile for all stakeholders. Older students partnering with younger students can be an effective way to role model character, kindness, and empathy, as well as supporting with either an academic skill, social skill, or athletic endeavor. Whether it is local university students or high school students, setting up a mentoring program to help with reading, math, writing, or just playing a game can be a powerful way for young mentees to improve skills, gain knowledge, or be inspired through motivation. The effectiveness of the mentoring program largely is led by the organizers clear expectations of both the mentor and mentees.

10. Job Fair / Health Fair

Having students organize a job fair or health fair can be a motivator for students in understanding the job market or helping peers understand the importance of taking care of their health. Once students are put in charge of not only organizing the events, but marketing them to their peers, job and health fairs take on a whole new perspective…one of empowerment. Working with booth vendors, media outlets, and other adults is a great way to gain skills in communication, business, health, and more. 

11. Community Events at School

Many schools are the hub for activity in a community. It seems appropriate that community events are held at the school. Putting students in charge of all the planning, organizing, and promoting of the event is a great way to empower leaders. Possible community events could include Chili Cook Off, Bingo Night, Pops Music and Pies, and other contests and celebrations. The difference in many of these events is the invitation not only goes out to families of students, but all community members. In much the same fashion of Pay it Forward, these opportunities for community members to be engaged in our school and give back can be a powerful way to connect them, as well as connecting the community with the students.   

5 Empowering Student Leaders Frequently Asked Questions

The main goal of promoting student leadership is to transform the school culture by shifting the focus from managing negative behavior to building leaders. This approach reduces the number of behavioral issues and engages students in meaningful activities that contribute to their personal development and the betterment of the school community.

Implementing student leadership opportunities can significantly reduce office referrals by providing students with positive outlets for their energy and ideas. By involving students in leadership roles and community projects, schools can see a dramatic decrease in negative behavior, as demonstrated by a reduction from 486 to 98 referrals over five years in one school’s experience.

Examples of student leadership activities include “Read it Forward,” a community literacy project; “Project Perseverance,” where students create and share videos on perseverance; “Student Service Projects” for community improvement; “Shark Tank,” for proposing and funding school projects; and “The Amazing Shake,” a handshake and communication contest.

Student leadership initiatives contribute to the community by fostering a sense of responsibility and engagement among students. Projects like placing books in local businesses, organizing job and health fairs, and hosting community events at schools improve student skills and confidence and strengthen the bond between the school and the wider community.

To successfully lead and participate in leadership initiatives, students need consistent support from school staff, including training, mentorship, and resources. This support might involve helping students with project planning, providing media exposure for their projects, and offering guidance on effective communication and organizational skills.

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