Cultivating your students’ leadership skills

The world is changing fast. As you well know, because you also live in the world. Public education is seeing massive changes at a rapid pace as well.

However, these changes have not changed the culture of schools. Schools are still places where students have little to no say. 

It’s not surprising that in such an environment with limited chances to practice leadership skills, many students are leaving their education with little leadership experience as well as a very skewed idea of what being a leader can look like. 

It doesn’t have to be this way though! No matter who your learners are, you can help them to hone their leadership skills. Here are some fun and easy ways to help students develop strong leadership skills for the future:


1. Model cooperative leadership

Many “old school” teachers favor an authoritarian model of leadership in their classrooms. These classrooms are full of rules, set by the teacher/school. 

This model can feel extremely rigid to students. Rooms are full of posted consequences. Students have assigned seats. Schedules are clearly posted. 

These classrooms send a resounding message: “The teacher is in charge here, completely. Your thoughts, feelings and opinions will not be considered”. 

I understand this strategy, especially for new, young teachers looking to set a strong boundary between themselves and their students. This environment, however, does not cultivate a place where students expect to take the lead on anything. 

A cooperative leader listens and takes feedback to heart. They engage the people they seek to lead in decision making. They admit mistakes and take steps to make amends. 

Imagine your ideal boss/administrator. What is that person like? 

Likely, they trust you to make decisions on your own. They serve as a mentor, help you understand why a task needs doing, and solicit your input on completing them.

How you model these qualities in your class will vary. Some populations find schedules and routines helpful and soothing so posting them is a good idea, but check in every so often. 

You can have class and one on one discussions about places/routines that could be improved in your class. If something isn’t working solicit learner feedback.

Offer choice, even if it’s structured. (Structured choice is when you control the things that can be chosen from). 

Always try to find a way to incorporate the flexibility, compassion and thoughtful leadership you hope your students will display in your regular practice. 


2. Give students meaningful responsibilities

A class responsibility can be a great way to give your students some power in the classroom and to contribute to their own educational environment. 

I say “can be” because students can tell when you’re giving them a meaningful contribution and when it’s just a bit of busywork. 

So what makes a responsibility meaningful? 

Well, it’s impossible to give a definitive list, because it has to do with how the student doing it feels about that responsibility, but here are some ways that would help it be meaningful:

  • It was the student’s idea/inspiration. 
    • If a student saw something that would improve the class and then volunteers to fix it, they will feel more personal pride in the task.
  • You picked it for them based on a demonstrated skill or competency of the student. 
    • Example: I noticed how great you are with handling electronics, so I think you’d be amazing at collecting and plugging in the computers. 
  • You let them do it their way. 
    • If you show that you trust them to do the thing correctly without your micromanagement it helps them feel like an expert, not just your minion.
  • If it doesn’t get done, people notice. 
    • Obviously, it shouldn’t be life or death, but if a job is meaningful, it’s absence should make an impact.

The best way to know if it’s a meaningful task is to check in with the student doing it. Ask them how they feel about the task and if necessary change the task or the way they do the task.


3. Practice solution seeking

Finding things that aren’t ideal seems like a whole industry these days. There are entire Youtube channels devoted to nitpicking films, books, TV shows and every other kind of media imaginable. 

It may be easy for students to start to think that pointing out flaws is enough. This is also reinforced by the fact that students often receive grades that point out mistakes they made but offer no way to change or fix those mistakes. 

Good leaders don’t just point out flaws, they offer solutions. 

When a student has a complaint or concern, talk with them about it. Ask them what they would like to see done. Work with them on creating or at least exploring solutions.

In your writing prompts, conversations, and assignments prioritize students offering solutions and explaining how those things would improve things for themselves and others. 

In your own teaching practice, always come from a place of offering solution options and knowing the pros and cons of each. 

This will help students see leadership as a chance to help coordinate efforts to accomplish a goal, rather than a chance to have power over others.


4. Prioritize collaboration and consensus

Along with making sure students are coming from a place of wanting to find solutions that improve their team, classroom, organization, or school, we should make sure they know to listen to others. 

Hopefully, you’re modeling this, but it may be a skill you have to explicitly teach as well. 

Include steps in your instructions about asking for feedback and ideas from the group.

Teach students what consensus is and how to achieve it. It’s different than one person caving in or not caring about the outcome and deferring. 

Teach them how to listen to the ideas and concerns of others and integrate them into their team’s output. 

Make it clear you believe in the process of collaboration. Once your students experience how great it is to work together productively, they won’t want to tyrannically call all the shots ever again. 


5. Start with low-stakes

As we know, opportunities for meaningful leadership are limited for students. They are likely unpracticed and that’s okay. 

We all start somewhere.  Don’t make your first chances at leadership project management for a make or break class assignment. 

Keep your stakes low for those first leadership opportunities. 

Great places to start are whole class and team bonding activities. These allow you to put someone in charge to give them a taste of leadership but not too much responsibility. 

In clubs and sports, you can make sub committees with a small job to complete that won’t end the world if not done. 

Tasks should be meaningful but they shouldn’t be mega stressful, at least not at first. 

Give your student activities and objectives you know are well within their power to be successful at completing. 

Remember to build up confidence with these lower-stakes endeavors before asking students to flex those muscles on bigger, more complicated undertakings.


6. Be a resource

The temptation to just do something for your students can be overwhelming, especially when they’re not being successful and you care about them deeply. 

You should jump in if the leader is engaging in bullying (or being bullied). You should jump in if the student asked you for assistance. Outside of these scenarios, I would advise against getting involved. 

Like a bird learning to fly, your students may look in danger of falling from the nest, but if you don’t let them try their wings, they will never fly. 

So, how do you keep them on track without taking over?

There are many ways to do that, but check-ins, where you offer support, are a good way to go about it.

Example: Raul is the team leader. The team is working on a presentation with a diorama, slides, and a video component. Raul’s job is to help the team make decisions and will be the person presenting the team’s work. His team is kind of a mess right now, with few people completing their components. 

The temptation is to go in guns-a-blazin’ and get the team on track yourself, but when you do that, you undermine Raul’s leadership. 

Instead, ask Raul what he’s struggling with and ask how you can help. Let him direct your action. Maybe he just needs you to help him draw up some smaller chunks of work for the others students to complete. Maybe there’s one student he needs help communicating with and wants you to help with that discussion. Listen, and provide the help asked for.

But I hear your protestations: They’ll all fail this assignment! You HAVE TO jump in and tell students what to do. 

In this case, I want to remind you, this is your classroom. You set this task and ok’d this team. 

You control the conditions for success. You get to decide if this is the right assignment or project for students to be able to productively fail (failure you learn from). If it’s not, then that’s a failure of your leadership, not theirs (and luckily, a great opportunity to model how to make necessary changes as a leader) .


7. Provide meaningful reflection

When a student of mine accidentally was voted vice president of a club they were in, they actually took it pretty seriously. They wanted to put on some events to increase club cohesion. 

They did a few of these ideas (including a trust fall, which was not a 100% success). Afterward, we talked about how it went. 

I asked them what they thought went well, and how they were doing towards their goal. I tried not to give them ideas or take over. I listened and helped them make conclusions based on their own observations. 

Reflection is important when it comes to leadership. A good leader learns from their mistakes but isn’t haunted by them. 

In order to do that you have to reflect on the goals of your group, and how you are doing towards achieving them together. 

Providing meaningful reflection time for students learning leadership is hugely important. It should be a part of any in-class leadership experiences. 

Make sure your reflection gives equal time and attention to things that went well and areas where the student was meeting their group’s goals. 

It’s often easier for people to see their failures than their successes. Good reflection combines both and helps people recognize their strengths as ways to improve on their weaknesses.


8. Help illuminate possibilities

Students are full of amazing ideas! As a young person with a different perspective and life experiences than you or your colleagues, they have so much to offer. 

However, they may not realize that their ideas are completely doable. 

Sometimes they just need a nudge in the right direction. Along with teaching students to come up with solutions, it’s important to give them an avenue to actually enact those solutions. 

If a student mentions wishing the school had a certain club, explain your school’s process for creating a new club. If a student mentions being unhappy with a school or district policy explain to them where and when they can show up to discuss their concerns with the principal or school board. 

When I taught government, I had the website where students could sign up to vote clearly displayed along with deadlines for registration and when they’d be eligible to vote. I told students the process for running for local office.

For every amazing idea that your student has offhandedly, give them an idea for how they can make it real. 

When my animation club thought a cosplay contest would be fun, I told them ways we could do a mini one at the school and left it up to them to get the proper permissions and follow the process. (They ended up doing it by the way, and the club still holds a cosplay contest once a year). 

You don’t need to push them. You just need to let them know they can do whatever they’re thinking of and articulate who they should go to for the next steps. 

You and your students have totally got this!


  • stacey oconnell

    Having students get involved and empowered for their learning can led to many great experiences for them and help them become better in their own educational growth not only in the classroom , but also in the real world.

    • A
      Courtnay Hough

      We completely agree! Students really do benefit from being able to try their own strength so to speak.

Leave your comment