Why We Need Leadership – Opinion Piece

I spent a week earlier this term mentoring a school-run leadership training camp and decided to write this piece emphasising the importance and gravity these programs take in the school curriculum. In my time on this earth I have found myself in many situations that have required lateral thinking and leadership skills to carry me through. I pay homage to my own school for preparing me for many of those encounters and I champion other schools to adapt similar programs of their own. Programs that provide students with a sense of purpose, achievement and ownership for the success that they create for themselves.

Allow me to give context about the camp I’m drawing upon:

In year seven during term four, students embark upon an outdoor education camp that spans five days. The camp covers water activities such as sailing and canoeing as well as bushwalking and navigation. Apart from key teachers overseeing the camps, they are run entirely by year ten students from the same school. These year ten students are proficient in navigation, first aid and water safety and are tasked the job of leading the year sevens through their week-long camp and teaching them the important skills required to survive and thrive throughout the week.

To prepare for the role, the year tens sprint through a training program that provides them the skills to competently teach their designated group of year sevens. The training they receive happens at the start of term four, just before the first year seven camp. The training program spans over four (intensive) days in which they are sharpened up on skills including, but not limited to:
• Effectively planning and teaching lessons
• Leadership styles
• Hard skills such as: knot tying, map reading, sailing, navigation without instruments and first aid
• Soft skills such as: conflict resolution, mentoring, understanding group dynamics and leading others through influence and suggestion
• Action to take in First aid and other emergency situations
• The idea of integrity, honesty and service
The list could go on however I feel the dot points highlight the essence of what the training camp is about. The question you, the reader, will be asking now is “who facilitates the year ten leadership group?” Of course the answer is simple. A selected group of year elevens from the previous year and thus a tradition and legacy is continued through the years.

The year eleven “training team” are compiled of seventeen to twenty two of the previous year’s cohort of roughly sixty to seventy. They, in-turn have their own leadership camp (run during the last week of school holidays before term four starts) that sharpens up their skills and prepares them with the next tier of leadership. The full preparation for the year elevens starts months before the camp itself with weekly sessions after school on a Friday to help organise and prepare themselves through term three.

Although there is a small cohort of teacher mentors and a teacher-in-charge of overseeing all the programs, these camps are well and truly the responsibility of the students to make sure the best outcomes are achieved for all year seven, ten and eleven students involved.

The year elevens have significant pride and a sense of accomplishment when chosen to be in the “elite” training team. There is a strong sense of history, culture and achievement in being recognised for the work they have done in year ten where they safely led their own groups of year sevens (and then eights in term one of the following year.) To be selected they needed to have worked hard, demonstrated high levels of both confidence and competence on all aspects of their camps and on top of that, shown a genuine enthusiasm and passion for serving their younger peers. The training team all “walk their talk”. They have guided their groups safely through a forest navigation walk whilst teaching map reading and navigation skills, kept their group safe whilst out on sailing and canoeing activities and made sure they were fed throughout the day and adequately sheltered at night.

Witnessing the year elevens run their program is something I’m proud to do each year. Their body language is strong and tall, they walk with an air of confidence (and rarely arrogance) and they put aside personal differences to ensure overall success during their four-day course. I say “their” course for a reason. They own it. They are well aware that the training course’s success lays on their shoulders and NOT the teachers. If it all goes belly up, it’s the actions of the year eleven training team that has let it. But of course it never does. They have pride in their work and put their names to the project. They work hard to ensure that the course runs according to schedule and all the facilitators are running their sessions to the time allocated. Meals are an opportunity for announcements to the entire group before getting them all back into sub groups and onto their next activity. Over the four days the year tens are put through their paces. The year elevens wake them up at 6.30am and often days will run to 10.30pm with only meal times given to breaks (and even then you will see the year tens studying their notes from the previous sessions). How can sixteen-year-olds concentrate for sixteen hours straight, four days in a row? Impossible I hear you say. The answer is simple. They want to be there. And they understand the responsibility on their shoulders when they look after their own group of year seven students in the bush and on the water.

Why shouldn’t we expect well trained young-adults to look after a small group of students? Often when I tell people about our leadership program I’m met with judgement, as if I just told them the camps involve letting students bungee-jump without a rope. I often reflect that this (common) reaction is a disappointing reflection on the low expectations our society have on our youth. It shows we don’t have enough trust and faith in our students to hold the same levels of responsibility we tell continuously them they need to take in order to demonstrate their maturity. How can they demonstrate their abilities if we don’t give them a chance? This program has been running for decades now and, touch wood, the school has not had a serious incident to date. We run on the philosophy of the seven P’s. Proper Prior Planning Prevents Positively Poor Performance. Amazing results are achieved simply by asking the students to step up and take on more responsibility and in return, showing them we, the adults, TRUST them to do so.

Every teacher reading this article will at some point have been asked by the joker in the pack, “Excuse me Miss/Sir… this is pointless. When will we ever use this in the real world?”. These students have every right to ask the question. How many teachers fall short of giving an answer that satisfies? The reality is, interpersonal skills, networking, entrepreneurial and financial intelligence are skills that becoming more and more vital as students leave school. Not once in my entire time on the leadership program have I been asked the “relevance” question. The students don’t need to ask it. Leading others toward a common goal, co-operating with people who are not necessarily your friends and developing solutions when presented with problems are all skills we need in life after school.

Leadership programs are currently included in schools as a “bonus” activity. I’m championing that they should be a standard part of schooling with a lot more time, resource and emphasis placed on providing the best programs possible for our students. I’ll finish my article by posing the question to you, the reader. When you think back to your time at school, what are your strongest and best lessons you learned and memories you keep? If you’re a teacher yourself, it’s worth reflecting on these memories to help shape the ones you’re potentially creating for your own students.

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