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Letting Go to Let Students Lead

School Nurtures Leadership, Responsibility among Pupils

Last year’s soccer tournament was fun, so fifth-grader Will McKanna wanted to have another one. But when he asked Principal Bob Siegel when it was going to happen, Siegel said, “When you organize it.”

It wasn’t the answer Will expected, but he ran with it. “I organized it, and now it’s happening,” he recently told a roomful of Rockford teachers, who applauded warmly.

Thus was born Valley View Elementary School’s playground soccer tourney, 12 teams and 84 players strong. Together with classmate Christian Herrema, Will signed up students and scheduled matches at recess between teams like the Gummy Pandas and the Canadian Warriors.

The two boys presented their project recently to three dozen teachers as part of a professional development day at Rockford High School. Theirs was a prime example of a new initiative at Valley View, where Siegel and his 30-teacher staff are aiming to make leaders of their 640 students.

Valley View has embraced a schoolwide program called The Leader in Me, a transformation model designed to empower students. Based on principles of the Stephen R. Covey book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” it emphasizes traits such as responsibility and teamwork along with educational best practices. It is used in more than 3,000 schools worldwide, according to its website.

How can adults help young people to be leaders? Largely by letting go and letting students figure out their own solutions, Siegel said.

“As an adult, we have a vision of how we think things should go,” Siegel said. “Kids have a totally different perspective. It’s cool because it’s their perspective, it’s their school.”

Fifth-graders Will McKanna, front, and Christian Herrema organized a soccer tournament with support from Principal Bob Siegel

From Voting to Video

The program emerged from a yearlong study by Valley View teachers last year of “The Leader in Me,” the book around which the program is built. The effort got going full-on with activities this fall. They include Leadership Buddies, where older students pair with younger children around books; designating third- through fifth-graders as orange-vested playground leaders (85 students applied); and students leading class sessions in subjects they are interested in, such as creating a Vine book and Lego building.

Each month the school promotes one of seven habits of mind from the Leader in Me curriculum. The first was “Be Proactive,” or doing the right thing without being asked, for which students made a fun video. The second was “Begin with the End in Mind,” or setting goals and having a plan to meet them.

The results are quickly becoming apparent, Siegel said: “We have the kids convinced that in their own ways they can be leaders, of themselves and others.”

A prime example was the recent election. Fifth-graders conducted a schoolwide version, educating younger students about the process and running voting booths. Students made pie charts of the results by class, grade level and school.

“The kids are proud of themselves,” said teacher Dan Derksen, who organized the project.

Fifth-graders register voters for a schoolwide election
Fifth-graders register voters for a schoolwide election

Strong Character Succeeds

He and other teachers said giving up some control – while still exercising guidance – has been good for them and their students.

“It’s amazing when kids have ownership how much it means to them,” said kindergarten teacher Kim Zuidema, who let her students vote on the menu for their Thanksgiving celebration.

Derksen said his students set behavior standards to help curb problems with not listening during class – and it worked.

“Our primary role as teachers it to help kids develop their character,” Derksen said. “This gives us permission to make that emphasis. If you have strong character, you’ll succeed.”

Nurturing character and leadership will benefit them in the long run, said fifth-grade teacher Jen Nyeholt: “It will make them stronger and give them courage to do more things.”

“That’s the end goal: Kids grow into themselves and develop those leadership skills,” Siegel added. “We want kids to leave as totally prepared as they can be for the life that exists for them beyond Valley View’s doors.”

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The Leader in Me

Student Video, “Be Proactive!”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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