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Expanding Support for Non-Traditional Leaders
By Andrea Randolph
Memphis City Schools Teacher Envoy
I can still visualize the scene clearly: It was my 4th period Creative Writing class, and my students were rambling about the various neighborhood events more loudly and chaotically than normal. I attempted to quiet the class several times in order to begin the lesson, but it soon became apparent that neighborhood events were more important than writing creatively.
It was my second year teaching, but my first year in an at-risk middle school housed with an abundance of non-traditional students. Now, I have always been extremely close to the teenage race; we have always had a mutual liking and understanding of one another. But this school was something I’d never seen before. Gangs were all too present, and it seemed I could count on one hand the students who were not involved in one. I encountered students who were mothers and fathers. Some had after-school jobs, and a lot of the same responsibilities that I had, like maintaining a household. Did I mention that this was a middle school of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders?
All I could remember thinking was: Whew! I have my work cut out for me this year. But I have always been a proponent of working smart, so I put my brain to work to figure out how I could reach these students. The answer came to me that chaotic and memorable day during my 4th period Creative Writing class.
As I continued my attempt at quieting the rambunctious class, a voice from the back of the classroom calmly spoke. It was so smooth and direct. It reminded me of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But it was not Dr. King; it was an 8th grade student named Charles. He said, “Hey y’all, shut up. Ms. Dotson is trying to talk.” All of a sudden, simultaneously, everyone stopped talking and looked up at me. I was so stunned that I was also quiescent. I just stood there staring at the students as they stared at me.
My first thought was, how in the world did they hear him over all the boisterousness? Immediately after that thought, I realized that Charles was a known gang leader. He was well respected in his neighborhood, this middle school, and my classroom, and he had a large following. However, even though everyone else respected Charles the most, he respected me the most.
I believe that Charles stood up for me because he understood that it didn’t matter to me where he came from or what he was dealing with in the streets; if he believed in himself, I believed in him. I established a rapport from the beginning that said to him, come as you are with a willingness to learn and I will do all that I can to ensure your success. That day that Charles calmed the class enlightened me on just how much charisma all student leaders exhibit, including those that are non-traditional. I began to engage non-traditional leaders like Charles to act as my classroom leaders because of their charisma and uncanny ability to recruit other students to follow them unconditionally.
One strategy that I incorporated was co-teaching. During my planning period, I would pre-teach the next day’s lesson to my student leaders. Together we would obtain the answers, carefully going over the how’s and why’s. Then, as I taught the lesson to the class, my student leaders would walk around assisting students that needed help. Surprisingly, my student leaders would never simply reveal the answers; however, they would explain how to obtain the answers. These roles helped them show leadership toward positive goals, while concurrently allowing me to reach more of my students.
Despite what most people believe, or can admit to believing, non-traditional students are leaders. What do I mean by non-traditional? In order to define a non-traditional student, it is easier to describe what they are not. They are not your typical honor students… not because they don’t have the potential. They are not your shy, sit back and wait students… not because they are impatient. They don’t have a lot of parental support… not because they don’t crave it. They don’t hang with the most positive crowd… not because they can’t “fit in.” They are not always the most attentive student in the class… not because they don’t have the desire to listen. Non-traditional students are the “cool” kids. They exude confidence and use their complex charisma to creatively compel other students to conform through convincing communication. They are LEADERS!
In the two years that I have been a part of the Envoy Project in Memphis City Schools, I have seen what is possible when non-traditional students are given an opportunity to lead in positive directions. When non-traditional students are nominated to attend Student Envoy Camp, the cycle begins. The myth that they can’t be positive school leaders has been dispelled, and almost immediately their confidence skyrockets. They can believe in themselves because someone else (usually a teacher in their school) believed in them.
During Student Envoy Camp, non-traditional students are given opportunities to lead discussions, voice their opinions, and share their real-world situations without being ridiculed or judged. They learn the five Efficacy “Secrets” to help them confidently build a Quality Life. Following Camp, they are provided with more opportunities to lead, both within their schools and in the district at Board meetings, fundraisers, forums, award ceremonies, and Envoy Project events. The Envoy Project is a great avenue for non-traditional students to connect with other student leaders (non-traditional and traditional) from across the city, and band together to create positive change.
Whether building a district-wide initiative like the Envoy Project, or leading change in a troubled school, it is essential that we include non-traditional leaders in the transformation process. We must understand, encourage, and permit non-traditional leaders to maintain their identities while gradually guiding their leadership toward positive goals. The bottom line is that we need non-traditional students to continue to lead, but learn to lead positively.
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