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Notes from the Field
Written by Barbara Logan
Regardless of the school or the district where my travels lead me, there is a particular group of students who are immediately identifiable by educators and fellow students. I may find them in the office or engaged in high-powered discussions in a hallway with a less-than-pleased adult. They go by a plethora of names, ranging from at risk, disaffected, delinquent, behaviorally challenged or bad. The titles refer to their tendencies to be at odds with the designated rule books of their schools or communities. They have great reserves of energy that are often applied to activities other than academic achievement, and when opportunities for leadership emerge, they are often the last students to be considered. Despite being denied opportunities for leadership, they often wield large amounts of influence over their peers. Akin to E.F. Hutton, when these students speak, everyone listens. So how does a community make use of this energy and influence?
First, we have to separate the child from the label in our thoughts, our actions, and our conversations. As humans, we like to create categories and assign things accordingly. The problem, of course, is that once assigned to a category, we fail to reflect on why someone may have attained the attributes and link the person to the label permanently. Identification of the behavioral tendencies is not the same as understanding the ‘why’ of their actions. Their behaviors, while not always appropriate, are often symptoms of larger problems, such as histories of academic failure, disinvestment of the community, poor and/or disengaging instruction, awareness that the educational journey does not have a great return on investment, and acceptance of the belief that they cannot and should not expect to achieve at high levels.
Second, we must recognize the potential of their power and create avenues for these young people to wield it for good. While more traditional student leaders have developed the academic and behavioral tendencies recognized and sanctioned by adults, they tend not to have the largest range of influence. In collaboration with Memphis City Schools, we help facilitate The Envoy Project, a strategic youth leadership program that enlists the support of these young people as well as traditional student leaders. The students have begun to demonstrate the power of their impact when encouraged to lead for the better. While we need another year to make comparisons, there is ample evidence in the form of self reports, anecdotal findings, as well as more empirical data in the form of academic and behavior trend data.
Third, the work that they are asked to lead must be meaningful. The Envoy Project charges young people with improving the culture and climate of their school to improve the conditions for teaching and learning. In other words, the youth are specifically being asked to work on something that has a direct impact on the space in which they are required to learn. Some youth groups never get beyond the bake sale or the crazy hat day activities. While most students prefer to wield their influence over more substantive issues, this is especially true of non-traditional leaders.
Whichever label we use, the number of students who fall into the category of being disengaged and dissatisfied with the adults in their schools and communities is increasing. Continuing on our current path of labeling and removing them from leadership opportunities is clearly not working for them or for us. Let’s recognize their capacities and empower them to use their powers for good!
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