Expert Tips for Teaching Leadership Skills in The Classroom

Leadership is a multi-faceted skill set that helps students learn to communicate, empathize and solve problems. Equipped with the power of independence, strong leaders are more likely to achieve personal and professional success. And while many leadership skills seem basic, it’s not fair to assume that all students learn leadership skills at home.

To help all of your students learn these critical skills, here’s how to establish a culture of leadership both in the classroom and throughout your school.

How Independence Promotes Leadership

One way to help students become leaders is to empower them to become independent thinkers. As Linda Shalaway points out, it’s a common behavior problem for students to be dependent on their teachers for direction at all times. To break this cycle, Shalaway says that teachers can define a few classroom rules that encourage students to solve problems themselves or in a group. One way to do this is to establish a routine such as “ask three before you ask me,” where which each student has to ask three peers the question before asking the teacher.

Another way to help students think and solve problems on their own is to teach essential social skills. School Leaders Now explains that many students don’t have basic social skills, like learning to share and managing conflict. Instead of assuming that students have these skills, teachers need to help students build them, step by step. When students develop these skills early on, they’ll be more prepared to take problems into their own hands as they grow.

Collaborative Leadership Teaching

Since leadership can be taught in so many different ways, it’s important that teachers collaborate and discuss best practices.

Katrina Schwartz at MindShift says that teachers of different subjects can work together to teach similar leadership skills on an interdisciplinary level. When multiple teachers are committed to helping the same group of students develop these skills, they’ll also be able to help each other identify behavioral weaknesses and provide extra leadership support to students when needed.

Teachers can also cultivate their own leadership skills by establishing relationships with other teachers. Dr. Mary Kay at About Leaders suggests practicing being a good role model for other teachers by handling tough situations with a positive outlook. Actively practicing these skills around other adults will make it a habit for when you’re around students. The behavior too will rub off on other teachers, helping them become better leaders in their own classrooms.


Teaching Leadership

Leadership teaching always changes depending on the teacher and his or her students. However, the Classcraft blog writes that leadership is best taught when blended into everyday classroom workflows. When students see how leadership plays a role in their daily lives, they’ll learn to view it as a normal and common skill, not an isolated one reserved for certain circumstances. In turn, this will help students become leaders in their lives, both in and outside of the classroom.

Teachers should also think about the types of leadership skills they want to teach and balance them throughout different lessons. To start, career expert Alison Doyle outlines 10 leadership skills that will help students the most over time. These include motivation, communication and delegating. Other often overlooked aspects of leadership include flexibility, which is the ability to change and adapt to situations even when they cause stress or chaos.

So what’s the best way to teach these skills?

It’s actually more of a process and less of a specific lesson. As The Leader in Me blog explains, leadership should be taught through a combination of direct and indirect lessons. This multi-dimensional approach combines theory with action, helping students understand what leadership is and how they can embody those skills. Since students only learn so much by studying leadership skills, The Leadership Challenge points out that enacting them is especially important.

Direct Leadership

A direct leadership lesson involves explicitly teaching students about how to lead. For example, on her blog Haley O’Connor suggests helping young students define what a leader is and listing examples of leaders in their lives. Then she works with her students to help them define what makes a good leader – helping them understand and embody those traits in their own lives.

To teach leadership skills to middle and high school students, give them responsibilities such as heading discussions in class. You can also assign leadership-themed projects. Education writer Jim Paterson recommends allowing students to research leaders in a field of interest to them. Athletes and artists, for example, are examples of well-known people that middle and high school students look up to and can learn leadership skills from.

Shawndra Russell at Classroom says teachers can choose reading assignments that portray ordinary people acting as heroes or leaders. Teachers can then create lessons that require students to break up into different roles to discuss the book. This encourages them to talk about the leadership lessons learned in the book while also acting out leadership positions. After one roundtable discussion, students can switch positions so that everyone has a chance to be in charge.

Another way to teach and encourage leadership is by assigning leaders in the classroom. This activity can be assigned to students of all ages, with responsibilities increasing for older students. Teacher Toolkit suggests writing a few different classroom jobs that students can apply for, outlining responsibilities and commitments beforehand. Then, teachers can evaluate student performance and show them how they’re stacking up to the challenge. Jobs can be given at the beginning of the school year or on a weekly or monthly rotation.

laying circle

Use Positive Reinforcement

Praising students for leadership behavior is an indirect way to teach them about independent thinking. Kickboard explains that if teachers want to reinforce any type of behavior in the classroom, they need to use positive reinforcement. By focusing on positive feedback instead of negative, students will become more confident in their abilities. As a result, their increased confidence and self-awareness will help them take more initiative on academic and interpersonal tasks in the classroom.

Educator Craig Kemp uses positive reinforcement in the classroom by being an endless source of positivity. He helps students believe they are capable of anything, encouraging them to go above and beyond whenever possible. He also sets a positive example of this by taking risks in his own teaching, stepping outside of his comfort zone and letting his students know that he’s trying something new.

Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult of Pedagogy also practices positivity in her classroom, and urges teachers to try things they aren’t good at. Doing so right in front of students helps create a culture of experimentation where students aren’t afraid to try new things. When students see their teachers making mistakes right in front of them, they come to see the classroom as a safe space where they can make mistakes without judgement. Teachers are responsible for showing students that leaders don’t follow the same path as everyone else. Instead, they forge new ones.

As Professor Maurice J. Elias puts it, “because leadership ultimately is a moral commitment, leaders must be prepared to take risks, buck trends, show courage, persist, embolden others, and use a nuanced sense of compromise.”

Images by: StockSnap, 422737, Shaun Zeng

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