Engaging a Community of Leaders
David T. Michener, 5th Grade Teacher
Jennifer M. Horan, Student Support Counselor
Engaging the community…what does this mean in a school? How do schools engage everyone involved? What are the possibilities when students, teachers, and parents feel like valued members of the school community? We happen to know the possibilities first-hand at Titus Elementary School in the Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania. It is because of the engagement of our teachers, students, and parents that we have a school climate that promotes leadership and ownership in developing our school into a healthy, supportive learning environment.
Through the engagement of the students, teachers, and parents as leaders at Titus Elementary, one result is very clear. The feeling of overwhelming support for the Titus community resonates throughout the entire school. The end of year survey to parents and staff for the 2015-2016 school year yielded two words used most often in the open-ended responses among parents and teachers – “community” and “family”. When this is how staff feels about the school in which they work and how families feel about the people they entrust their children to every day, anything is possible.
What is engagement?
Engagement has evolved into leadership positions for teachers, students, and parents when taking ownership for projects, initiatives, and decisions becomes the focus. There are many different definitions for the verb "engage". Two stand out because they go beyond the simple "cause someone to become involved in". The first one defines engage as "to come together and interlock <the gears engaged> (Merriam-Webster) and the second definition is "(with reference to a part of a machine or engine) move into position so as to come into operation". The synonyms listed under this online definition include: interlock, interconnect, mesh, join, unite, and connect. School is like a machine or engine - you need all parts doing their jobs in unison and in cooperation with each other to get the most out of the machine.
Presenting students with opportunities to take on leadership roles is essential to developing the whole student. When students have the chance to take a leadership position, the students and the school community both benefit from this action. First, the leadership role extends the students' learning beyond the classroom. These roles provide them with experiences and life-lessons they will use throughout their educational career and beyond. Next, the entire school community reaps the benefits as well. Having a school with students who care because they are given a voice is a win for the entire school community. Peers look up to these students as role models of the school, while teachers have the resources of helpful, supportive students they know they can trust. Last, the parents and surrounding community see the commitment and pride of the student leaders as a medal the school should wear with pride. All in all, the development of student leadership is a win, win and win situation!
Students learning from leadership
In our school students know the feeling of leadership. Fourth, fifth and sixth graders have the opportunity to become a classroom representative on the Student Advisory Committee(SAC). Prospective leaders must be elected by their peers to serve as their classroom representative, but the responsibilities do not stop there. SAC members assist with a wide array of responsibilities around the school including: tending to school gardens; caring for the fish in the school aquarium; updating bulletin boards and planning for and participating in assemblies for our “Paws for PRIDE” program. SAC students also promote and support the school's annual fundraiser by presenting announcements on the school's morning news show and building school spirit at the kick-off assembly. As a committee, SAC members determine the annual school charity, and act as ambassadors for students new to the school. Big or small, the opportunity for students to take on leadership roles is present and active at Titus. Student feedback about the program has been extremely positive. One former Titus student said, "One leadership trait I learned while on the Student Advisory Council was to be open minded about new ideas. By interacting with my peers through Student Advisory Council, I heard all of their different inputs and could pitch them to the group to come up with the best ideas for Titus."
In addition to students being SAC members, Titus also has opportunities for students to be leaders in the Titus Television Studio. Here students can work behind the cameras or at the news desks to produce a daily news program for the school. In these leadership roles, students cited collaboration, problem solving, and improved communication skills as life skills they learned from this leadership experience. When the students move on from Titus, it is evident they will embrace and utilize these skills for their entire lives. One student reported, "The Titus Television studio is a great place to start being a leader; now I can go on to teach others what I learned from this opportunity."
All in all, student leadership helps build and support the school community. When students have the opportunity to show ownership for activities and organize causes that support the school, the dividends are not only reaped by the community, but the student leaders benefit from the experience itself.
The opportunities for teachers to take on leadership roles at Titus are abundant. They have the ability to take an active role in school by representing their grade level on Principal's Advisory Committee, presenting at Parent Professional Development Night, or working collaboratively with our Child Study team. Titus teachers can also represent their building at the district level on curriculum committees and on new academic endeavors. Teachers feel empowered to take on these roles. But why do teachers want this extra responsibility? Why do they want the challenge of leading their peers, student groups, and teams of community members?
One motivator behind this ambition is support from the school administration. Titus’ principal, Stephen Cashman, supports and encourages teachers who are looking to be more involved at the building and/or district level. He listens to ideas, offers suggestions, and lets teachers run. Steve gives unspoken permission to make mistakes realizing that perfection is not the outcome – developing confident teacher-leaders is. He empowers and motivates teacher leaders to take risks because he knows it will only help them develop their presence and style as a leader. He recognizes teachers for their work, and also shares how they are making our school even better. It is when both factors are combined - leadership opportunities and the principal’s support - that teachers willingly share their time and talents for the greater good of the school community.
How do teacher leadership roles impact the school?
There are multiple benefits when teachers engage in leadership roles - one being the impact of building community among the faculty. When teachers have the opportunity to lead, they are able to build new and deeper relationships with other teachers. These positive relationships build trust and promote collaboration. A veteran Titus teacher noted how taking on leadership responsibilities opened opportunities for building relationships with teachers outside her grade level team. "My leadership roles have allowed the time to know our specialists, reading specialists, and counselors in different capacities. These opportunities help bridge the gap between the primary and intermediate teams and deepen our sense of community."
In addition to building relationships within the building, teacher leadership roles help expand a school’s potential when the principal can delegate more responsibilities to the teachers. Our principal utilizes the Principal’s Advisory Committee (PAC) as the voice of the faculty. PAC also facilitates new initiatives with the help of teacher leaders. A new member of Titus’s faculty and a member of the PAC team said, "Having teachers in these roles brings different perspectives to the table. I think there is a more collegial feeling here among the staff and the administration because we are empowered to take on leadership roles. Because our principal delegates many roles and responsibilities to teachers, we are able to do so much more." When teachers are engaged and take on leadership roles at their school, deeper relationships are forged among faculty while expanding the abilities of the school.
Parent leadership in a school leads to something bigger
Everyone has the potential and right to work as a leader (Lambert, 1998). In an elementary school setting, parents are sometimes overlooked as potential leaders. When parents take on leadership roles in a school, the opportunity instills within them a sense of ownership. It allows them to feel like they are contributing to great things that are happening at their child's school. It makes them feel they are part of, "something bigger" as one of our parents shared.
What does it look like?
At Titus Elementary, that "something bigger" is an overwhelming sense of community produced by parents taking on leadership roles in the school. Some of the most visible roles are Home and School Executive Board. As committee chairs, parents can also take on other special projects like heading the school's yearbook committee, organizing family fun nights, and leading after school programs like “IRun for Life” and Young Rembrandts. These roles in the school create a sense of purpose and pride for the parents because they are not only spending time with their child, but they are also actively supporting the school. This desire to help and the feeling of ownership can be infectious. It opens the door for other parents who might be reluctant to volunteer, and it welcomes new parents who may not know how they can become active in the school activities. Parent leadership roles help make all members of the school community feel like they are part of "something bigger." When this level of commitment to building community and pride is established, the benefits to the school are endless.
How does it benefit the school?
Academic success and support for a school’s needs are only two ways parents in leadership roles can benefit a school. When parents take on more responsibility in their school’s parent association, they understand that they are an integral part of the school. The commitment these parents feel toward the school runs deep. They want to see the school succeed, which will support their own child’s success. One of our active Home and School parents shared how her role as a leader contributes to her children's learning. "My involvement at the school also leads to a greater commitment to ensuring my child’s success in school because I understand the need to make school a priority." Parent leadership roles not only serve as the catalyst for parents to get involved with their children's education; they also support the school’s needs. Through involvement in the classrooms, special programs and activities throughout the school, parent leaders get to work alongside teachers and become more aware of the specific needs of a school. These feelings resonate with other parents. One commented, "I found being part of the Home & School Board has given me insight into educator needs and their view on what the school environment and atmosphere should be and strive to be." All of these parent leaders help contribute to the advancement of the school. They all want to be part of "something bigger!"
When thinking about a school as a well-oiled machine, you need all parts functioning at their greatest potential to reap the greatest benefit. As gears engage, one gear turns which causes the other gear to turn in response. They can increase the machine’s potential for power. The same is true in a school community. Teachers model engagement in their school – their leadership leads to school improvement. Parents also model leadership potential when they become committee chairs, members of the Home & School Association, or volunteers in the classroom. Students notice, and they begin to understand the importance of taking ownership in the success of their school. They are more willing to take risks and put themselves out there to make their school a place they can be proud of!
It is when all these parts – students, teachers, and parents – are engaged like the gears in that fine-tuned machine that a school will enjoy true success. This is what it is all about - making your school something you want others to know about and feeling the pride that you had something to do with it.
Lambert, Linda. Building Leadership Capacity in Schools. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998. Print