Leadership [lee-der-ship] – n—the act or ability to lead, guide, or direct a group
I recently finished An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. The novel, at least for me, was a page-turner. I found myself engaged in the protagonists, Laia and Elias. Tahir crafts rich, full, round characters. Their development makes sense. Their choices, while difficult, make sense because of the people they are becoming. I found myself rooting for them and cringing when I thought they were making a bad decision. While not always likeable, they are believable.
The novel has strong plotting as well, which is the second attribute needed to be a page-turner. I found myself so completely immersed in the action of the plot that, at times, it was difficult to return to reality. This was quite clear when I had to put the book down (during scene that was a battle to the death) to meet friends for Sunday brunch. I had to remember that fighting for my space in line at the omelet station wasn’t quite the same thing that Elias was dealing with in the book sitting in my family room on my coffee table. While the novel is far more complex than this with multiple plot lines, I am going to reduce it to its simplest form. Elias, a Mask, has been named as a competitor in the Trials. The winner of the Trials will be crowned Emperor. The second will be the Emperor’s Blood Shrike. The losers will be killed. The tasks at the trials focus on courage, cunning, strength, and loyalty. One trait is the focus of each trial. These traits are important for leading the empire.
Concurrent with reading An Ember in the Ashes, I was part of the Book Love Summer Study Session discussion group about leadership and ways that teachers are and can be leaders within their school community. It seems like leadership was my word for the week. As I thought about leadership, I thought about adult leadership as well as student leadership.
I often provide feedback to parents that sound like this: [Insert your child’s name here] is emerging as a leader within the class. Or [Insert your child’s name here] is a leader within our classroom. Until this week, examining teacher leadership as well as the character’s leadership from the novel, that I never stopped to parse out what being a student being a leader in my classroom means, how it is modeled, and how it is received.
When I think about leadership within my ELA classroom, I find it takes many forms since we work in many different ways in class. Sometimes students work individually, sometimes in small groups, and sometimes as a whole class. This means that first and foremost students need to learn how to advocate for themselves. What do they need? How can I (or the class) provide them with what they need? How do I create an environment where they feel comfortable advocating for themselves?
It also means that students need to be able to take risks. Those risks might be working with a student or students they don’t know very well. It might be speaking up in a small group or guiding a group discussion. It may be speaking up during a whole class discussion (even one time) or it may be creating the discussion questions for the whole class discussion. Unless a child is a natural leader, students can’t take risks if they don’t know how to or feel comfortable advocating for themselves. Guess what? Teachers won’t take risks if they don’t feel comfortable advocating for themselves. It just that simple if people feel they have agency they will come forward to lead.
So what do we do to help kids learn how to advocate for themselves and perhaps have a sense of agency in the classroom? Typically, modeling is the answer. However, our kids don’t sit in department meetings with us or pitch a seemingly “crazy” idea to our principals or other administrators. They are not privy to the myriad emails that fly back and forth between colleagues over the course of a week. They are not with us when we’re sitting in a graduate class or professional development or conferences. Most of them don’t think of us outside of the four walls of the classroom or perhaps the school. One student, a young man I taught in both seventh and eighth-grade, and I were having a conversation during a tutorial period this past spring. In the middle of the conversation, he stopped. Just stopped dead and stared at me. This was unsettling for many reasons, one being that he was never shy about expressing himself and was quite gregarious. His eyes got really wide, and he said, “Wait, Dr. Schmidt, you had to go to school to get your doctorate right?” I replied that I did have to go to class. To which he wanted to know when I went to classes. I shared that I left school drove from school to the university (an hour away), took my classes, and then returned home. This led to more questions. How many nights did I do this? When did I do my homework? When did I write my dissertation? How did I get all of this done and provide feedback on all the work the students turned in? After I gave him my answers (one-two nights a week, weekends-all weekend, 4:30 – 6:00 AM weekdays and weekends, school and after school). He looked at me with wide eyes and said, “You must not have had time to do anything else except school. That means this was really important to you.” My simple “Yeah” was probably an understatement. But it elucidates two points: 1) Our students have no idea what goes into our job and 2) they have no idea what we’re willing to do to excel in our fields.
And now you’re saying, but you haven’t answered the question – what do we do to help them? I think we lead by example. I think they need to hear things about our professional writing. It might be a statement that begins a mini-lesson by saying something like, “When I write, I have trouble concluding my work, and it starts to ramble.” It might be writing beside them. It might be sharing a fear of public speaking before you head off to present at a conference or lead a workshop. We can’t take them with us in every facet of our professional lives, but I think there are aspects of leadership in professional lives that we can share with our students, provided it connects to what we’re teaching.
I think our students learn to advocate for themselves by doing it. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to create communities of learners where ideas are valued. We need to learn to listen to our students. Who’s doing most of the talking? Listening to recordings of lessons and conferences as I transcribed them for dissertation data was eye-opening. Letting students lead conferences makes them take the lead in the conversation. Lucy Calkins’ “How’s it going?” is usually my lead. However, I’ve found that as students make the shift from receiver of knowledge to creator of the knowledge, they begin the conferences. They tell me exactly what they need need from me. Those conferences, whether reading or writing, tells students their words, their thoughts, their questions matter. It’s probably the single biggest reason I make my students sit down with me and talk about their writing. They don’t get the choice of sharing their google doc with me and having me read it and leave comments on it. They have to figure out what they need help with and sit down and talk to me. The conversation often leads from one question to a clarifying question to a “Try it and come back. I’ll take a look at it.” As they find their voice, I find them leading others.
I also think the books they read help them with their leadership. This week after Chelsea Clinton mentioned A Wrinkle in Time at the DNC, I’ve seen more than a few articles pop up about the book. However, one “The Girls Who Read Madeline L’Engle” focused on Meg Murray as a strong female protagonist and lessons she taught girls. Meg popped up in our brunch conversation today. One of my male friends at the table shared how he embraced Meg’s strong character, her bravery, her smarts. I’ve also found that (at least this past year) my boys have embraced L’Engle much more than my girls. Strong characters and leadership brings me back to An Ember in the Ashes. When the book began Laia and Elias had no idea who they were. Elias is getting ready to dessert Blackcliff Academy, and Laia is watching her family die in a raid conducted by Masks. They are adrift and alone. Throughout the course of the novel and because of the situations they find themselves in, they realize they do have the strength, talent, and intelligence to get themselves (and others) out of the life threatening situations they are in.
As teachers we have an obligation to lead by example and to put books with strong characters (my bias says strong female characters especially strong female characters of color) in our kids’ hands. The message these books send to kids tells them even though leadership may be scary, they can do it. Ultimately, we have an obligation to listen to our students. An Ember in the Ashes focuses not only on a strong female protagonist, but it also explicitly focuses on the characteristics of good leadership.
How did I learn about An Ember in the Ashes? Two of my boys recommended the book to me. One recommendation took place in a reading conference. Instead of waiting for my questions, he sat down and told me that I had to read this book and then preceded to tell me all the reasons I would love it, many of those reasons connected with other books he knew I read and liked. Even though I finished the book over the summer, he will get an email from me telling him how much I liked the book and thanking him for his recommendation. When our students learn their voices have power, there’s nothing they can’t achieve. Part of being a leader is being secure enough with oneself to give others a chance to lead. Isn’t that what we all should be doing?