Beyond vision to action: Student leadership, intercultural learning and service

By Rebecca Butterworth and Lydia Eckstein, Inter-Community School, Zurich, Switzerland

Setting the Scene

“I experience learning as coercive.” When one of our student ambassadors made this statement at a leadership conference about the future of learning, it gave us good reason to pause. As committed educators we believed that students were at the heart of our decision-making. How could this be that learning was coercive? Were we truly that controlling?

According to this student, yes. Choice in what and how to learn is limited, and even more so as students move through the system and sit final examinations. This student was articulating that her experience of schooling reflected a top-down power structure where the adults ‘called the shots’ and the opportunity for truly democratic conversations about learning between adults and students were limited.

On the flipside, we have witnessed students enacting this top-down power structure even as they seek greater voice in their education. We have all encountered, at some point, Student Council elections that mirror the worst (albeit in a milder fashion) of democratic election campaigns: election speeches and debates that slide into personality contests and personal attacks on the opposition’s ability to speak for the majority. Speeches that are all style and little substance, no matter how carefully engineered the process is by teachers. Election outcomes that reflect the power of charismatic leadership and promises that cannot be realized. I think we have also all experienced the most well-intentioned Student Councils getting caught in the bottleneck of their own structure, where action is channelled through a conventional hierarchy (the President/s having most direct access to the adult leadership team in the school) and therefore the efficacy of the Student Council is limited by its ability to enact meaningful change quickly.

The irony is that Student Councils often play out the power dynamics that actually prevent students from having an authentic voice in their learning. Moreover, we teachers are complicit in this process by re-creating student leadership structures that reflect a conventional understanding of leadership. 

Building Leaders for the Future

International schools have long catered for the children of the internationally mobile and influential. The concept of building leaders for an unknown future is hardly a new one, but it is one that deserves focussed attention given the current backdrop of global politics and ethical action. How can we ensure that our students are not seduced by the path of key political figures who have gained success whilst showcasing values that are in direct contrast to those that we value in international education? How can we establish leadership systems that support ethical and moral leadership and inspire a sense of shared humanity? How can we equip our students with the intercultural, interpersonal understanding to pull away from the egocentric and be drawn towards the inclusive? How can we help students feel empowered to be agents of change within education? In short, how can we promote leadership for a better world?

When we reflect on the values that we celebrate within international education, we should pause and consider whether our student leadership systems serve to enhance these chosen values or work against them. At our school we actively encourage student participation through leadership programmes. As noted above, though, we have discovered that through hierarchical leadership models we inadvertently promoted individualistic, superficial virtues that were guided by a desire for status and power. How often do we hear in our communities that the position of “President / Vice-President” looks “wonderful” on the college application form and serves to open doors to the future? Sadly, it is rare to hear how “wonderful” it is that this positional leadership role serves and unites community members in building a better future. Schools create positional leadership systems to build leadership capacity, but the paradox is that the values that these systems promote contradict our philosophies of inclusive leadership, intercultural understanding and community engagement. As we reflected upon our student leadership structures we realized that we needed to create spaces that value different forms of leadership and therefore different ways of being in the world.

Hierarchical leadership that focuses on status and position is exclusive, divisive and superficial. However, if we recognise that leadership is a collaborative process whereby the learner develops a sense of efficacy through an enhanced understanding of their own individual values, their group values and their community values, then not only do we begin to align our international school values with our practices, but we also extend leadership to all students. This is where it gets interesting!

Messy Leadership

"To me, leaders and bosses were the alpha types. Leaders are the big and bold men and women who enjoy being center stage. People who like to hold forth; people confident in their pronouncements; people comfortable with other people; people other people want to be around. People very different from my quiet loner self." 

"Yet all the things I beat myself up about were actually what the research says makes introverted leaders successful. We take the time to think through where we want to lead an operation next. We ask questions and make sure we truly understand a situation when we’re called on to make a decision. We empower others to be leaders in their own right. And we know it isn’t about us but about our team." - Tamar Charney

Tamar Charney’s words are powerful because they articulate a journey of self-realization and individual and group empowerment. Her words also imply that leadership is multidimensional and shared. As voiced by Justin Trudeau, “Leadership should be focused on extending the ladder of opportunity to everyone”. In this case, leadership needs to get a little messy!

In our Secondary School we decided to embrace the messiness of leadership as a way of de-stablizing traditional ideas of positional power and the notion that “[l]eaders are [only] the big and bold men and women who enjoy being center stage.” We wanted all students (including those quiet leaders like Tamar Charney) to feel valued and find their voice in change processes. We wanted our students to feel connected to and engaged in their school community and to know how to work together for a better world. The notion that learning was ‘coercive’ was the antithesis of what we aspired to, so authentic agency was key. We did away with positions on student council and instead invited all students to participate in leadership groups; it was a self-selecting process rather than a personality contest. We took the time to work with these students on different models of leadership to support them in articulating their own vision of inclusive and ethical leadership. Instead of believing that only the bold and confident could lead, we introduced students to notions of situational and strengths-based leadership. In this sense, students realized that depending on the context, different leadership strengths are needed and therefore nobody can effect change on their own!

Now the students who have gone through this process are talking about how to make sure all students are involved in conversations about transforming learning and their experience of school. They want student learning committees and they see it as the responsibility of all students to take part in the changes they want to see within and beyond school.

This is all about distributing leadership and building efficacy. It is also about building the understanding that we’ll need to compromise - we’re a community of voices that need to be heard and work together. It is not all about what “I want” but about what “we need” and how best we can achieve this. It is about “looking in” at ourselves, understanding who we are and what we need, and then “looking out” to see what I can bring to my community either as a bold, quiet, patient or charismatic leader. Ultimately, it is messy and we can’t be certain where the conversation will go once we empower all of our students. However, it can disrupt the idea that power resides in one individual at the expense of the diverse voices that can work together to realize a shared vision. Hopefully it will reinforce philosophies of inclusive leadership, intercultural understanding and community engagement.

Lydia Eckstein is a multi-lingual TCK who has spent the last 20 years working as a teacher and coordinator in international schools in London, Istanbul, Chiang Mai and Switzerland. In addition to her work as coordinator of MYP Service Learning, Round Square and Self-Taught Languages, Lydia is managing a Character Education project at the Inter-Community School in Zurich. Experiential learning, character education and student leadership form the heart of her day-to-day life working with students and administrators.
Rebecca is currently the Secondary Principal at the Inter-Community School, Zurich. This is Rebecca’s 5th year in Zurich and prior to Switzerland she lived for 9 years in Beijing. As an Assistant Principal in charge of Curriculum and an MYP Coordinator at the Western Academy of Beijing, Rebecca regularly led staff in-services focused on developing intercultural understanding through the written, taught and assessed curriculum. Similarly as an IB workshop leader and team visitor, one of Rebecca’s key roles was supporting teachers and school leaders with unpacking notions of global citizenship and its realization in practice, especially through the IB Learner Profile. More recently, her interest as a school Principal has been how to build more authentic opportunities for student voice and leadership that cultivate the attitudes necessary to be compassionate and engaged citizens of the world.

Further reading and references:

  • Covey, Stephen R. Principle-Centred Leadership. Free Press: New York,1991.
  • Hargreaves, Andy. Boyle, Alan. Harris, Alma. Uplifting Leadership: How Organisations, Teams and Communities Raise Performance. London: John Wiley and Sons, 2014
  • Hart, R. Children’s Participation from Tokenism to Citizenship. Unicef Innocenti Research Centre: Florence, 1992.
  • Higher Education Research Institute, compiler. A Social Change Model of Leadership Development. HERI: California, 1996.
  • Rath, T. Conchie, B. Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams and Why People Follow. Gallup Press: New York, 2008.
  • Seligman, M. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. Atria: New York, 2011.
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