A Lesson in Leadership

I have a problem child. He is 18 and a handful of trouble. He is about to graduate in May and almost every teacher has had a problem with him at some point in time.

He is trouble. He is sneaky. He is hyperactive. He needs Jesus. Really badly.

So I take it upon myself to be the little bit of Jesus he sees from 12:55 to 3:20 every day. But I did not always have that attitude. I don’t know how many times I’ve wanted him to just go anywhere but my class. I go home and yell the situation to whoever has called me after school and I sit and think about how much better my class and my life would be without him. And then it hit me that no, this kid can’t go anywhere else. He’s in my class for a reason. All of this was put together for a reason.

I started praying for the problem child. A lot. Suddenly, my attitude changed. And soon, his attitude changed. He was calm and complacent and my anxiety about the end of the day ceased to exist. Last week I bought two copies of Dale Carnegie‘s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Ever since I was in ResLife at OBU I’ve wanted to read this book. I’m really big into leadership techniques and for the first time in my career as a teacher I realized that I’m not only teaching them English and critical thinking skills, I’m teaching them how to be leaders. I had dropped the ball on that this year. And for that, I apologized to my student. He’s my aide and was my editor and I had done nothing to teach him how to lead. We can’t expect young people and high school students to be leaders until we equip them. Yes, he will have to respond. But it was my job to equip him for his position.

I gave the student his book on Monday, with an inscription that said how much leadership potential I see in him. He took the book, “Wait, you mean this is mine? Like, legitimately? That just made this that much cooler.” I told him to read chapter one and that I was too and we would talk about it on Friday. “So, this is a book club? We need a super fly name for this. I’m so pumped!”

As hokey as it sounds, he was legitimately excited about reading. So much of his high school career has been him acting out and teachers giving up on him. While these are his final moments at Bethel, I still think he needs someone to pour into him. Every day this last week he has asked me if I’ve read my chapter, “Ms. K, I’ve read two pages. You better be caught up with me by Friday!”

Yesterday, a day before I told him he needed to have the first chapter read, he bounds into my classroom, book tucked close to his chest, “Ms. K! I read my chapter this morning! I want to talk about it. I know we aren’t supposed to talk about it until tomorrow, but I liked it. Actually I hated parts of it, but I liked some of it.”

While my class started their essays, the student and I sat in the back near my desk and chatted about the contents of the first chapter. He didn’t like that the author advertised another one of his books, it seemed braggy, and he didn’t like that the author included an anecdotal story about a father learning that his scolding was actually hurting his child. He said both were too much and unnecessary. We launched into a discussion about evidence and relevance. I explained that Carnegie used the “advertisement” to prove that he’s not just some nobody with no smarts or experience — he knows what he’s talking about. And he used the anecdotal story to prove his point — to prove that he’s not the only on who feels that way.

“But I still don’t think that by keeping criticism from people, that you can lead people that way. I think there are two ways: that way, the nice way, and the way that Machiavelli explains in The Prince.” I kid you not, he brought up The Prince. 

I took a deep breath as his face shifted into that know-it-all look he gets when he thinks he’s trapped me. “Think about this: let’s say you’re a Prince type of leader: you take life by the horns, you show no mercy, you expect things and you expect them now and perfect. Who will be at your side when you die? Anyone? Will they cry in the streets? Will anyone publish a story about you, about how you changed their life and you meant so much to them? Maybe a few of your closest, most power-hungry ‘friends’ will say a few kind words. But the majority of people won’t even care. You lead them, but they’re more than likely happy to see you go away.”

He looked down, “okay that makes sense. Yeah, I see that. But if you lead by example and do it in a more encouraging way, like he used the example of Lincoln and being calm and nice and stuff, more people would care. Yeah, I see it.”

Lightbulb. Hallelujah chorus.

I then divulged how this book is not just something I want him to read so he can learn something, but so I can learn something, too. I explained that I am a leader in this class. I am not a dictator, and I win no real following or attention by yelling and scolding and highlighting the bad. “In fact, how would you have responded if I’d just yelled at you until I’m blue in the face? If I’d just sent you off to some other class and been super mad at you and not try to teach you how to be better?”

He laughed. “I would have left and learned nothing and I wouldn’t have to read this book. And I kind of want to read this…”

Our conversation was interrupted. But I think the first point got across.

In a few weeks, when he’s calmed down some more, I will re-instate him as my editor. He is so smart and so capable, he just needs a push.

I know there are students that fall between the cracks; students I know I scold and look at crossly for not being together enough. But at the end of the day: I’m training young leaders. They may need some tough-love, and I’ve got plenty of that, but what I can give them is what many, many caring people have given me: the opportunity to see potential in myself and the chance to learn how to lead.

True leaders are not born, they are made.




One thought on “A Lesson in Leadership

  1. Pingback: The Posted Paw Volume 1 Issue 3 | Adventures in Teaching

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