The Middle Ground

Elections are a hopeful moment for an adviser, as they mark the first moments of a student’s leadership journey. During our middle school’s elections at the beginning of the school year, adjectives abounded on both slide decks and speeches: Responsible, hard-working, persevering, and solution-oriented were plastered on posters and sprinkled throughout the candidates’ promises. While the leadership descriptors listed were accurate, I wondered at the depth of student leaders’ knowledge and ability to actually exemplify these words. Moreover, I considered whether these students could mentor and inspire those kinds of qualities in one another, which is the ultimate goal of transformational leadership.

When student leaders use inspirational descriptions of leadership, it becomes the work and joy of the adviser to grow them into fruition; however, growth can only happen when councils are offered the chance for regular practice with specific and actionable feedback. When well-meaning advisers over-plan and over-prepare for students, we steal this opportunity from them, relegating middle schoolers to task-completers. Let’s instead leverage even the most mundane council tasks into powerful and purposeful moments of learning.

Planting

In the beginning of the year, the vision, mission, purpose, norms, and leadership training that the adviser helps students cultivate will establish the year’s tone. Adviser actions become the soil, sun, and water. By dictating events or predetermining much of anything, student leadership will undoubtedly drown. The power of leadership is in the process of actively being a leader; therefore, students must have the chance to set their own mission, vision, and norms, and—through guided conversation—land on a meaningful purpose.

“Norming” is one of the most significant actions we can perform as a team because it will set the standards for our group as to what leadership means in action. As the adviser, I might set up the initial structures to have these conversations, but this is with the intention of modeling what a collaborative and successful meeting looks like. We always begin with a connector activity and end with a summary of who will do what by when.

Supporting students might look like leaning into the Council of Distinction guidelines from the National Association of Student Councils (NASC) to lay out a roadmap for success. Defining a student team’s purpose could mean engaging in conversations with site-based administrators to align the council’s goals with the school’s goals. The constitution and bylaws, or the NatStuCo pillars, goals, and vision, are resources that can facilitate student thinking as a starting point. Consider the planting phase as the modeling or direct instruction part of teaching leadership skills.

Planting Tips

  • A strong executive board will lead a strong council. Consider hosting both officer meetings and general meetings separately throughout the year so officers are prepared to lead the whole council.
  • The initial leadership task that a council engages in is really just an opportunity for them to build relationships and understand the expectations. Perhaps host a low-stakes event like a poster-making day to welcome new students or coordinate a staff welcome.
  • Prioritize the leadership skill your council values most as a group. For example, if they identify follow-through as a priority, make sure to praise those actions and use missteps as an opportunity to reflect.

Tending

As the year progresses, advisers must reflect on what scaffolds can be slowly released to encourage and increase student autonomy. This process will involve challenges and some failures as leaders engage in a productive struggle with planning their own general meetings, pep assemblies, spirit weeks, on-campus events, and community involvement. The more chances students have to organize and plan, the more likely that their true leadership skills will emerge.

For instance, we host a schoolwide project, “Unbirthday,” that requires ordering cupcakes, completing paperwork, and communicating with school staff. The project celebrates all students with a birthday in a given month on a single day by calling them to the gym, playing music and games, and giving each student a cupcake from a local cupcake shop. Our vice president expressed an interest in chairing the event but didn’t initially feel prepared to call the local vendor. So, we scripted and then made the first call together.

Discomfort is a regular feeling during growth, and advisers must encourage young leaders to lean into uncomfortable situations. Encourage student leaders to be accountable: make the call, share at the faculty meeting, or complete that paperwork for the very first time. What lies beneath the surface of seemingly ordinary tasks will begin to add up to student efficacy and empowerment. Ultimately, the role of the adviser resembles the role of a gardener who establishes the conditions for growth. Tending might mean shifting from the role of a traditional instructor into that of a collaborator and facilitator.

Tending Tips

  • It’s in the name: “student” council. Students should be creating agendas, sending emails, guiding meetings, and organizing events with an adviser’s sideline support.
  • Continue explicit leadership training by inviting NASC presentations, attending local conferences, or participating in high school-led leadership events, if offered.
  • Mentorship travels in both directions. Plan a trip to a nearby elementary student council to guide a leadership development activity and expose younger students to what opportunities await at the next level.

Blooming

By the end of the year, it will become clear whether advisers have cultivated an ideal environment for leadership seeds to grow based on student independence. Recurring events can offer consistent practice space for enacting a shift of responsibility from adviser to student leader. This blooms into a cycle of mentorship, which is the sunlight for any student activities organization. When we, as advisers, facilitate instead of instruct and collaborate instead of command, we make room for student voice.
Because the last days of student council in middle school are not truly the end but are actually just the beginning of leadership in a high school council, we should be inviting these students to both look forward and backward. Ask executives to draft reflection letters to their incoming officers, organize a bonding activity, and develop officer training for their new counterparts. Offer a workshop where outgoing eighth graders might plan and establish goals for their next year. Not every student will experience the same growth; however, what will have certainly bloomed is their own unique student voice and a reason, will, and purpose to use it.

Blooming Tips

  • Require students to share what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown; leaving a legacy could include letters to incoming students, an eighth-grade closing ceremony, or a parting gift and message for the school community.
  • Intentionally blend the end of one year and the beginning of the next year to build your council culture and respect for mentorship. New leaders will have peers who can support their own leadership journeys, and continuing leaders are enriched.
  • Celebrate in meaningful ways. More than just having pizza at the year’s final meeting, plan for a significant activity like “Touch Someone Who…” or “Positive Paper Plates” (a quick Google search will elucidate these activities).

Student council’s transition from middle school is a milestone, so stop and smell the roses. We might end the year by pulling up those old election slide decks or speeches filled with buzz words—the ones the students thought they understood so well—about creative problem-solving and accountability. What may have started as words will hopefully end as hard-won experience and, ultimately, self-efficacy. With the right mixture of support, challenge, and opportunity, leadership becomes less of a concept and more about a collection of intentional actions. Nurturing students to become empowered student leaders is tantamount to building opportunities for students to practice communicating, planning, and bearing witness to the positive impact that they can have on their school, community, and world. —


Ginny Sautner is a middle level student council adviser and nationally board-certified mentor teacher at Thunderbolt Middle School in Lake Havasu City, AZ. She has more than 17 years of student activities experience in NHS and student councils at the secondary level, and is also a past National Rural Teacher of the Year.

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