More often than not, I have heard and seen the word ‘leadership’ being thrown around in conversations without really getting deeper into what the word actually means for different people. We, as teachers, also want to teach leadership skills to our students. We define it for them, and expect them to follow the course of action we set for them. Many a times, when I have been teaching leadership in my classes, I have asked students about what the term means, and they give me the regular definitions about motivation, role models, hard work, respect, perseverance and so on. However, I wasn’t satisfied with these definitions given by students. In my view, if we want the students to think for themselves, then why not let them create their own definitions of leadership? This became my motivation for changing a few things around in the leadership classes with our 9th graders.
We started the class by reflecting on what the students learnt about leadership and themselves by doing the leadership projects with us last year. They were able to articulate how they seen themselves and their peers grow during this time. In the following class, instead of looking at the popular leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther, Malala and so on, I decided to share with them the stories of unsung heroes around us- and picked consciously some stories of cisgendered and transgendered women from different classes of society. The students focused on the impact they had on their society and how they faced challenges within their families and communities. These stories seemed more relatable to the students’ experiences since they discussed about how they also have faced similar challenges, being girls, in their lives.
From there, we went on to think about what leadership actually means for them and others. The students were given readings and quotes on what leadership means for different people. They were asked to identify the perspectives they agreed with, and to identify the words that they would like to include in their own definitions. The next step for them was to start writing their own definitions of leadership. It was also told to them that these definitions will be evolving throughout the year as they would be evolving and growing too. This option of changing definitions is essential since it comes from the belief that people change, and so do their beliefs. The students came up with their personal definitions of leadership which will be used this year to continue our discussions about the beliefs and actions of leaders. The hope is that these definitions will guide their actions as leaders in the coming future.
I think creating definitions has been essential on many levels: developing an independent perspective on leadership by analysing different definitions, exploring their own personal values to develop integrity, developing empathy and tolerance by acknowledging that different definitions and perspectives exist, and to appreciate language. In my view, it can be a very powerful exercise and experience to give the students the decision-making and critical thinking skills to be able to reject and accept different perspectives to suit their needs.
The students enjoyed working towards their definitions and wanted to learn more about different leaders. They are keen on knowing more about women and transgender leaders who have impacted their and other’s’ lives by bringing change in their communities. We will continue to learn and dig deeper into what leadership looks like, and how to be an effective leader who brings a positive and sustainable change in the world.
P.S. You can find some of the definitions written by the students in the photographs below. Please note that some of these definitions might change in the coming few months as they continue to learn and grow.