By Nicole Haims Trevor ’91
In 2015, Headmaster Peter Bachmann was interested in adding a component to the school’s human development program that would specifically encourage leadership skills for all students. Just over a year later, the school’s new leadership and mentoring initiative is a multifaceted human development program that begins in 8th grade and progresses through 11th grade, using class time, retreats and trips, along with voluntary coaching and panel discussions, to help students identify a unique, personal path toward leadership. The journey that led to the full development of the curriculum is as long as the school’s commitment to leadership as a teachable skill.
Back in the late 1990s, parent and trustee Jim Ellis spoke at Senior Horizons. Bachmann remembers someone asking Ellis about the role of leadership in the curriculum at the Marshall School of Business, where Ellis is dean.
“He said, ‘We’re training leaders. That’s our mission. We don’t want successful business people, we want successful business leaders.’”
According to Bachmann, that was a lightbulb moment. He realized that he needed to move forward with greater intention. By 2002, the junior retreat introduced the concept of senior leadership to the rising senior class, and it remains a staple of the retreat to this day. In the years since, Prep students have expanded their leadership potential exponentially.
“Prep kids learn how to be proactive. One reason they are successful in college, even in large, impersonal universities, is that they learn how to make large settings small,” says Bachmann. “They do that by taking initiative, whether by knocking on a professor’s door or forming a club in their dorm. I want to make sure that we are deeply intentional about the way we foster these capacities starting when they are young.”
With 58 clubs, sports, a variety of visual and performing arts activities and the Big Three leadership groups (Student Senate, the Athletic Council on Leadership and the Student Community Action Council), there is no shortage of opportunities for students to be involved in student life. A recent study of student activities at Prep reflects that more than 95% of our seniors are leading and mentoring others by the time they enter their final year of high school. One challenge, however, has been that while most students are participating in leadership activities, many don’t receive leadership training until their junior year, too late to be an optimal senior leader.
“We had to create a scope and sequence as we would in any academic subject, providing opportunities for leadership training and discussion at age-appropriate moments,” Bachmann says.
CREATING A CURRICULUM
Bachmann called on leadership consultant Laura Campobasso of Progressive Consulting Services to help establish a curriculum based on Prep’s greatest needs. To begin, Campobasso interviewed administrators at several colleges. Through 100 conversations, she identified some striking trends. Colleges reported that freshmen from across the nation were experiencing increased challenges managing conflict, managing time, communicating and problem solving. Campobasso incorporated this information into her development of the program’s curriculum.
Dean of Student Life Barrett Jamison, who is also the 9th Grade Dean and Student Senate supervisor, was thrilled with the possibility of additional leadership training for all students. His deep cultural knowledge, combined with Campobasso’s reams of research and years of leadership training experience, have made them a perfect team to develop the program.
Campobasso emphasizes that the scope and sequence can fit on a single sheet of paper, but both she and Jamison are adamant that the program was created for all students, even those who don’t see themselves as leaders. She and Jamison created a simple framework: 1. Anyone at Prep can be a leader, depending on the situation and circumstances, and 2. Leaders at Prep exist regardless of title or position.
Starting with this set of values, the training team motivates students by class year. At the 8th grade spring retreat, students have a guided discussion about what success looks like and what roles they want to have on campus. In another activity, students are asked to discuss Prep’s 10 leadership characteristics and identify which ones most resonate with them. In subsequent trainings, students evaluate and hone leadership capabilities. For students who are part of the Big Three, there are sessions on effective meetings, facilitation, listening and team building.
BUILDING A FLEXIBLE FOUNDATION
The leadership curriculum adds a layer of mindful intention to students’ everyday activities, treating leadership as both a mindset and a system of habits. Students must consciously reflect on their leadership styles and impact.
“Eighth graders ask, ‘Can I be a leader and not say anything?’ The answer is no. One of the core skills you need to have is initiative, and that implies action,” Jamison says. This idea harkens back to the original idea of Jim Ellis, to be intentional, to take initiative.
From Campobasso’s perspective, “A leader knows when they’re engaging in a group that they will have an impact in that group. The goal is to make the group better and more effective. With these skills, each student learns that they can have the desired impact.”
At the 8th grade retreat, students learn the lessons almost immediately. Charlie McCormick ’20 entered Prep in the fall of his 8th grade year, joining an already formed class. He was heavily influenced by his leadership experience on the retreat and in his 9th grade training sessions.
“Taking advice about time management for high school was a game changer for me,” he says.
SHATTERING IDEAS THAT DON’T SERVE STUDENTS
Early on in the program, students’ preconceived notions are challenged.
“Students come to the table thinking a leader is a position or a title. They might say, ‘I’m the class president, I’m the team captain; I’m therefore a leader,’” says Jamison. “This definition is limiting, and it’s not how we view leadership at this school. When we meet with them, we emphasize that they need to take that concept, imagine putting it in a box and throwing it away.”
Working together, small groups debate and rank leadership traits. Each group prioritizes its list differently. Through discussion, students discover that while some people may have natural leadership talents, all of the qualities can be developed by any student.
Some students make immediate connections with what they’re learning in other classes or with what might be happening in their own lives. McCormick, for example, tied leadership to a history lesson on Confucian thinkers.
“Mengzi believed that all people were intrinsically good, but without proper nurturing, they would be corrupted. I think it’s kind of the same way for leadership,” he says. “Everyone has the potential to be a leader, but it takes nurturing to achieve this potential. I would define leadership at Prep as stepping out and doing something that you wouldn’t normally do.”
Experiences and fun are built into the program, just as at a class trip or retreat, to make learning stick. In a session for sophomores about active listening and body language, students worked in groups of two. While one student tried to tell the other something important, the other student listened while playing with his or her phone. In another exercise, students acted out emotions for one another. The rest of the group had to read the nonverbal cues to understand what the actor was trying to convey. The takeaway from both of these activities: listening is not just not talking; it is expressing nonverbally that you are listening. Students realized people who listen better make better leaders because they build trust.
“It’s very practical, very behavioral,” says Bachmann of the program. “Laura’s question is always, ‘What are you doing? How are you practicing this skill?’”
MENTORING AND MODELING
Campobasso and Jamison finish each other’s sentences, share credit and put nervous students at ease. They both agree that the other is essential to the program’s success, recognizing a level of partnership between them and an understanding that they are modeling the behavior they want students to emulate.
Now a 9th grade commissioner in Student Senate, McCormick says he seeks wisdom from older students wherever he can find it and continues to make connections through his academic program and his extracurricular activities. As a freshman on the football team, he admired seniors Justin Yu ’17 and Christian Yeghnazar ’17 for different reasons. Justin, he says, was a constant presence after practice when Charlie wanted to do additional work. Christian was a voice in the huddle reminding the team to keep on fighting when they were behind. He clearly recognizes authentic leadership all around him, seeing in others the traits in which he’s been trained.
Bachmann recognizes the program’s success, as well.
“It’s great to see how responsive the students are. Look at the 8th and 9th graders. They are just wide open to it; they’re really enthusiastic,” he says.
Reinforcement activities are built in to the leadership program, and concepts are revisited as students develop and progress through high school. There is even an online component, which will be getting off the ground in the spring.
“The outcome is completely individualized by design,” says Campobasso. “As a student, you graduate with a solid awareness of who you are as a leader and what you need to continue to do. Students will recognize themselves as leaders when they say, ‘I had the confidence to go after anything I wanted, and I felt comfortable that I could learn what I needed to succeed.’”