Living Leadership in the Lower School (L3)

Responsibility: I know what I need to do and I do it.

In the past, I have written about the work a cohort of Lower School teachers at Agnes Irwin (of which I was a member) undertook to think about what leadership looks like in lower school girls.

I have written about Lilly, the PreK student who helped us understand that leadership lies within all of our girls.

During the course of the last academic year, we worked hard to define the traits, values and skills of a leader. We asked our own girls to contribute to the definition. Much like what the research suggests, kindergartners think of leaders as the person at the front of the line. Third grade girls have a different perspective. My favorite quote: “Leadership means doing the right thing; when no one is looking or when it is not popular.”

During this school year, our Lower School is piloting the program we designed and called “L3: Living Leadership in the Lower School.”

The title is not accidental, or a way for us to create alliteration for alliteration’s sake; L3 is a program that is fully integrated into the life of the Lower School and asks that all girls “live into” their leadership potential. The details of the program are too numerous to mention in this format. Suffice it to say that our Lower School teacher-cohort found varied and creative ways to make the concepts we valued most attainable and clear for each and every girl.

Our fundamental belief is that at the core of leadership lay traits, skills and values that can be developed in each person. We believe that if our girls are reminded, not in isolated classroom opportunities, but in every aspects of their daily routine with us, how they can exercise those skills, and then choose to develop those traits – that each of our girls will leave our Lower School a leader.

Let’s, for example, take the trait of resiliency. There is no question that a strong leader must possess this trait and must face life’s challenges with the optimism that allows him or her to know that there is always a way to move beyond those challenges. Carol Dweck has written about “mindset;” Paul Tough has written about How Children Succeed. Compelling evidence suggests that without resiliency, we cannot grow into our full potential.

L3 has identified this concept of resiliency as one of its core values. Teachers use a bouncy ball to explain the concept and record the resilient behaviors of their girls. They use books (such as “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” by Judith Viorst) as a way to discuss how the girls themselves have recovered from bad experiences.

We host leadership assemblies, have assembled leadership toolkits and have identified leadership opportunities in every academic endeavor. In short, the program has been successful beyond my wildest expectations. The girls, themselves, have embraced the concepts and started to use the language of leadership in their daily interactions. A kindergarten teacher commented on how she overheard one girl, prone to quickly giving into frustration, telling her friend: “I am not going to get upset, I am going to try and be resilient.”

It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Here is why, I believe, we got this one so right.

1. We used the Participatory Action Research (PAR) process, led by the inimitable Dr. Darlyne Bailey, Dean of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College, to investigate how we might embed leadership development in our Lower School. PAR allows for equitable participation, values each voice, and meets cohort members “where they are.” It does not presume expertise. It allows for careful examination of relevant topics, culture, goals and dreams.

2. Lower School teachers, in my experience, are some of the most creative people around. And by this, I don’t mean that they are good at crafts projects only, which, of course, they are. I mean that they must (daily) take that which is truly conceptual (for example, a letter is a symbol for a sound, but in some cases that sound can vary. Think about how many ways we use the letter “e” in our language!) They must make the conceptual accessible for children who are still in a fairly concrete stage of development. They cannot do this without finding creative ways to do so. Therefore, inviting Lower School teachers to be part of the project was, by far, the most important decision we made.

3. All teachers understand what works best in their classrooms. Our cohort created a program that allows for teachers to make L3 “their own.” One teacher has done this by using the L3 to set goals for each of her students. Another has affixed all of the concepts on her classroom wall, so she can quickly remind students of the behaviors that connect to the concepts.

4. As mentioned above, we felt it was important to fully integrate the program into the daily routine. We did not want to create a curriculum that would have necessitated a new space in the schedule. Schedules are already overcrowded. We also believed that the leadership lessons we wanted to convey should become part of girls’ identities, and identities are not formed in 30 or 40 minute chunks.

5. Finally, having a group of teachers lead the charge on this initiative has created a peer-to-peer implementation network. The teachers who were part of the PAR cohort have become L3 experts, supporting their colleagues in shaping young girl leaders.

L3 is a program of which I am simply proud to be a part. It is being updated, constantly, to best meet the needs of our young girls. It has become an important component of daily life in our Lower School – and an important building block in the leadership identity of our students.

And by the way, Lilly, now a kindergarten student, came back to the PreK classroom just this past week. Her job? To teach a new crop of little girls how to write “Ho Ho Ho”on the board.

Mariandl Hufford is the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Girls and Academic Affairs at The Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont, PA. The Center was launched in 2011 and since then has become an integral part of the school community and beyond.


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