Many years ago, as a first year teacher, I stumbled into an incredible opportunity, thanks in large part to an important mentor of mine. I was in my mid-twenties, had spent my first few years out of college leading trips for Outward Bound and was now finishing my first year of teaching Biology at a small boarding school on the coast of Maine. I built a fast friendship with a much more seasoned colleague of mine, an art teacher in his mid-fifties. He was unlike any art teacher I had ever met. He would just as readily have his students painting portraits with oil on canvas as he would skillfully guide them to weld, blacksmith, construct fifty foot sculptures, rebuild old car engines or various other inspiring feats. He had come to teaching later in his career and had a bit of disdain for the limits that others perceived. He and I would sit up at night and talk about creating a program for our 9th graders that engaged them in self-discovery and would be centered on understanding our surroundings and our place within it.
The two of us, and a third inspiring colleague of ours, went on to launch a program we called the Kennebec Journey. We had convinced the administration to allow us to create an entire year of curriculum and programming for the 9th grade; the start of each academic day until sports was ours to design and lead. We began the year by taking a journey, partly on land and partly by boat, from Moosehead Lake in North Central Maine to the ocean, at the mouth of the Kennebec River. We explored the rich history of the native people of the area, the early European settlers who tried and failed to settle the Popham Colony, and those who call the area home today. We learned about the ecosystem of the Kennebec River watershed and read literature from the region. We created a learning experience over the course of the year that existed outside the walls of the classroom more than inside. We had students relying on each other, resolving conflicts, exploring big ideas and developing a sense of confidence, not only in their intellect, but also in their practical abilities and interpersonal skills. We imbedded projects like woodworking and joinery, using only the tools that would have been available to the Popham Colony settlers and had students construct basic cabins that they ultimately slept in as they studied what life was like for those early pioneers. Students helped archeologists excavate artifacts from the Colony itself. They interviewed people in communities up and down the watershed about issues relevant today and about the lasting impact the region’s history.
That year was among the most difficult of my life. For as much success as we experienced, there were equal amounts of failure. At times, we definitely bit off more than we could chew. Simultaneously, it was an incredible success, and the learning that happened has inspired my career since. At some point during that year, I went to a conference and after hearing an inspiring speaker reflect on having spent his career creating innovative educational programs, I managed to get a minute with him afterwards to ask him for advice. All he said was, “make sure you get some sleep.” At the time, I was frustrated by that answer. I wanted something specific to bring back, something that seemed within reach — and sleep did not. I have since come to realize how important that advice was to sustaining a program, rather than just envisioning one. Each of us moved on from that school soon thereafter and the program ended with our departure. It had been something we believed in deeply, but wasn’t an integral part of the school’s vision or its culture.
I reflected on this experience when I first came to Derryfield and was asked to help create a comprehensive leadership program. Whatever we created needed to be integral to the school’s vision, connected to the mission, and integrated into the daily life of the school so that it would live beyond any one of us who envisioned it. By all accounts, Derryfield has done an incredible job of developing students as leaders throughout its 50-year history, and like other great independent schools, Derryfield has always supported a dedicated and talented group of faculty who care deeply about kids. Good people and good programs already existed, so we focused initially on defining our goals and strategically aligning our human resources to meet them.
Early on, we faced a lot of misconceptions about what we were aiming to do, what such a program would look like or achieve, and what it would mean for teachers. We had to make the case to students, parents, and faculty for why leadership development is for everyone. A common refrain was “do we really want a school of 400 leaders?” And we would say, “yes!” It was important to us from the beginning to not just create a leadership program for the 10% of students with titles and designated leadership roles, but rather to create a program that reached 100% of our students and helped them to develop their leadership capacity.
We began with a somewhat vague, but ambitious, idea in a strategic plan. Five years later, Leading for the Common Good is now a robust, comprehensive, and continuously expanding program that exists throughout the school. Every student in the school is engaged in it and a growing number of faculty and administrators help to facilitate its many components. Several of my colleagues have led the way from then until now, most notably Danielle Llewelyn, who was hired in 2015 into a newly created role as the Director of Student Leadership and Service. In addition to helping lead this initiative, she also teaches and advises, but we were able to protect a portion of her role to really focus on clarifying and advancing a vision that was coming increasingly into focus.
How long does it take to build a comprehensive leadership development program in schools? It depends, but it will never be complete. From the onset, we knew we had to make a commitment to this work and advocated for professional development funds to send two or three people to the gcLi Leadership Lab
each year. We ultimately secured those funds by being awarded an Edward E. Ford Foundation grant for our work. I was lucky enough to attend the Leadership Lab
in 2015 with two colleagues and while we were there, we clarified our goals for the first year of program development and committed ourselves to this work. Now, we are five years into building this program and this year marks a major turning point and a massive undertaking in our work. All along the way, we have repeated the mantra that we are “building the plane while we are flying it.” Right away, we offered a three-day, offsite, summer Student Leadership Summit and invited individual students who were recommended by their teachers for living the school’s core values and for having leadership potential. This was an immediate success and we realized the demand for this sort of programming was high. We continued by focusing initially on enhancing and expanding some of our existing programs. We often consciously decided to move forward knowing that we were sometimes creating new challenges, opting to solve those rather than be stuck in inaction. In addition to our many successes along the way, we also frequently felt overwhelmed, discouraged, unknown (even within our community) and have worried about not making the progress we needed to and feared that we might be constructing programs that perhaps we couldn’t sustain in the long run.
So where are we now? 100% of our students engage in leadership development every single year. Every student is now enrolled in our new Leadership, Ethics and Development (LEAD) courses, which are differentiated by grade level. Our existing Independent Senior Project program that historically had approximately 8 students participate each year, now includes every single senior for the final five weeks of the school year. We have developed a Pathways
program in which every student gets personalized coaching on developing greater self-awareness and accessing the many opportunities and resources available to them inside and outside of the school, including courses, clubs and activities, internships, faculty with shared interests, and more. Our service and leadership development opportunities continue to expand and grow and have become a cultural norm. We now have more than 16 faculty teaching the LEAD courses and several more who help facilitate some of our leadership conferences. This has helped to expand faculty awareness and buy in, and helps to bring daily leadership lessons to every corner of the school experience. In many ways, it feels like we have finally gotten where we were going, and yet simultaneously like we are really just getting started.
Head of Upper School
for the gcLi blog