By Matthew Tungate
Earlier this year, Katy Paas was having trouble with her 1st-grade class at Campbellsburg Elementary School (Henry County) being too talkative during activity time. While there is little exceptional in that, what is exceptional is how they responded, she said.
The class wanted her to take away recess and other important behavior rewards.
“Then one of my students raised her hand and said she was feeling sad because we read our class promise each morning and say we will choose to learn and sometimes it will be hard, and right now it’s hard, but we are giving up. That’s not keeping our promise,” she said. “Then another little girl raised her hand, and said she wanted to go to college one day and all of the talking was getting in the way of that.”
The class promise and setting long-term goals are part of the school’s involvement in The Leader in Me (LIM), where students learn behaviors meant to make them successful in school and in life.
“At that point, I had realized my kids had started to own their learning. Are they perfect? No way, but it’s times like these I know LIM has positively impacted their learning,” Paas said.
Based on Stephen Covey’s 1989 book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, proponents say The Leader in Me produces transformational results such as higher academic achievement, fewer discipline problems and increased engagement among teachers and parents. According to FranklinCovey, which markets the plan, 91 schools in 31 Kentucky districts have implemented The Leader in Me.
Every elementary school in Henry County began using The Leader in Me at the beginning of this school year, and the middle school and high school will begin using it next year, Superintendent Tim Abrams said. Abrams, who said the program is funded through a federal Race to the Top grant, said he learned about The Leader in Me at a symposium in Warren County in the spring of 2013.
“I was so impressed with what I witnessed at the elementary and middle school levels in Warren County. Students were goal-setting, taking responsibility for their own learning and leading the programs we observed,” he said.
The Warren County school district was the first in Kentucky to use The Leader in Me when it tested the program in eight elementary schools in spring 2011, Assistant Superintendent Kathy Goff said. Now every high school and middle school are using the program, and the district’s high schools and alternative school are beginning implementation, she said.
Goff said the local chamber of commerce contacted the school district and asked administrators to look into the program.
“Of course, initially we understood why the chamber was interested because of the skills that it teaches students, which go hand in hand with workforce skills,” she said.
Soon administrators learned that The Leader in Me also goes hand in hand with 21st-century and college- and career-ready skills, Goff said. Now, the chamber not only pays for The Leader in Me training and materials, it established an endowment to fund the program into the future.
Goff said the program’s universal principals don’t infringe on any religious or cultural beliefs – an important factor in a diverse district like Warren County.
“This was a language that regardless of how long you’ve been in school or if you were from here or wherever you came from, everybody could understand this language. It was the skills that we needed to be teaching all of our kids,” she said.
A big part of The Leader in Me is giving up control to students, Goff said. In Warren County, that means students lead morning meetings, greet visitors and even host the annual chamber of commerce dinner. They also keep data notebooks, volunteer in the community and learn the “soft skills” important in the workplace, like being on time and meeting deadlines, Goff said.
“And that’s a struggle for teachers because we have been so used to being totally in charge of our classroom and dictating everything that was said and done,” she said. “Now we are listening to kids’ ideas, letting kids take responsibility for activities and events and planning.”
While The Leader in Me changes students, it also changes adults, Goff said. Half of the Warren County school district’s training was devoted to helping adults (anyone who has contact with students) understand and internalize The Leader in Me’s principles, she said.
“It has to be authentic with kids,” she said. “You can’t stand up there and tell kids to be proactive when you’re not proactive.”
Kelly Hall, a 2nd-grade teacher at New Castle Elementary School (Henry County), said following the principles has not been easy and has felt unnatural some of the time.
“This process has forced me to do some serious thinking and reflection on my own about myself, not only as a teacher but as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt and friend,” she said. “This program is NOT one that will be sitting on your desk, stacked on the bookshelf or filed away in a file cabinet. This program is a way of life. It is about becoming your own leader in all areas of your life. Leader in this case does NOT mean boss. The word leader in this case means choosing to think, act and behave in a way that brings fulfillment and satisfaction to your life and others.
“Leader in Me reaches into the hearts and minds of first the staff and then the students and hopefully back to their families,” Hall added. “Leader in Me is not something we do, but something we become.”
CarmaRita Webb Stovall, a 4th-grade teacher at Campbellsburg Elementary, said staff there spent four eight-hour days examining themselves and how they could use the habits in their own lives.
“It was not easy and oftentimes very uncomfortable to change our perspectives and examine every aspect of our lives so deeply,” she said. “However, only when we adopted these habits were we able to consider helping our students do the same.”
Abrams said the elementary schools already are seeing changes in their students.
“I feel the Leader in Me program will be a game-changer for our students. It will lead them to take more ownership and responsibility in their learning, become more proactive and become productive citizens after graduation from high school,” he said. “I think the program will also lead to an improvement of our student’s soft skills, which will make them successful in whatever career they may choose. This initiative will foster more personalized learning throughout the district because students will be taking more responsibility for their learning through a proactive approach.”
Stovall said her students are more willing to take on leadership roles in the classroom and the school this year, and they are using the common language of The Leader in Me when talking with their classmates.
“Academically, there has been a change among students as well. One emphasis of the program is celebrating student successes. As a result, my students are more academically self-motivated to receive praise. Students are also setting academic goals, both for the immediate future and many years down the road. In addition, the children are coming up with their own strategies for achieving these goals. Oftentimes, these strategies refer back to the seven habits outlined in the Leader in Me program,” she said. “Finally, students have developed more confidence in their academic abilities. I believe this confidence directly relates to the children feeling positive about their strengths and having a plan for improving upon their weaknesses.”
Hall said the seven habits espoused in the program are not added on to academics but are incorporated into the curriculum.
“Finding these traits during our lessons is becoming very natural for them. One example: we were reading a fable about the ants and a grasshopper. Without prompting, many of my students were pointing out the fact that the grasshopper was not beginning with the end in mind (habit 2), putting first things first (habit 3) or synergizing (habit 6),” she said. “This led into an entire discussion of what could have happened if those habits were practiced and the consequences if they weren’t.”
Paas said she would encourage teachers to advocate for The Leader in Me and to embrace it if it comes to their school.
“Not only will it benefit you, your classroom and your school, but also it will change the way kids value their education. It encompasses everything teachers want their kids to be: goal-setters, self-motivated, leaders, kind, creative, successful, resourceful and, most importantly, it brings out the good in each child. The Leader in Me has truly impacted my classroom in so many positive ways it’s unreal,” she said. “I know that my kids will never remember everything they do and learn in my classroom, but they can take the habits home with them and apply them to their life, forever.”
Tim Abrams, firstname.lastname@example.org, (502) 845-8600
Kathy Goff, email@example.com, (270) 781-5150