Bold Leadership from Young Leaders
Two months ago, Steve Snell, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum for the school district in Hutto, Texas, wrote for advice about technology in school.
I explained that for students to use technology to its full potential, they must feel a compelling need to research, evaluate, use and share with the world. In other words, they must do work that matters. Soon, we were planning our latest Choose2Matter LIVE event in Hutto.
Our previous events had between 350 and 700 participants. But Hutto has nearly 6,000 students in seven schools, and Steve didn’t want anyone left out. Many of Hutto’s residents work at technology companies in nearby Round Rock and Austin. Hutto is growing rapidly again after taking a harsh hit in the 2008 recession, and Steve wanted Choose2Matter to be a catalyst for innovation in the district.
We began to noodle over permutations of live events at multiple schools, coupled with video conferencing to other schools. But then Steve read my Switch and Shift post “How Big is Your Brave?” His next phone call began with “our brave is getting really big.” Steve’s team wanted all 6,000 students in the district at the high school for two days.
Steve discussed it with Superintendent Doug Killian, who said with a smile, “You know this is the sort of thing folks like us get fired for.” But neither of them opted for a less incredibly bold approach. This was Texas, after all.
We all went to work to figure out how to conduct a smooth event eight times larger than any we had held before. We tailored our presentation to accommodate the reality that we could not be “hands-on” with most of the students. We scheduled meetings with the whole community for the night before the event.
We hoped that 40 student leaders would show up for the planning meeting, and were astonished to see more than 300 bold faces staring at us. This was not the last time these bold young leaders would amaze us.
We then met with teachers, and finally the whole community. Upping the “bold” quotient even further, we invited Robbie Parker, father of Emilie, one of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting victims, without sufficient time to consider how his message might mesh with ours. Yet, his words were the crescendo of the evening.
Robbie said that his proudest moment as Emilie’s father came when others told him how much she had touched their lives. He told the audience this:
“I want you to leave as a parent here tonight determined to help your children achieve what they can with the talents and the abilities that they have…it is your responsibility to hone those things so one day your child will not only be proud of what they accomplished, but how they’ve touched the lives of others.”
The following morning, the elementary and middle school classes arrived to join the high school students on a mission to change the world. Many students went right to work, and accomplished a great deal. But others had questions, and it was difficult to communicate responses throughout the building. Some of the high school students opted-out and began to roam the halls.
As the lunch periods ended and students had to change locations, chaos began to take hold. The schedule was cut a bit short, the buses to the lower schools departed early, and the adults gathered to regroup and plan for a more successful day two. Many suggested leaving the lower schools on their home campuses the following day, and other “downsizing” steps.
But there was one bold group that would not hear of this: the student leaders.
They sat respectfully on the floor, more than 100 strong, with most of their hands in the air. They told us that they had been startled by the insight, ingenuity and fierceness that the younger students brought to the event, and they did not want to hold a second day without them. They also made several concrete recommendations that went against our instincts. The adults decided that we should not aspire to liberate student genius and then ignore their heartfelt recommendations. We adopted them all.
We began to share with each other the scores of happy Tweets and updates and texts and emails from students and parents about the day and realized that a great deal of good had been happening while we focused on the few problems.
Meanwhile, the student leaders were organizing themselves into five units, with a series of text messaging chains connecting all of them.
The following day, the core message of my opening presentation was that the opposite of brave was not cowardly; it was comfortable. The students quickly named the space set aside for the opt out students the “comfort room.” As I continued a presentation intended to inject new energy into the event, I was interrupted several times by technical glitches, and my face surely reflected frustration and concern. But then I began to hear loud whispers from the bold young leaders: “It’s okay, you don’t have to talk any more, we got this.”
I soon stopped talking, and you know what? They did have it.
We went out into the halls to find a well-oiled, life-changing, world-changing machine. Student leaders were dispersed evenly throughout the building, communicating and quickly resolving every problem that arose. They lined up teams of students by the dozens to present their ideas as scores more sat listening. All of the adults upped their game, and the second day exceeded the wildest dreams I ever had for Choose2Matter. Much of the afternoon was a blur as group after group asked me to visit their space to share their ambitious, world-changing plans.
The administration and members of the school board were elated, as were the scores of parents who shared the excitement their students expressed upon arriving home.
That night, we held a celebratory dinner with members of the Hutto City Council, who asked about making Hutto the first Choose2Matter city. The next day, we did a tour of the elementary schools to celebrate our achievements. We told the students about the city’s interest and asked them how we could possibly train 20,000 residents to change the world. Every single student thrust their arms in the air and shouted, “We’ll help you! We can train them!”
We all learned much from the experience, and we can’t wait to conduct our next event at East Greenwich High School in Rhode Island in three weeks. Tomorrow morning, I will have a kick-off call that will begin, “There are no limits to what we can accomplish, but first we need to train some bold student leaders…”
Image credit: paha_l / 123RF Stock Photo