Identify, Listen, and Empower

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Forming students as Catholic leaders

By Sr. Brittany Harrison, FMA

Every teacher has “that student” whose rare absence causes a sigh of relief when attendance is taken. But could such students be hidden gifts, with the capacity to lead their peers and advise their teacher? St. John Bosco, in his work with street children, quickly realized that the most vocal and difficult of his hooligans often possessed untapped or wrongly directed leadership skills. How did he capture their hearts and direct them to using their powers for good? He turned the classroom from a repressive environment that views the educator as a hierarchical dictator to one of collegial, family collaboration, with a teacher who identifies leaders, listens to their ideas, and empowers them to effect meaningful change.

Identify leaders

In every young person, a point of goodness is accessible, and it is the primary duty of the educator to discover that sensitive cord of the heart so as to draw out the best in the young person. … Education is a matter of the heart. (St. John Bosco)

No matter how difficult a student may be, every student has a “weak point” for goodness. St. John Bosco encourages us to befriend our most difficult students and recognize in them an opportunity to identify and foster a strong peer leader. Often, difficult students battle self-esteem issues. Their desire for negative attention is a misdirected desire for affirmation. Students who feel unloved in other areas of their lives will often operate from the mentality of “I am unlovable, and no one can love me.” If an educator perseveres in showing respect for these students, even when their behavior is unlovable, soon the students will be confronted with the possibility that “someone loves me,” which is a life-changing experience for anyone. The respect and esteem of their teachers can help these students to discover and foster their gifts and become very successful in life as leaders among their peers, and later in the workplace.

Listen and empower

Once you’ve studied your students’ character and personality and identified each one’s “point of goodness,” it’s time to assemble those students whose leadership ability — for good or ill — is affecting your classroom dynamic. Empower them to make positive changes in the classroom by giving them a space to voice their concerns (which may sound an awful lot like complaints) and constructively suggest changes that could improve the classroom structure, dynamic, expectations, and rules for the good of the whole. Try calling “lunchtime meetings” or “recess think tanks.” When students feel that their educators authentically listen to them, they are more willing to open their hearts and collaborate, rather than oppose what is asked of them.

Each classroom is different, but some teachers have successfully formed a classroom committee or council, in which members are asked their opinions and represent their classmates in decisions for the group. These students are empowered to identify and discuss with the teacher, on behalf of their peers, areas in need of improvement. The educator’s role involves listening to their ideas and offering viable options when making collaborative decisions.

When difficulties are faced within the classroom, teachers can ask the student leaders for their impressions of what is feeding the problems and what can be done to help resolve them. Often their solutions are full of the kind of insight that can only be gained by someone at the grassroots level. Running a classroom by listening to and empowering students is a form of the subsidiarity spoken of in Catholic social teaching: solving problems at the level closest to the issue.

Although groups such as Student Council, in which officers are typically elected by peers and are among the highest achieving students in the school, are a valued part of an overall structure, they don’t always represent the interests of the whole. By identifying, listening to, and empowering the less likely leaders — those who may not be stellar at academics or achieve a shining behavior record — educators can capture the interest and energy of an underrepresented segment of the classroom and win their hearts, thus fostering their goodness.

Case studies

Perhaps this method may seem a bit too idealistic for teachers who have faced significant behavioral issues in their classroom. Students coping with serious emotional difficulties and behavioral issues may not always respond to a teacher’s efforts to befriend and guide them, but every student is worth the effort. We may not always see success during the school year, but our kindness and patience will remain a formative memory for that student.

The following examples are drawn from my own experience in the classroom as well as others I know:

Mrs. Jones teaches fifth grade in a self-contained classroom. There has been an ongoing issue of students throwing trash on the ground and not pushing in their chairs. Although this may seem like a small thing, her repeated requests for the students to be more attentive about this seems to be falling on deaf ears; she is tired of reminding them. How can her student leaders help solve this issue?

The freshmen science class teacher, Mr. Monahan, has noticed a serious issue during the moments of classroom chatter: gossip. Students frequently pass on stories about one another, and they are rarely positive and affirming. How can he tap the skills of his student leaders to help improve this bad habit?

Sr. Mary’s third-grade students rarely complete their homework on time, in spite of communication with parents and repeated reminders to students. How can student leaders help change this behavior?

What kind of conversation would you have with the student leaders in each situation? What types of solutions could be reached? In each of the examples above, the teachers effectively leveraged the student leaders, who responded with interest in improving the situations described because they agreed that these were important problems. By leading the students in identifying the issue, clarifying motivation, and determining a course of action, the teachers were able to achieve improvement with their help.

Here is what they did:

The classroom is looking messy (issue). Student leaders agreed that keeping a clean and orderly classroom is in everyone’s best interests (motivation). They agreed among themselves to help monitor and remind their peers to pick up trash and push in their chairs. They planned to do this of their own initiative so their peers would change their behavior through positive peer pressure (course of action). Within a few weeks, the trash on the floor and chairs blocking the aisles were no longer an issue.

Gossip is a sin and destroys people’s reputations (issue). The student leaders agreed that gossip destroys school spirit and can be a form of bullying (motivation). They decided to change the conversation by saying positive things about the ones being discussed and, if necessary, calling out the gossipers for what they are doing (course of action). Gossip still takes place, but significantly less often than before, because the student leaders are not tolerating it.

Students do not complete their homework (issue). Homework serves a value by reinforcing what students learn in the classroom, but sometimes Sr. Mary assigns more than the students feel is reasonable. The students want to reach a compromise about homework so both sides are satisfied (motivation). The student leaders agree that Sr. Mary’s idea to allow “homework-free weekends” will help, and they ask her to allow students to select a percentage of each assigned homework to complete (for example, do 15 of the 20 math problems assigned). They believe this will empower the students and make their homework seem less overwhelming (course of action). Their suggestion helps increase homework completion and decrease stress about homework.

As we can see from these examples, because the student leaders are often closer to the issues within the classroom, their solutions may seem simplistic, but they are effective because the solution comes from the students. At times, the teacher was able to give suggestions that the students either accepted or altered, but the final decisions were always reached together. By identifying leaders among our students (even the most challenging ones), listening to their ideas, and empowering them to make real change, we help them develop a sense of ownership in the classroom and contribute to everyone’s educational experience.

If we fail to identify, listen to, and empower our student leaders, we disregard a valuable resource that St. John Bosco employed to make his classroom environment a more positive place for all involved. May he help us to follow his example. St. John Bosco, pray for us!

The statue of Don Bosco the founder of Salesians in front of Basilica Maria Ausilatrice (Basilica of Mary Help) in Turin, Italy, by Gaetano Cellini (1914). Image credit:

Sr. Brittany Harrison, FMA, is a Salesian Sister of St. John Bosco with more than 10 years of experience in Catholic education. She is a frequent guest on Relevant Radio and aims to help everyone to connect faith and daily life. You can follow her online on Twitter and Instagram @SisterB24.

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