Composing the Leadership Classroom – or – How I Learned Not To Teach Plutarch

beau DagenaisPedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

Beau Dagenais, LL’14, English Teacher & 12th Grade Dean, Boys’ Latin School of Maryland

A few years ago, fresh off our gcLi Leadership Lab experience,  my colleague Jimmy Morrissey and I stumbled into a better deal than we were able to recognize at the time: “Team-teach two sections of a leadership course for upperclassmen each year as a part of a new interdisciplinary program,” our administration said. No set curriculum. No real charge other than a commitment to an unconventional vision of teaching and learning and a commitment to long-term community building. We would have three consecutive semesters with each group before serving as semester-long advisors for culminating independent projects. We said yes quickly and loudly; I gave up a section of sophomore English, Jimmy jettisoned some Precalculus.

We had a few months to plan–time that amounted to staring at the big question of what a leadership class should look like. What should we teach? What should we read? What should we experience? The beauty (and terror) of a project like this is that it’s totally wide open. Everything is fair game. I know how to construct an English curriculum, but a leadership curriculum is a different animal.

So I kept talking about Plutarch.

Emerson calls Plutarch’s Lives “a bible for heroes.” That sounds like leadership to me. I kept telling Jimmy how much we needed Plutarch’s “Lycurgus” and “Solon” early in the leadership experience we were planning. I couldn’t wait to think about how a leader persuades people to be virtuous or inspires a love for justice. I dreamed of seminars poring over Plutarch and discussions after reading Lincoln’s letters or Machiavelli. I dreamed of a version of my AP Literature classroom.

(Jimmy’s good at harnessing my enthusiasm: he can bring clouds down to earth. He didn’t say no to Plutarch. He let me figure it out for myself.)

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While Jimmy and I occupied the heady space of planning a leadership curriculum without ever teaching a class, we wondered (and still wonder) what the leadership classroom should look like. It didn’t take long to agree that it was a place–like any other good classroom–that should be driven by relationships.

And we thought about what students of leadership need. After three years, we’re still figuring it out, but here’s what we’ve seen:

Our students need confidence. Many need someone to listen. Many need to be encouraged to find and exercise their voice. They need to belong to a community. They need praise and recognition. They need to feel valued and challenged and capable.

And love. They need love. (Less Plutarch. More love.)

They need the same things that all students need.

Of course students of leadership need skills and knowledge, too. But those needs are secondary. The primary needs–love, belonging, self-esteem–are heaviest. We see leadership class as a place to devote time and energy toward these needs. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the leadership classroom offers an opportunity to meet these primary needs, needs that get short shrift in many traditional academic settings.

Our students sign up for the class for a reason, we always hope. On the first day of class, some of the reasons included:

“I want to become a better listener.”

“I get nervous talking in front of people, and it kills me. I want to get over it.”

“I want to find something I’m really interested in.”

“I heard that this class can help make you a better person.

“I get frustrated that I get really angry. I want to work on that.”

“I hope that I can force myself to be more outgoing.”

“I like helping other people.”

I’m amazed at how so many students inherently understand that working on leadership means working on yourself, how it’s internal before it can be external.

So we try to find programmatic ways to build character and confidence and foster healthy relationships. We try to build a community that encourages dialogue and reflection. All in the hope that it moves us toward knowledge that matters, knowledge that teaches us how to live, knowledge that, to use bell hooks’s phrase, “enhances [our] capacity to live fully and deeply.”

So we spend time redefining leadership and debunking the old top-down paradigm. We read and talk about and practice Servant Leadership and Adaptive Leadership. We celebrate authenticity and character and relationships and vulnerability as necessities for a leader. We do case studies and role plays. We watch so many TED talks. And we read more. We practice pitches and presentations. We cultivate our grit.

After three years of team teaching Leadership, Jimmy and I still don’t know what we’re doing. I think that’s a good thing. At the very least, we try to look at what’s happening while it’s happening. We always say, stealing Kate Wade’s phrase, that “we’re building the airplane as we’re flying it.”

Writing about writing, Sarah Manguso says, “Slowly, slowly, I accumulate sentences. I have no idea what I’m doing until suddenly it reveals itself, almost done.”

Montaigne, better than most at understanding the liminal space we occupy, said, “If my mind could gain a firm footing I would not make essays. I would make decisions. But it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.” Over and over and over again I tell my AP Literature students that the word “essay” comes from the French verb essayer, “to attempt.” It helps. Each essay is an attempt at knowledge. An ongoing project.

I once had to tell a student that he didn’t win a class election. I dreaded it. Before opening the door to let him into my office, I remember thinking, “This is going to be hard.”

It was a beautiful spring afternoon in Baltimore. Full of promise and lazy warmth. New blossoms and seasonal allergies. It smelled like summer. And I had to tell one of the best kids that he was out of the running for student body office. The votes hadn’t fallen for him. And I knew how much this student had wanted it.

I tried to prepare. I thought about my body language and tone of voice and how I’d occupy the physical space to let the student know he was loved and valued. I thought about my words. I tried to be intentional.

He walked in. I gave the young man the news and immediately said something vapid. Trivial nonsense about it being a tough way to end the day. He was disappointed. We talked for a while. At one point he looked at me and said something I haven’t forgotten: “It’s a good day. Don’t worry about it,” he smiled. “I get to decide whether my day is good or bad. Your class helped to teach me that.”

A fundamental mystery of teaching–and teaching leadership reminds me every day–is that we don’t know what we’re doing. I mean it in the best possible way: we teach, and we teach, and we teach, and we don’t know what exactly is happening or what is going to happen. We don’t know what effect we’re having on our students and on ourselves. (This point seems obvious, but I always find myself forgetting.) A mystery and a rare kind of joy: hidden gifts and unexpected surprises.

Beau Dagenais teaches English and serves as the Twelfth Grade Dean at the Boys’ Latin School of Maryland. He has worked at Boys’ Latin since 2005, and attended the gcLi Leadership Lab in the summer of 2014. In his time at Boys’ Latin, Beau has been granted the E.E. Ford Enrichment Award (2011), and the Thomas V. Kotras Excellence in Teaching Award (2013). He earned a master’s degree from St. John’s College of Maryland, and his bachelor’s degree from The College of the Holy Cross.