It’s the Little Things

Chris HowesPedagogy of Leadership Interview, Student Leadership

By Chris Howes, LL’11, gcLi Scholar ’14, gcLi Faculty ’16, Dean of Student Life, Mercersburg Academy (PA)

Yesterday, I overheard my wife telling one of our nine-year-old twin daughters, “It’s the little things.” She had been trying to sneak candy without permission, a small and fairly meaningless choice, but one that could lead to larger problems down the line. While not an unusual conversation for a parent to have with their child, it’s the greater meaning of the phrase, “It’s the little things” that resonates with me.

Embarking on my second year at Mercersburg Academy as the Dean of Student Life, I think often about the little things when it comes to building school culture. Mercersburg has long had a school and student culture that is egalitarian and values individual strengths each student brings to the community. Students are actively engaged in the community and are constantly finding ways to improve their own lives and the lives of their peers.

The issue Mercersburg faced when I first arrived was NOT finding opportunities for students to lead, but rather providing a shared language and vision for all student leaders. In thinking about this concept of shared language and values, I am often reminded of my experiences at the gcLi Leadership Lab and Ted Fish’s words of encouragement when he said, “Start with what you know and what is within your sphere. Then let the glow of this good practice attract others, and it will grow.” Thinking in those terms and reflecting on the Pedagogy of Leadership®, I have learned that developing shared language and purpose, not only in classrooms but in all other school contexts, is a good place to start.

At a boarding school, we are in a unique position. Surrounded by our students twenty four hours a day, we must pay attention to the little things because if we don’t, we’ll leave lasting damage and harm. So, when we think about building culture and leadership, we start by asking: How do we communicate with each other? How are our classes structured? How do we celebrate individuals? What do we allocate time to? Do we put relationships first? Do our adult interactions act as models for our students? All of these questions are the little things that need attention and purpose, and we often take them for granted.

At Mercersburg, we have decided to intentionally build self-awareness and self-management skills with our students. We also recognize that by building these skills, as well as social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making skills, many other positives grow as a result. We take time to explore students’ emotions and feelings so that, in turn, they will feel valued and loved and will be able to give more as a student, friend, sibling, and child. We now know that emotional health, in the long term, means a healthier life, but more immediately for these students, it means greater school and individual success.

That has been our focus as a school this year and moving forward. We are purposefully and intentionally tending to these social and emotional skills so that little things will lead to larger successes down the line. There is no right way to teach these competencies, but evidence of successful programs suggests it must be intertwined with the culture of the school and be community wide. We feel that by sharpening our attention on students’ prosocial behaviors and developing their independence, as well as their need for interdependence, we will produce future leaders and adults who feel like they are living meaningful lives.

As a boarding school, we take this seriously and understand that this must be our focus; if it is, everything else will fall into place.With that in mind, these are some of the steps we have taken to address these skills specifically this year:

  • As a Student Life team, we have regular trainings where we focus on social and emotional health and growth. We also structure our weekly adult meetings the same as our weekly student leader meetings, where everyone’s voice is heard and valued and we take time each meeting to connect and share where we are emotionally.
  • We recognize students regularly in front of their peers for their small prosocial behaviors and ask that those recognized give gratitude towards at least two others.
  • In the dorms, we take time to build relationships and empower our student leaders to act as the point people for students on their wings and floors. Many of these student leaders have taken on the practice of doing an emotional check-in each night with their peers. Students have commented how this simple act has improved relationships and connection within the dorm.
  • We use the language “self-awareness,” “self-management,” “social-awareness,” “relationship skills,” and “responsible decision-making” and have defined them for what they mean for our school and our community. We ask that our student leaders and our faculty evaluate their performance based on these skills and characteristics.
  • We build into our meetings time for reflection and feedback so that our behaviors and students’ behaviors evolve and match what we are trying to accomplish.

While none of these ideas is large in scope or necessarily new, each idea is integral to developing student leaders. It’s the little things that build culture. While projects like starting a leadership center or developing a year-long service learning program are amazing ideas, it is these small shifts mentioned above that make the biggest and most meaningful differences in our students’ lives.[vc_separator border_style=”dashed”]

As Mercersburg Academy’s dean of student life, Chris Howes oversees all aspects of the student experience at the school—from citizenship to leadership to residential-life matters and other school policies. He came to Mercersburg from Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., where he was the dean of student life, taught history, and coached lacrosse. Chris and his wife, Maggie (who teaches English and history at Mercersburg), live on campus with their three children.