Leadership for the Long Run – Inspiring Leadership Development at Gilman School

Gretchen MartinPedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

By Gretchen Martin, LL’11, gcLi Scholar ‘17, Middle School Teacher, Gilman Sc

So often when I am in social contexts I’m asked that inevitable question: “What do you do?” When I respond with, “I teach middle school… BOYS,” the reaction is nearly always the same: an incredulous stare, a short laugh, and one word — “WHY?” In fact, when I first interviewed at Gilman School, I knew that the middle school was the place for me. Our emphasis is on relationship-building and truly knowing the boys before we challenge them to be their best selves. Gilman’s Middle School is a crucible for experimentation and learning, with the knowledge that they are loved and supported. Middle school is the perfect place to create a culture of leadership with small actions at a time when students are still forming their sense of selves.

When I was a student, I moved to an independent school for 7th and 8th grade, and despite what I thought were my best efforts, I struggled. I felt out of place as the relatively poor kid in a wealthy environment, I missed my old school, and I just couldn’t figure out what I needed to be successful. After a rough 7th grade year, I was fortunate enough to end up in Mr. McIntosh’s 8th grade pre-algebra class. While I loved Mr. Mac — he had been my cross-country coach — I was terrified of math, and even more terrified of disappointing the coach who I respected so much.

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When practice started in August, Mr. Mac started running with me. He would spend the whole run working through problems and encouraging me. He listened to me argue that I would never be good at math, I wasn’t smart, and I wasn’t a good student. And then he told me to stop complaining; no one ever got better at anything by whining. I became a better math student and a better runner, since I was desperately trying to get fast enough to get away from him. I vividly remember the day when I finally got a 100 on a math quiz. He placed the quiz on my desk, looked me in the eye and said, “No more of this I can’t do math stuff, okay?”

For the first time, I actually believed someone when they said I could do this. I believed it in my gut, in my soul, that I could do math, and it transformed me. That small interaction, that one passing moment changed my fundamental identity. Mr. Mac had taken the opportunity to build a relationship with me as a student, and when the moment was right he was able to help push me to be my best self. Having someone who believes in you is at the heart of leadership development.

Early in my teaching career, I struggled to connect with one of the boys in my advisory. He was a weak student who became frustrated with my efforts to intervene and move him in the right direction. In his 8th grade year, I forced him to join the honor committee, for which he strongly resented me. He sulked silently for two meetings, but during the third, he finally spoke up when addressing a social justice issue. After the meeting, I thanked him for participating and said how much I enjoyed hearing his opinion. He stayed involved in student organizations, reinvigorating the Gay-Straight Alliance in the Upper School. After his first year of college, he came back and visited me; he had decided to pursue political science and wants to be a community activist. He told me that he realized during his time on the honor committee that he was a leader, that this is the ability that defines his identity. This story reflects leadership development in its truest sense.

Why Inspiring Leadership Development is Critical

The power of a good teacher is profound and goes beyond his or her ability to deliver material. A teacher can have the power to shape more than students’ knowledge of grammar, but can shape their knowledge of themselves. Recently I was asked what my mantra as an educator would be, and I chose a passage from author Marianne Williamson, who writes, “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, and not our darkness, that most frightens us.”

When looking to create a culture of leadership, we do not need to make major changes right away. If we want our students to be agents of positive change in the world, we need to model that. We need to help our students identify those moments in themselves before they can identify them in others. Look for those small moments where you can impact the lives of your students or colleagues. Do not be frightened by your light, but let it shine and spread and light up your schools and communities. 

Gretchen Martin is a 2011 graduate of the gcLi Leadership Lab, and served as a gcLi Scholar in 2017 in recognition of her impressive work to inspire leadership in her students. Gretchen has been teaching at Gilman School in Baltimore since 2007 where she teaches Leadership and Spanish. Additionally, she coaches three interscholastic sports teams and is the faculty advisor for the Student Council and Honor Committee. Gretchen also serves on the Association of Independent Schools of Maryland and DC Student Leadership Committee.  She is a graduate of the University of Virginia, and the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.