Door of a very old building

Leadership in a Place Like This

Alex MyersLeadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

by Alex Myers, Director of The Mountain School of Milton Academy in Vershire, VT

It’s the start of the school year, a few years back – the last year I taught at a “traditional” 4-year prep school – and my advisees are partaking in that quintessential autumn rite of passage: setting goals. There are some goals that are laudable but unlikely (get up at six and go running every morning) others that I’m certain are tongue in cheek (get nine hours of sleep every night). But the ones they are most focused on, the real prizes, the things they’d want even if we didn’t engage in this (somewhat silly) exercise of naming our goals, are the Leadership Positions. Captain of the Team. President of the Club. Proctor in the Dorm. Even as ninth graders, this is what they aspire to, what will tell them they have succeeded. Something about this makes me sad.

In the present moment, I am the director of a place-based semester program in rural Vermont, The Mountain School, that focuses on farming and forestry and community building. Twice a year fifty students come to our campus and then, four months later, leave our campus. A clean sweep, a fresh slate. Each semester, they make this place anew. Which means there are no established positions for them to aspire to. We have no sports teams. There are no clubs. No awards or prizes. Even the “community council” that occasionally forms to plan events has a rotation of student members. 

So what does leadership look like at a place like this?

Admittedly, some of our students miss the hierarchy and aspirational structures of their home schools. They don’t know how to evaluate their own success or status in a place that doesn’t sort them, rank them, or allow them to gain a position. But many of our students settle into a new way of thinking about community and how to live together and, in doing so, embody a totally different mode of leadership.

I love a good Dish Crew. At the Mountain School, student dish crews clean all the pots, pans, plates, silverware and the kitchen and dining hall after every meal; it’s a core part of living our mission “To Know a Place and Take Care of It.” For the first two weeks of every semester, faculty members train the dish crews – showing them how to scrape plates, run the sanitizer, fill and empty the mop buckets. But after those two weeks, the crew is on their own. No one will remind them to get up early when they’re on for breakfast. No one is watching to see that they sweep in the far corner or scrub the nasty stuff from the bottom of the compost bucket.  And yet (by and large), it gets done.

A person showing carrots on his hand

That, to me, is the kernel of leadership in a place-based semester program and the essence of how it is so different from other prep school situations. Leadership is not a performance for the larger world – not an accomplishment or a title gained. Rather, leadership is something that happens coincidentally, alongside the real work of making this place function.

The set-up of the Mountain School is to provide the students with an understanding of how systems work and their own role within those systems. We study food and farm systems. We study ecology and climate. We study social identities and well-being. We ask students to learn about these areas in the classroom and then go out into the fields, barns, forests, and dorms and do the work that they have learned about.

I admit that the experience is contrived. Fifty students arrive to work a farm, to learn how to maple sugar and split wood. Of course, the whole thing is set up to give them this experience. I will not for a moment argue that we are teaching genuine self-sufficiency – and at times I worry we are cultivating a strange glamorization of manual labor that distorts a good understanding of social and economic systems. Nonetheless, I do believe that our way of being intensely place-based allows students to engage in real work and to see the fruits of their labors, oftentimes immediately. And I believe that this understanding of the ability of the self to do work, to be necessary, creates a new model of leadership.

Perhaps the short-term nature of the program also helps. There really is only the moment here. There’s no ladder to climb towards captain or president. Being place-based is also about being time-based. We work in the here and now and students learn to lead in the here and now. There’s nothing aspirational about it because everything is immediate. There’s a sort of magic in that immediacy which appeals to adolescents, I think, especially those who are used to intellectual labor. To see the work done by their own hands – the carrots they harvested, the carrots they washed, the carrots they sliced, the carrots they cooked, the carrots their peers are now eating – creates a sense of leadership that is not transactional but is instead real and imbued with immediate meaning. 

Alex Myers is a teacher, speaker, and writer who has worked to help schools support transgender students for over 20 years. Alex is a novelist whose works include Revolutionary, Continental Divide, and The Story of Silence; he has also written a non-fiction book, Supporting Transgender Students. He has taught at St. George’s School and Phillips Exeter Academy and now is the director of The Mountain School of Milton Academy.