A group of people sitting together in a classroom in front of a teacher

Relationships are Key: The Impactful Role of the Teacher to Form Leadership Identity

Reina StimpsonLeadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

by Reina Stimpson, Upper School Division Head, The Derryfield School in Manchester, NH

In Ben Dougherty’s 2020 gcLi article “Leading While Building, A Reflection on Leadership Program Development,” he noted that the goal of creating a student leadership program would be for all students to see themselves as leaders, despite the push-back he and other administrators were receiving. He wrote, “We had to make the case to students, parents, and faculty for why leadership development is for everyone. A common refrain was ‘do we really want a school of 400 leaders?’ And we would say, ‘yes!’ It was important to us from the beginning to not just create a leadership program for the 10% of students with titles and designated leadership roles, but rather to create a program that reached 100% of our students and helped them to develop their leadership capacity.”

For many, this may have seemed like a lofty goal. Teachers and families may not have realized the biases that were creating this doubt: research would indicate that often adults have misperceptions based on what they saw growing up as “leaders” in a very traditional, hierarchical sense. Adults often think of the student leaders from their own high schools as popular, charming, and perhaps somewhat disconnected from the student body. Other factors come into play, too. We need to ask ourselves who gets opportunities to lead and why? In their article, “Who we are impacts how we lead: Social class influence on leaders’ identity, capacity and efficacy,” Ardoin and Guthrie (2021) ask teachers and leadership educators to question such assumptions. Do educators really think student leaders need to be the most popular, well groomed, or articulate? Today, reflective practitioners can be more self-aware, thus raising critical awareness; this research presents important understanding for student leadership programming (Lyons and Brasof, 2020). 

Ben was right. Everyone should have the chance to lead, despite their background or their own tentative view of leading. Leadership is a skill that students can learn, and a mindset of leadership identity can certainly be cultivated. I have witnessed this myself after meeting Ben and taking on a role in the leadership program over the last several years. 

In their research, Lyons, Brasof and Baron (2020) found that leadership education programs were a key component of success. The continual measures of development and refinement of the student leadership classes for ninth grade have resulted in a more intensive trimester course upon entry into high school to learn about the interpersonal capacity skills to include positivity, critical awareness, and inclusion.

Among their findings and most connected with gcLi’s Leadership Lab, relationships between young people and adults are a core domain to create strong collaborative efforts in a school community. In particular, schools should allow flexibility in their students to select natural and authentic roles to lead. Lyons et al. (2020) noting, “Rigid conceptions of traditional student roles are often barriers to student leadership, but a dialogic school culture and opportunities (for collaboration with adults)… can foster radical collegiality” (p.11).

Ben helped to mentor me as a leadership educator and set very clear expectations for me and others that teachers play a crucial role in developing trusting relationships as the foundation for partnerships with student leaders. As teachers, we need to be more aware of our own belief systems. This includes how we see ourselves. As I became a Dean of Students, then Director of Student Life and Leadership additionally, I had to consider feelings of imposter syndrome. I decided on learning more about educational leadership, and little did I know, at the time, that my doctoral work in leadership would help me to address imposter syndrome on a regular basis. Imposter syndrome is defined by the National Library of Medicine (2023) as “a behavioral health phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals” on their website. I often had to confront this feeling of “not good enough” to be a leader in an independent school, as someone who was newer to independent school as a first generation American, daughter of a Central-American immigrant, and first generation college student in my immediate family.

As I became the Upper School Head, I needed to be aware of my own self-doubt, both to care for myself and to set an example for my students. I am a leadership educator and was proud to attend the gcLi Leadership Lab in 2021, right before I became the Upper School Head. The knowledge, training, and shared experiences through my doctoral work and with the good staff at the Leadership Lab all gave me more confidence to become what Michael Fullan calls “a lead learner,” the most important role of a high school principal. The growth, adaptive mindset is something that the Leadership Lab calls for in leadership education. As teachers and administrators who care for their students, we must always remember that being aware of any negative views, fixed ways of thinking can help to challenge how we feel towards ourselves and also our students. Everyone has the right and should have the access to leadership learning.

In his conclusion, Ben noted that after a major leadership journey as an experiential learning educator, he felt there were ups and downs in a program he helped to create and lead. He asked one of his mentors for advice and received the words, “Get some sleep.” The impactful words indicated that often even strong leaders need to recharge their batteries, reframe their setbacks, and remember the long game. As research notes, student leadership programming is often the type of initiative to be siloed or to suffer due to turn-over; this causes a lack of sustainability. In his article he noted, “I have since come to realize how important that advice was to sustain a program, rather than just envisioning one.” 

If a student leadership program is not truly understood and integrated into the fabric of a school’s community and regular structure, it often suffers from marginalization.  In my doctoral dissertation research, I have just concluded coding a high level of uncertainty among teachers regarding various aspects of the leadership program. This is a critical finding ahead of the work on the next school strategic plan. 

As a good practitioner and lead learner, I want my learning to benefit and further the most effective student leadership programming possible. Educators must listen to one another and students as a foundation for trust building. Trust is critical so all community members have shared responsibility. 

Afterall, a leadership program can include everyone, and teachers are key.

Leading While Building, A Reflection on Leadership Program Development (gcLi)

Who we are impacts how we lead: Social class influence on leaders’ identity, capacity and efficacy 

Measuring Mechanisms of Student Voice: Development and Validation of Student Leadership Capacity Building Scales

Reina Stimpson is a current Upper School Division Head of The Derryfield School, an independent day school in Manchester, NH. Reina has had various roles in her tenure, from Dean of Students, Director of Student Life and Leadership, World Language Department Chair and Spanish teacher. She is a current doctoral student and hopeful soon to be doctor of Educational Leadership at Southern New Hampshire University. Her area of interest is student leadership programming and supporting teachers in their critical role to empower students throughout the school’s community. She is proud to say she has attended four of New Hampshire’s wonderful colleges; all studies centered in education. She is also a proud first generation American; mom is from Central America and she speaks fluent Spanish and has a passion for Latin American & Spanish cultures. Reina has created a leadership curriculum for 9th grade and works with many teams. She is interested in mentorship for both adults and students. She was a graduate of the Leadership Lab in 2021. She lives with her husband Michael, and they have five children between them and one grandson, Myles. Reina hopes to inspire and transform school cultures with a relational ethic of care and support for those she serves. She is a servant leader.