Rethinking Student Leadership Training to Create Culture Shapers

Mimi SchwandaLeadership Programs, Student Leadership

By Mimi Schwanda (LL’17), Teacher and Coach, Episcopal High School

Student leadership election season is an exciting time for any school. It is April or May, and our current senior leaders are fading, not doing much as they head towards their last days of classes and graduation. We, the adults who work with student leaders, always have high expectations of the new school year. “This is a great group of kids,” we think. “They will lead the school so well!” We agree to invite them back to school early for Student Leadership Training, and we spend the late spring and early summer planning programming to get them ready for their roles.

For many years, we invited our elected student leaders back to school early for a three-day training. After a few ice breakers with the large group, they spent much of the long weekend with their adult sponsors getting ready for the year by focusing on their specific roles. The service council brainstormed potential service partners. The discipline committee went through mock hearings. The list goes on; it was all very practical. By the end of the long weekend, each organization shared its goal for the year with the larger group, and everyone felt excited heading into the school year.

Last year, we decided to flip the model. We realized that the organizational things would get done no matter what, that each group would find the time to do what they needed to do to logistically plan for the year. So how could we make better use of the time we had with all of the student leaders before school began? We had the undivided attention of eighty students, spanning grades tenth through twelfth, representing different friend groups and different spheres of influence. These were the students who had been elected by their peers to be leaders. These were the students who had the power to make change, to shape school culture. This, we saw, was an untapped resource! What if we spent the majority of our time during leadership training working with the large group, speaking to them as student leaders and culture shapers?

As director of the Leadership and Ethics program, I partnered with Ashley McDowell Taylor, Dean of Students; Ben Courchesne, Associate Dean of Students; and Joel Sohn, Co-Director of Equity and Inclusion to plan a workshop for the start of the 2017-2018 school year to kickoff our student leadership training. We decided to go big: instead of a weekend, we did a week. If we are going to commit to this work, we thought, let’s really invest.


The students were engaged in sessions from 12:30 to 3:00 from Monday through Thursday, and then they had Friday and the weekend to work with their individual groups. Suddenly, with the new model, we had ten hours with all of our most powerful change agents in the same room together. What an opportunity! Each of the four adults took charge of one of the four sessions.

First, Ashley led a workshop on “Bringing our School Mission to Life.” In this workshop, the students looked closely at our school’s nine core beliefs, the nine things we do to “achieve” our mission.  The students broke into nine groups, and each group took a belief.  On giant post-it notes, they made lists of the actions and behaviors that support those beliefs, and those that do not. In the end, all students did a gallery walk and had a chance to add their ideas.  

Next, Joel led a session on the “Inclusion Imperative.”  This fast-paced workshop led students through a review of vocabulary around inclusion, words like diversity, equity, bias, and microaggression.  The student leaders got out of their seats and were challenged to put themselves on a Spectrum of Allyship: in what areas are they a bystander, and in what areas are they working toward change?  

Then, I led a session on Case Studies and the “Non-Bystander.”  I started by reminding them that as students leaders, they are expected to act.  They have officially turned in their bystander card.  At the same time, this work is not easy.  Each student wrote a real case study from their experience at EHS.  They then took turns sharing the case studies and brainstorming in small groups different possible action plans.  Finally, the groups picked two case studies to role play.

Finally, we ended on Thursday with Ben’s session on Belonging.  He started by emphasizing the role that student leaders can play in helping their peers feel like they belong in the community.  Each student then had a chance to write on two separate notecards:

  1. Describe a time when someone has said or done something during your time at EHS
    that helped you feel like you belong here.
  2.  Describe a time when someone has said or done something during your time at EHS (or not said or done) during your time at EHS that made you question whether you belonged.

The cards were randomly shuffled and distributed back out to the students, and each student read their cards aloud to their tablemates, a very powerful exercise.  In the end, they discussed patterns and thought of how these anecdotes could inspire their work as student leaders.

We kept all of the sessions very interactive. There were role plays, small group reflections, large group sharing, giant post-it notes, and plenty of candy. Students sat at a different table every day. Seniors were talking with sophomores, girls with boys, residence life leaders with GSA leaders. Senior Erin P. said, “I loved looking around and seeing how many different people from different leadership groups were represented. I loved how we were all dedicated to come back to school early and work together.” All of the adults who work with different student leadership groups helped facilitate the conversations and keep the students on task. All week, we emphasized to the students that they are the ones with the power. Senior Isabelle H. left the program feeling empowered and ready to lead: “A lot of the situations we talked about in August have come up this year, and practicing the scenarios left me ready to engage in the real moment.”

As adults, we can give talk after talk, facilitate workshop after workshop, but without student buy-in, our efforts fail.  We hope to continue this model in the coming years. We realized that the best way we can teach leadership and change school culture is to empower the students. With the students on board to making positive change, adults can be on the sidelines–there when the students need advice or training, but ultimately letting them do the work.

Mimi Schwanda is in her 11th year teaching at Episcopal High School, a co-ed 100% boarding school in Alexandria, VA.  In addition to teaching math and coaching cross country, she directs the Leadership and Ethics program. In this program, all students progress through workshops on leadership, character, honor, and the development of their own ethical compass. Mimi is a 2017 graduate of the gcLi Summer Leadership Lab, and attended the gcLi Symposium II this past fall in Philadelphia. She is also a graduate of the Klingenstein Summer Institute, and earned a master’s in education from the University of Virginia in 2013.