by Brandi Lawrence, LL’19, gcLi Scholar ‘22
The Gardner Carney Leadership Institute (gcLi) means quite a lot to me. It gave me so much in so little time. It has given me an amazing mentor, a tight-knit small group, a lifelong buddy, a vast community of educators, a fascinating new pedagogy, and scholarly purpose.
This was a revelation to me because I was coming from and would soon be returning to a school community where I felt like an outsider. A school both committed to and steeped in its traditions. An educational institution full of educators who coined themselves “Master Teachers.” What does that even mean? I can’t tell you. Although, I’m certain if such a practitioner ever existed, even they would not give themselves that title. Furthermore, I was and have always been genuinely interested in the things I had not yet mastered. So where did that leave me? Where did I fit in?
I found the answer to those questions during my time at gcLi. It was fantastic to be in a place that saw and believed in the leadership potential in all students and to be amongst educators who were committed to expanding and deepening their own learning. The leadership pedagogy I was immersed in during those eight days really excited me. I now had research and language to unapologetically support the culture of learning I was co-creating with my students in our class. My thinking had been challenged, changed, and confirmed. I now had something new. A new perspective on what kind of teacher and student I wanted to be. A new plan for what kind of student and teacher I wanted my students to be. A new idea that fostered a relationship between leadership and stewardship.
“Leadership is about empowering the powerless. Leadership is about making the invisible seen, the silent heard, and the unknown familiar. Under all of that very necessary work, are relationships. Relationships with yourself, the people you are helping, and the people who you endeavor with to do the work.”
On your first day of the Gardner Carney Leadership Institute, you are asked to both reflect and write on what your definition of leadership is. The above words are what I drafted to represent my beliefs on leadership. Since then, I have worked hard to foster and develop that brand of leadership in my students, and in myself. It is the value system that I myself aspire to actively live up to in my own life. In addition to this, my time at gcLi gave me the framework, language and pedagogy to build, validate, and develop the leadership work I was already doing with students in our fifth-grade classroom. Beyond the innate intuition I had about the best practices connected to leadership, I now had scholarly research to affirm and protect the work our fifth-grade community would be doing.
So now that I was equipped with all that data and vernacular to rebuff all the doubts, questions, and side-eyes, I along with my students started creating something new. I felt affirmed in some of the choices I had already been making in my classroom and confident in the new ones I would start to make. I would continue building relationships for learning, providing snacks, scheduling brain and body breaks, encouraging student agency and voice. I would start building a new leadership model that encouraged not just some, but every one of my students to be leaders. One that would not only help them to see the superpower within themselves but in their classmates as well. A leadership program that encouraged them to both appreciate the strong leadership skills of their peers and to develop the leadership skills in their challenge areas.
Our fifth graders began this work during the first six weeks of school. We started by reading the quotes of a diverse group of leaders, noticing the common themes and patterns amongst them, and choosing one that resonated with us on an individual level. Then we all individually crafted our own definition of leadership. This was followed up with a self-inventory audit of our own leadership skills which allowed us to map out our leadership strengths and challenge areas, as well as map out a plan to continue developing our leadership skills.
Then using the current student leadership module, we brainstormed a list of what felt good about it and the parts we did not enjoy. Overwhelmingly, the majority of the students lamented that leadership opportunities for fourth and fifth graders felt more like a popularity contest. Either you were a cool kid, or you were not. Suffice it to say, that only the cool kids ever won, which left everybody else to feel as if they had lost. Additionally, in the past, Student Council and Admission Tour Guides were the most coveted and only two roles offered. Which again meant that only some, not all students were given the opportunity to explore leadership. Something had to be done. It turned out that our past experiences with leadership, both good and bad, were the catalyst we required in determining what we desired leadership to look like in our classroom, the lower school, and our community at large.
We understood now that each of us had superpowers and challenges that would make us better suited for certain kinds of leadership roles. Those roles were Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Ambassadors, Class Representatives, and Student Council. The DEI Ambassadors leadership role was responsible for all things DEI-related Kindergarten through Fifth grade. This meant they both created and led video-recorded Assemblies of all the Heritage months with their homeroom teachers, as well as shared DEI observations on what was going well and what could go better with the DEI Director. Class Representatives concerned themselves with the culture within the classroom. They organized, planned, and helped the homeroom teacher lead class hall meetings and social gatherings. This took shape in the form of Open Sessions, Movie Mondays, and Fun Fridays. The Student Council governed lower school community events. This meant they oversaw both the Annual Food Drive, the Annual Toy Drive, and shared the highs and lows of the day-to-day experiences of lower school students with the Principal, School Counselor, Director of Student Support, and the DEI Director.
It is important to note that a fifth-grade student came up with the Class Representative leadership role. He along with his classmates were committed to learning from the past experience of the previous leadership model. That meant making sure everyone felt included and valued. Once this was decided and accepted, all fifth-grade students wrote a letter of intent. It explained what role they were interested in, why they were interested in it, their thoughts on the significance of the role, and why they thought they would be a good fit. I tried my best to make sure that every student got their first or second choice leadership role, but ultimately what was most important, was that everybody had a role. We believed that everyone was a leader, and should get the chance to develop their leadership skills through service. That in itself was a huge win, and felt good to my students. And we were able to do it because of gcLi.
This is why gcLi means a great deal to me. It gave me so much in so little time. It reminded me of the things that truly matter in life. Things like mentorship, friendship, membership, and scholarship. It allowed me to repurpose and reshape the kind of educator I wanted to be. It transformed me and for that I am forever grateful. I remember thinking to myself during that week, that I had found my purpose, my people, and my place. I remember and try to hold on to how good it felt.
Brandi Alexandria Lawrence is an educator and an equity and social justice practitioner. She received a B.A. in Communication from Howard University and a Masters in Early Childhood and Childhood Education from Manhattanville College. Brandi has been a lower school teacher for the past fifteen years. She has taught a span of ages ranging from three to eleven. She is a second-year EdD student in the Social and Comparative Analysis program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. Her doctoral work will focus on High School Black girls in predominantly white educational settings continuing to report instances of body and tone policing by teachers and administrators. Currently she is a Teaching Assistant for the University of Pittsburgh’s online course on Anti-Black Racism. Brandi consults with a variety of independent schools to support their lower school’s implementation of an Anti-Bias curriculum and multicultural practices. In her spare time, she likes to read, write, cook, dance, swim, go for long walks, and play tennis.