Silhouettes of two girls jumping in the air at a beach at sunset

“You got this!” Building Leadership Skills in Middle School Girls

Lea HunerkochLeadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy of Leadership Interview, Student Leadership

By Lea Hunerkoch, Middle School Assistant Director and Teaching Fellows Coordinator at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, MD

Recently, I was talking with my group during a session at one of my last weekends of the School Leadership Program at Penn GSE. When one of my classmates was struggling with something, my response was, “You got this!” 

Another classmate turned to me and said, “You’re so middle school!” 

I think I realized at that moment that the vast majority of my day is spent encouraging and supporting students (and adults) as they navigate obstacles and unexpected challenges. As a middle school educator, I am both a coach and a cheerleader for my students and teachers. Accordingly, if you asked my students what the most common phrase that I say in class would be, they would say “You got this!” 

Middle schoolers are in the throws of identity formation – trying on different versions of themselves to see which will fit. They want to push boundaries and gain confidence in who they are. They are goofy and serious, meticulous and spontaneous, full of laughter and full of sorrow– sometimes all in one day! This rollercoaster can be dizzying for them and for the adults in their lives; however, these moments allow for structured risk-taking and confidence building because things change so quickly. 

The middle school years present a unique opportunity for building leadership skills. According to the esteemed research of Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, adolescent girls suffer a loss of self-esteem, confidence, and independence as they search for who they want to be in this world (Brown & Gilligan, 1992). Furthermore, middle-school aged girls are developing their awareness of explicit and implicit cultural norms regarding women’s roles and expectations in society. This awareness can cause an increase in self-doubt, a lack of trust in their own voices, and a resistance to express themselves freely (Gilligan, 1990). By intentionally focusing on leadership development at this age, we can support young girls in navigating these challenging years so they can thrive as older adolescents, young women, and beyond. Leadership education can help girls examine their own identities, take risks that allow them to gain confidence, and practice using their voice for good in the world around them. 

As a part of my studies at Penn GSE this year, I have chosen to research leadership development in middle school students, so that I can bring leadership opportunities to my own students. I work at Holton-Arms, which is a school for girls in Bethesda, Maryland. In our mission, we state that we cultivate the unique potential of young women through the “education not only of the mind. but of the soul and spirit. I believe an important component of cultivating that unique potential is supporting their development as leaders.

Woman giving speech in front of audience

The literature about developing leadership in adolescent girls suggests three themes: developing agency through practice, building self-efficacy, and fostering relationships and mentorship. I built upon these themes by interviewing successful adult female leaders from various industries to learn about their journeys. I spoke with women in government, publishing, the corporate world, the military, film, and education. Each woman I spoke with had a different story; however, common themes such as the value of mentorship, the importance of practicing leadership, and what leadership mindsets for women look like emerged. These accomplished women spoke of the power of facing obstacles. One woman identified one such challenge as a “tremendously valuable punch in the gut.” They emphasized the significance of skills like reflection, collaboration, and self-awareness. 

When I asked the women about mentorship, they each spoke about someone who gave them a seat at the table, so to speak. Mentors were people that clearly valued each woman regardless of status, position, etc. I believe our students deserve the same respect in order to grow in their own leadership. They need to feel that their voice matters and their opinions matter so they can go out and support a cause they care about or take action to better their communities. When I asked the women about what they think a leadership development program for middle school students needs to include, they shared about practicing concrete skills like public speaking that allow them to also take risks. 

They talked about gaining confidence in themselves and not caring so much about what others think. One woman said, “They don’t have to be gorgeous to be worthwhile.” Middle school girls get very caught up in the superficial and do not allow themselves to develop a sense of who they are on the inside. I think my students have an image of what a leader looks like and it is often quite narrow and excludes them from the frame. 

To build upon that research, I then spoke with a group of 8th graders who serve on our student council to ask what they thought about both what it means to be a leader and how they felt about the themes suggested by the adults. These students confirmed much of the research about the importance of confidence and the loss of voice that can happen in the middle school years. They talked about how they change their behavior when they are around boys in order to fit a certain mold that society expects them to fit into. 

When they were asked about what prevents them from acting like a leader, the most common theme was worrying about what others would think. I think the most fascinating part of this conversation was how these young women resonated with the themes shared by the adult leaders. Not taking yourself too seriously, learn to lead by leading, and taking risks stood out to them in a powerful way. One student noted that by taking more risks, you learn to take yourself less seriously because you see that making a mistake is not the end of the world, and in fact, is an important learning experience. I also think the students know the importance of knowing the people you lead because they spoke frequently about leadership being an opportunity to advocate for their classmates. The students also added an invaluable theme to leadership development: knowing and taking care of yourself. One student said, “I think if you understand yourself, the way you think, and the way you operate, then that can help you be around other people and figure out how you can best support yourself. Being the best version of yourself helps others be the best version of themselves.” This conversation further lit a fire in me about the importance of helping students to cultivate their leadership skills. I could have spoken to the students for hours, but they had an instrumental concert to attend, so alas, we had to wrap it up. 

Students should be given a broad definition of leadership. Most adults know that leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, but our students often have a quite narrow definition of leadership that leaves them on the outside looking in. When students can see themselves as a leader, they can practice leadership and gain confidence in themselves. 

I hope by offering leadership education to my students, I can work to change that narrative to show them that they can all be leaders in different ways to make a positive impact on the world around them. 

The throughline of my research, from both literature and interviews with adults and students, is the importance of confidence. Confidence allows women to take calculated risks, trust their instincts, learn from mistakes, build resilience, and take up space in the world. Leadership education for young girls must emphasize cultivating their confidence. If women can establish a strong foundation of confidence as young people, they will be able to soar as leaders at any age.

At a recent assembly, we watched a video about representation for women in statues throughout cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. As you can imagine, the number of statues in honor of women pales in comparison to the number of statues for men. I asked the students to think of who they would want to build a statue for and the answers poured out of them. Proposals for statues of Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris, Beyonce, Katherine Johnson, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and others were met with cheers of agreement. 

Finally, one student suggested a statue of a woman in a suit holding a baby to represent working mothers, which was incredibly powerful coming from a middle schooler. To close the assembly, two 8th graders performed a slam poem about the strength of women that brought students and teachers to their feet with applause. I ended the assembly by thanking the students for their thoughtfulness, and by telling them that I hope when I give this presentation again in 20 years, that we can list their names as women who have statues built to honor their work. I am confident that hope will come true with a new generation of confident and powerful leaders taking charge.

Lea Hunerkoch is in two new roles this year as Middle School Assistant Director and Teaching Fellows Coordinator at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, MD. Prior to this year, Lea had been a history teacher and 8th Grade Dean at Holton. Previously, Lea spent five years as a history teacher, Grade Level Team Leader, and Middle School History Department Chair at the Emery/Weiner School in Houston, TX. She loves watching students grow during the middle school years as they begin to find their voice and use it for positive change in their communities. Lea is a Leadership Lab grad and this year’s recipient of the gcLi-Penn/GSE scholarship for School Leadership.