Admittedly, I’m a sucker for student leadership. I think giving students real responsibility and power in a classroom does as much for their academics as it does for their character development and self-esteem. Today, on my first trip with our Education Innovation Fellows, we visited a school that reinforced for me that personalization in the classroom provides the opportunity both to expand the reach of great teachers and to make space for meaningful student leadership.
This morning, we visited a Chicago Public School, Cesar Chavez Multicultural Academic Center. The center has three campuses—a preschool, a K-4 building, and a 5-8 building. We visited the K-4 building, where we met with the principal, assistant principals, and several teachers, then toured classrooms of different grade levels.
The school was impressive. They have an authentic, deeply held belief in their students, treat them with care, and hold them to high expectations. And just as importantly, student engagement was off the charts. Whether it was on a computer, in a book, or with the teacher, students in every single classroom were on task and seemed joyful and purposeful about what they were doing.
During the tour, my small group visited Ms. Escobar’s first grade classroom. The class was divided into four groups, one of which was being led by a student in the class named Sofia [name changed]. In her group of eight, she was giving directions, interacting with her peers (via their eagerly raised their hands), and encouraging them to “write beautifully” once they began their tasks.
When Sofia stepped away for a moment, I sat with the group to ask them about her role:
“She’s not really our teacher, but she’s a leader.”
“She doesn’t do the work FOR us, but she HELPS us.”
“She answers our questions and makes sure we’re doing things right.”
It was clear that everyone in the group appreciated and respected her, and they treated her as such. When one of the Fellows asked Sofia about her role, she casually remarked, “There are 31 students in our class. I help Ms. Escobar so we can have small groups.”
Later, when we debriefed with Ms. Escobar, she shared that she’s been working with Sofia on leadership since the fall. At the beginning of the year, Sofia would sit alone, throwing paper and disengaged. But her writing was advanced, and Ms. Escobar recognized that. She told Sofia that she looked like a teacher, acted like a teacher, and should be a teacher.
And eventually, Sofia took notice. She changed her behavior and has blossomed into her new role: leading others. But Sofia isn’t the only student Ms. Escobar has coached to take on leadership roles—there are six other students just like her. Ms. Escobar’s ability to focus on small-group, targeted instruction is amplified now not only by the sophisticated technology in her classroom but also because of her own students’ ability to lead.
In the Education Innovation Fellowship—and in the education community as a whole—we talk a lot about innovating around the role of the teacher in the classroom. But maybe we should start a conversation about the role of the student.
Amanda Sims Nichols, Chief Operating Officer