Some students are natural leaders. Even at seven years old, they just seem to know how to negotiate with others, how to give directions without being bossy, and how to offer help without being condescending. Whether it’s because they have a high emotional IQ or they’re just more mature, these leaders bring peace and harmony to their teams and inspire their teammates to do their best.
But for most children, these skills don’t come naturally. They have to be learned, and they have to be taught.
There must be 101 ways I try to teach leadership in my classroom, from having kids lead Morning Meeting, to teaching presentation skills and civics, to reading biographies of great leaders.
But last year, I hit on a strategy that helped me teach leadership skills in a more explicit and effective way than I had before: by empowering students to be Table Leaders.
Table Leader Elections
First, some background: instead of individual desks, my classroom has five large tables that each seat up to 5 students. My students have assigned seats, which I change every 4-6 weeks. Over the course of the day, my kids get to work with lots of different partners and groups. But, they spend a lot of time working with the kids at their table, so it’s vital that these teams cooperate well together.
To enhance this cooperation, I decided to have each table elect a Table Leader. The Table Leader’s job would be to pass out materials and encourage their team to transition between subjects quickly and quietly. The rules for voting for Tables Leaders were (1) you had to vote for someone who you thought would be a good leader, (2) you couldn’t vote for yourself, and (3) votes would be kept secret. As a class, we defined what we thought the qualities of a good leader were, and the kids voted.
Every six weeks, when I made a new seating plan, we held new Table Leader elections. It was important to me that every student — not just the natural leaders — got the chance to be a Table Leader. So, we made a rule: if you had already served as a Table Leader, you had to wait until everyone else at your table had had a chance before you could serve again.
Problem-Solving During Leadership Lunches
When our first election was held, the Table Leaders were named, and they began complaining about their teammates almost immediately. The Table Leaders were frustrated that other people at their tables expected them to do all the work, not just pass out papers. They were suddenly expected to clean the floor, stack chairs, organize caddies, etc. And the Table Leaders felt no one listened to them. They had all of the responsibilities, but none of the power. That had to change.
I decided to invite the Table Leaders to join me for what I called a “Leadership Lunch.” In our quiet classroom, while the rest of the class ate in the cafeteria, my five Table Leaders described all the challenges they were facing. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: So, what’s going on with your tables?
Naomi: Everyone at my table expects me to do all the work.
Jack: Yeah, no one wants to do anything anymore. They all say, “You have to do it — you’re the Table Leader.”
Me: Is that happening for everyone? [Everyone emphatically nods.] Ok. What do you think we should do to solve the problem?
Mya: I think you should tell everyone they still have to do their jobs.
Naomi: Yeah, we’re the Table Leaders, but that doesn’t mean we do everything.
Me: Sure thing. We’ll talk about that as a class this afternoon. But as leaders, what do you think you can do to help your tables divide the work more equally?
I wanted to support the Table Leaders, but I also wanted to encourage them to problem-solve. I hoped that we could turn our conversation from what I could do to help them to what they could do as effective leaders to help their teams.
Daniel: I think we should make table jobs. That way, everyone at the table knows what they need to do. [The Table Leaders give the “me too” sign with their hands and nod to show they love this idea.]
Michelle: Yeah. Like, one job should be to clean the floor, and another job should be to stack the chairs.
Jack: And clean the caddies. But the Table Leaders should still pass out papers.
Me: How about you guys write down the jobs you think everyone should have, and then you can lead meetings with your tables this afternoon to decide who will do what. Sound good?
Everyone agreed. Naomi took notes as the leaders listed jobs. When they were finished, I asked, “How are you going to assign jobs this afternoon? How will you decide who gets what job?”
Mya: We should ask people what jobs they want. Like, some people are really good at organizing the caddies, and they’ll want to do that. But other people would probably rather stack chairs.
Daniel: Yeah — if we just tell people what to do, they won’t want to do it. That wouldn’t be fair. So we should ask people first and try to give them the jobs they want. But what if two people want the same job and they’re arguing?
Me: What do you guys think? How could you make a fair decision?
Michelle: We could do “eeney meeney miney moe.”
Daniel: Or Rock-Paper-Scissors.
Jack: Or you can play Bubble Gum. We do that at recess.
Me: Those are great strategies. And here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to tell the class that you get the final say about which jobs people have. And once you’ve made a decision, there’s no arguing.
Naomi: [Incredulously] So, if we need to, we can just tell people what they’re going to do?
Me: Exactly. Because you’re the Table Leader. Sometimes, leaders have to make decisions for the whole group. And it’s the group’s job to follow. I’m going to explain that to everyone in our class meeting this afternoon.
During our Leadership Lunch, I tried to facilitate, rather than lead, the Table Leader’s conversation. As much as possible, I wanted the solutions to come from them. But I also wanted to give real help by making it clear that I would back up whatever decisions they made. I wanted to empower them and give them the authority they needed to get things done.
After lunch, we met as a class, and I outlined the Table Leader’s job. I made it clear that, in the table meetings we were about to have, the Table Leaders were in charge. Their job was to run the meeting. They would listen to what their team members wanted, but they had the power to make final decisions about who got what job. Everyone else was a team member, who would share their thinking, but then follow the Table Leader’s instructions. Volunteers helped me do a quick role play to demonstrate how to listen to the Table Leader, contribute to the discussion, and follow directions. We also role played what might happen if two people disagreed, and how the Table Leader would resolve the disagreement.
The class returned to their tables, and the Table Leaders — with agendas and job lists in hand — started their meetings. I stood back and listened. At one point, I saw a team member trying to talk over the Table Leader, so I quietly redirected her to listen instead. But other than that, I wasn’t really needed. My Table Leaders had everything under control. They decided who would have what job, wrote names down on the job lists, and taped their lists to their tables.
We were off to a successful start, but it was just that: a start. From then on, I held weekly Leadership Lunches with the Table Leaders. We’d check in, share successes and problems, and brainstorm solution. Through our conversations, we talked about:
- how to tell somebody they needed to work harder
- how to recognize and reward hard work
- how to give feedback — positive and negative — to your team
- how to give incentives
- how to choose your battles
- how to develop team identity and pride
Table Leaders loved our weekly Leadership Lunches, which were always followed by table meetings. As problems came up in our classroom, I’d encourage the Table Leaders to save them for our lunch, when we could problem-solve as a group.
Over the course of the year, every student got a chance to be a Table Leader. And because we held weekly Leadership Lunches, every student also got a six-week course in effective leadership techniques.
The change I saw in my students was profound. Shy students became more confident and outspoken, more likely to share their ideas and stand up to strong-willed peers. Strong-willed peers learned to listen to their teammates, recognize the needs of the group, and follow others’ directions. And natural leaders had opportunities to express what they understood instinctively and to build on their strengths with new tools and strategies.
This structure started as a way to delegate some of my responsibilities and increase cooperation. But like so many simple classroom routines, it became an opportunity for students to learn something much bigger. Students learned to lead and to follow, to listen and to make themselves heard, and, perhaps the biggest challenge for young children, to balance their own needs with the needs of their team.