The special ones
Recently, I was asked to nominate a student to support a high profile event. Even at short notice she absolutely crushed it. I knew she would. She deserved the feedback and accolades she received afterwards…they said she was inspiring, articulate, responsive, and confident. Honestly, if humanity manages to save itself from itself, it will be because of young people like her.
Yet, I should have picked another.
This became more and more obvious to me as each of the platitudes came through. I have made many decisions in my life that I have regretted through wisdom and hindsight. This is one of them. So what’s the issue? It all went very well. Didn’t everyone get what they wanted?
Well, do you remember when you were at school that it was always the same kids being asked to help the teacher? Did you notice that the same kids were always given all the special jobs, the opportunities to show guests around, to speak at assemblies, to attend special conferences or events…weren’t they often the same kids who were elected as class Rep, captains, prefects, monitors and all that malarkey? Not always…but yeah…
In my own haste to provide a name to support the high profile event, my unconscious bias took over. I plucked a name from my head, someone I knew would do a good job, and I hit the send button.
I wonder what exactly that wonderful student learned from the opportunity I offered up? It’s difficult to answer that exactly, but I do wonder if it was very much at all. After all, she has done this so many times before. Sure, she’s refined and tweaked some of her craft over the years, and she has by now a bank of experiences to draw upon to ensure that she can adapt to new situations and challenges. More than anything else (above that warm feeling you get when you know you’ve done well), she’s probably become more confident and assured. I’m OK with that as I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t provide these opportunities to students (the opposite is true), but I am suggesting that we should not situate these opportunities with the few. When we do, it’s just another form of privilege and inequity that we are responsible for developing in our schools.
With a pause, I could easily have presented dozens of students who would have been equally awesome, but who would have benefitted from this opportunity.
The well known Pareto Principle specifies that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes, suggesting an unequal relationship between inputs and outputs. This principle serves as a reminder that the relationship between inputs and outputs is often not balanced. However, unlike other principles, the Pareto Principle is merely an observation, not a law, so it is most useful as a starting point to explore the ways things are rather than what they should be.
Throughout my career, I have found that it has described so many of my own experiences: 80% of my time supporting 20% of students in my class; 80% of time supporting 20% of staff; 80% of time supporting 20% of parents… Sometimes, just being aware of where my time is being expended has allowed me to rebalance or look again at my priorities, and sometimes it has made me feel better knowing that the disproportionate use of my energies is…well….normal!
However, when we find ourselves in situations where Pareto accurately describes where student leadership opportunities might be situated, we should be very uncomfortable: we should not tolerate a situation 80% of student leadership opportunities sit with 20% of students. In fact, should we not be working to create a situation where 100% of leadership opportunities sit with 100% of students?
I think this should be our aim, even if we fall short.
How do we out-perform Pareto?
When my own shortcomings don’t get in the way, here are some of the ways that we are trying to out-perform Pareto at my school:
We start with diversity. When I was at school, leadership opportunities looked very similar and were few and far between. Role leadership was available through the captaining of sports teams, debate teams, or in the student council. Luckily, we have a much broader view of what student leadership might look like here: senior students leading junior students; peers leading peers; through service as leadership; armchair entrepreneurship; through outdoor education…and so on.
With such a diverse range of opportunities, it is possible for our leadership to be…
…distributed. Instead of waiting for a few leadership opportunities to be bestowed on the golden few, we work hard to make sure that our students can select from a wide range of activities that they enjoy, where there are opportunities to grow, and where there are pathways for students to lead. This means we are committed to finding students who might benefit from an opportunity, rather than fixating on how well they might perform in it.
As a school, we are therefore intentional in supporting students to learn from these diverse and distributed opportunities. However, we we are also mindful that we do not want to set up students to fail (or potentially waste ‘teachable’ moments) so we need to think about…
…development. Too often we assume that when we give young people the opportunity to lead they know what to do. Some do (for all sorts of reasons), but many more do not. Through trial and error, they eventually get there. However, when they have access to coaches and mentors…magic happens…
With so many thriving young leaders, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a way to honour all of their achievements. Do we try and distinguish everyone? Or just pick out those who we think deserve…
…distinction? Well, our choice is that the only way to honour everyone is to treat everyone as special (even if that means that no one is special). That does not mean that we do not seek to recognise our students, but it does mean that we do not choose to elevate the achievements of some students above others. One of the reasons why students do not put themselves forward for leadership opportunities is because they do not think that they are good enough when they compare themselves to others (Imposter Syndrome?) so we want to create a culture of celebrating inputs rather than outputs.
It’s not always easy and it is not a precise art…and my view is that there will always be extraordinary young people, who do extraordinary things, and we sometimes just have to stand up and applaud.
Really, this specific anecdote just serves as another opportunity for me to reflect on how much work we/I have to do regarding DEIJ in our schools. I am walking myself through these questions at the moment, and I expect I am missing many more:
- How do we account for DEIJ in our leadership offer? Is it diverse enough? Is there equity? Is it inclusive? How do we know?
- How do we reduce unconscious bias when we select students for opportunities? What systems do we need to help us? How should we be accountable?
- Where might we be privileging some students above others?
- How do we choose to develop our student leaders? How do we know we are doing that well?