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How Student Leadership Builds Strong Character in Boys

By Alexandra McMullen
Last year, sixth grade English teacher and Middle School Dean of Students Alexandra McMullen was selected to serve as a researcher for the International Boys’ School Coalition, an organization that serves boys’ schools and the interests of boys’ education around the globe. As a researcher, she was tasked with pinpointing and enhancing an area of character education programming within The Fessenden School that needed improvement. Here, she shares her mission and her findings. 

It is 11:40 a.m. In the Middle School, fourth period has just been dismissed and it is time for lunch. Boys race through the hallways and up to the lunchroom, pausing only to grab a blazer or tuck in a disheveled shirt. Once inside, the dining hall is abuzz with the clinking of glasses and clattering of silverware being laid out for the meal. As lunch officially commences, a sixth grade boy is found at the head of every table. He organizes the start of the meal and addresses the members of his table by name with a kind tone and a welcoming smile. Shirt neatly tucked in and a Fessy Bear pin on the right lapel of his blazer, each student leader is easily recognizable by his appearance, but more so by his enthusiastic attitude and unique leadership style. Although enthusiasm is innate for these boys, their leadership styles continue to evolve throughout each week of their experience as table monitors.

In June 2013, I embarked on a journey to study how student growth is fostered through leadership training. I felt passionately about this topic for a number of reasons. Strengthening leadership skills can assist in building a boy’s self confidence, as well as give him the tools that will be needed for future success. Most notably, the way a boy experiences leadership, observes it in action, and reflects upon the experience, helps to shape his understanding of what it means to lead.

At Fessenden, sixth graders are the role models in our Middle School, yet historically, they have had few opportunities to hone their leadership skills through relevant and meaningful school experiences. I wanted to address the question of how social modeling opportunities could enhance sixth grade boys' understanding of leadership within their community. I set out to examine the benefits of action research as a means to evaluate and implement character education programming at our school. It was through this approach, which uses a mixture of qualitative and quantitative research methods, that I gathered and analyzed information I would later use to implement positive change.

With the initial building blocks of my study in place, this new program was presented to the sixth grade in September 2013, and boys were encouraged to apply for one of three sessions: fall, winter, or spring. Candidates were evaluated using an application process, which included a written statement, faculty input, and behavioral analysis. Once selected, I coached seventeen boys on how to run an effective table with an emphasis on three major domains: etiquette, organization, and setting a tone at their table. Students had weekly or bi-weekly opportunities to meet as a group in order to solicit feedback from their peers as well as from me. By grappling with the everyday challenges that running a table in the lunchroom provides, such as how to assign jobs to their friends, spark conversation at the table, and reduce conflict, my hope was that boys acting as table monitors would develop a practical understanding of the skills needed to deal effectively with peers. But perhaps my greatest hope for these boys was that this experience would strengthen their understanding of what it means to be a leader in their school community.

The findings of my research indicated that participation in this program did enhance boys’ overall understanding of leadership, and helped to strengthen their leadership skills. One of the most exciting outcomes of this study was observing the boys take an active part in helping one another. For example, the boys who were struggling with a particular task received excellent suggestions from others who had experienced a similar challenge. It was beautiful to witness them celebrate their successes and troubleshoot challenges with each other. This also played out in how they positively interacted with and mentored the boys at their table communities. The weekly meetings also helped the boys to further hone their leadership skills because they were open with one another when it came to asking for help. This indicated to me that, although this program had an impact on strengthening their understanding of leadership, the bonds they created with one another were equally influential and one of the greatest benefits of this type of programming. The findings from this project will inform how we structure the training for other leadership programs at the School.

Fast forward to October of 2014. The program is in full swing, with the newest group of table monitors now wearing their Fessy Bear pins, symbolizing their status as leaders. The dining hall is abuzz with the clinking of glasses and clattering of silverware being laid out for the meal. A sixth grade boy can be found at the head of every table, his face beaming with pride at the realization that this is his time to lead.

Author's Note: The IBSC action research project took place from September 30 through December 20th, 2013. The findings from that first group helped to inform changes that have since been implemented. If you are interested in reading the full report, or other reports about character education on an international platform, they can be found by visiting the IBSC’s website.
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