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Learning to fly at St Dunstan’s Preparatory School

| June 17, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Lorraine Butler-Emmett

Until recently, St Dustan’s College Preparatory School, in Benoni in Gauteng, had always followed a very traditional system of appointing student leaders.

Each year, approximately a quarter of the Grade 7 pupils were elevated to the rank of prefect and assigned mainly ceremonial roles. Three-quarters of the grade were left without any form of responsibility, already declared not suitable for leadership.

In 2015, the head, Craig McIlrath, developed a more inclusive and meaningful student leadership programme. The task involved challenging nearly a century of tradition and the entrenched views of primary school student leadership. The newly appointed housemaster and housemistresses began by meeting with counterparts at other schools, who had embarked on similar paradigm shifts several years ago. This resulted in informative discussions and a generous sharing of experiences, which proved to be invaluable in helping to lay the foundations for a programme designed specifically to meet the needs of our school.

Every child needs a chance

At the heart of all planning was St Dunstan’s ethos of “servant leadership”, and the firm belief that every child in our care had leadership potential and deserved to be given the chance to realise those talents. It was our duty to provide those pupils with opportunities to develop a sense of self-worth, and the necessary leadership skills that would allow them to make a sincere contribution to their school community and be positive role models for their fellow pupils.

As a start, the different areas of school life were used tocreate a wide variety of positions from which the Grade 7s could choose where they wanted to become involved. Among the posts on offer were those of classroom assistant, laboratory assistant, chapel assistant, library assistant, public relations assistant and music assistant. After consulting with their parents, they made their final choices, submitted applications and attended interviews. Each pupil was then assigned two service areas and had to deal with the challenge of integrating their new duties with the other demands of school life.

The enthusiasm and excitement generated by the start of the programme was astounding, and gave us the first indication that perhaps this change in approach had real value. The fact that all the pupils, and not just a select few, were actively engaged in responsible and purposeful tasks created a positive environment for the whole group. The mentors watched the progress of their assistants carefully, offered guidance where necessary and encouraged the children never to be afraid to ask for help. It was during this stage that some of the skills, attitudes and values that they would need as leaders, began to become evident to these pupils.

Leadership levels

Each of the three levels of the programme listed a set of realistic goals for the pupils to achieve, and these increased in intensity from Level 1 to Level 3. These goals assessed the pupil’s progress in: respect for self and others; academic effort (not achievement!); involvement in sporting and cultural activities; community service; performance in their portfolio duties; and development of leadership skills. By performing at Level 3, a pupil had attained a standard of leadership befitting the title of student leader. The most rewarding part of the first year of this programme was seeing the number of pupils who grew in confidence and achieved their student leader badges, but under the old system would simply never have been recognised. This validated the time and effort that had been put into establishing this program.

When planning for the class of 2016, it was decided that it would be beneficial to start the programme at the end of the Grade 6 year, as this would allow the pupils to do some “job shadowing” with the Grade 7s before they had to make their final portfolio choices. The programme had now taken on the shape of leadership as a journey – a magical journey, a journey on which they were going to “learn to fly”. Arrangements for leadership camp were designed along the lines of a flight to a distant destination. Tickets and passports were issued, and passengers had to check in and present their boarding passes before taking off. Never had so much anticipation and excitement been seen at the start of a trip to camp! These pupils couldn’t wait to begin the journey to “earn their wings”. On arrival, teamwork and initiative were the order of the day, but in among all the fun, the “earn your wings” programme was introduced in detail. Expectations and responsibilities were explained, questions were answered and the pupils returned home with a more informed and confident view of what lay ahead.

Process, not product

It has been decided that no student leaders will be appointed this year, but every pupil who successfully reaches all the goals set for Level 3 will receive their “wings” and be regarded as a junior leader. Our aim is to guide as many pupils as possible towards realising their full leadership potential, and with the assistance of an incredibly cooperative and involved staff, this is a goal that can be achieved. This programme has provided our pupils with the opportunity to challenge themselves in new ways and to realise that their contribution is valued, and has shown them that they can make a difference. Hopefully, it has also given them some insight into what they are capable of achieving, and has nurtured skills that will prove to be meaningful in their lives far beyond their daily school experience.

Category: Winter 2016

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