In my 12 years of working with middle level student council leaders, I have experienced many lessons learned by my students, and they have taught me countless lessons in return. One of the hardest to teach—and learn—is responsibility. Middle level leaders are faced with many trials that shape their character. Responsibility is a lesson that is often learned through challenging situations, but as instructors we must encourage such traits within our students. My students had varying ideas as to just what responsibility is and how it is obtained.
- The definition of responsibility: One of my sixth-grade student council members provided me with his thoughts on responsibility. His most endearing evaluation was, “Responsibility means keeping your promises.” While responsibility is not synonymous with trustworthiness, he was able to associate responsibility with honesty—which is another important lesson that young leaders learn at this age.
- Be good and do good: Most of the middle level students I interviewed said that responsibility is centered around being a morally good person. This includes simple actions such as listening to adults, respecting others, and behaving maturely in challenging circumstances. While not quite the correct definition, they were able to describe responsibility as being an innately good trait to have.
- How responsibility is taught: When I asked one of my students if anyone is born inherently responsible, she exclaimed “Absolutely not!” She explained that responsibility must be learned through lessons as one grows with age. This is important to keep in mind as educators, as young leaders do not yet have the abilities and maturity that they will have in the future.
Now that we understand responsibility through the eyes of a middle level leader, it is our job to use their ideology to guide them. Not only should we help them understand what responsibility is, but we must also help them become responsible individuals. There are many ways to go about this, but I find that one of the most beneficial ways to teach them is to assign duties directly to each student.
Instill Responsibility Through Projects
The action of volunteering is already an instance of students exemplifying leadership, but assigning students roles within their volunteer work is an additional way to promote taking on responsibility. For example, a project created by my daughter named “Circle of Friends” includes a one-on-one partnership between a student council member and a student in the special education classroom. The student council member is challenged with remembering to meet their buddy for lunch, walking them to class, and including them in social situations. Tasks such as remembering a routine and choosing to be inclusive are a great way to foster responsibility and compassion.
Allow Failure to Teach Them
Although it is not easy to watch our students fail, this is one of the most beneficial ways for them to learn and grow as leaders. By encouraging deviation from average projects and allowing them to dream up far-fetched ideas and shoot for potentially unattainable ambitions, we make room for students to come up short of their goals. In doing so, they are required to reevaluate their plans while thinking about how to better take action in their next quest. In the end, these small failures teach young leaders to work harder and push the envelope.
Establish Responsibility Inside the Classroom
Group settings are a wonderful way to promote teamwork, social skills, and responsibility in the general education classroom. Students eventually assign themselves roles within their groups; this forms scheduled duties. Another great benefit of group work in the classroom is that students can often learn more easily from their peers than their instructors. As they witness other students taking on responsibility, they are likely to mirror those around them.
Encourage Them to Find Their Passion
I regularly encourage my students to explore what they are most passionate about, particularly when choosing volunteer opportunities and fundraisers. Once a student discovers what sets their soul on fire, they automatically assume responsibility in pursuing their goals. It is here where student leaders become risk-takers. This can be achieved by allowing opportunities for student leaders to witness community needs, charity organizations, and volunteer opportunities. After attending a National Student Council Conference, my students report back on the speaker or organization that was most meaningful to them. It never fails that every student’s experience varies drastically.
Teach Planning Skills
Teaching planning and organizational skills can help students grow into their responsibilities. This can include creating small committees, assigning duties and roles, and allowing students to choose which projects they wish to work on. In the past I have created a planning document that allows them to lay out their plan of action step by step. This document aids them in fulfilling their responsibilities with minimal help from instructors.
Remember that young leaders might not hold the best time-management, communication, and leadership skills, and this can mean their responsibility skills are somewhat lacking. Keep in mind that middle level education is a time of growth and evolution in their lives. Patience and forgiveness are key when teaching young students to take responsibility. Be sure to encourage students to try hard, and if they fail, to try again.
There is no formula for perfect teaching, especially when teaching social-emotional learning that is vital to students as they grow and become members of society. It is important to have patience with our students and ourselves.
Penny Allen is a sixth-grade math teacher and middle level student council adviser at Lafayette Middle School in Oxford, MS. She is a member of the 2019–21 NASSP Student Leadership Advisory Committee.