Table of Contents
- Definition of student leadership
- Why it is important for Directors/Coordinators to encourage it at programs?
- What is the role of the Director to promote Student Leadership?
- Needs Assessment: Figure out the purpose of the student council
- The 5 W's: How to organize a student council
- Logistics: How to start a student council
- General Tips for supporting students
What is student leadership development?
Student leadership development is the process of involving students in meaningful ways both in and beyond the classroom. It is providing opportunities for students to demonstrate their talents, skills, and interests while continuing to develop new skills. It is also about giving students more ownership of the programs they attend.
Why is it important for your program to develop student leadership?
First and foremost, student input can improve and strengthen programs in ways that the Director could not do alone. Students bring new energy and ideas to the program. Second, student leadership provides opportunities for students to get involved and to learn skills that can be transferable to the workplace or community. Finally, student leadership deepens each student's commitment to adult literacy and increases the chances that the student will continue to learn.
What is your role as Director to promote Student Leadership at your program?
Directors have the power to set a tone for the program. The best atmosphere for fostering student leadership is one that is accessible and values student input. It is the job of the Director to encourage teachers and staff to support student activities and recommendations. Students need to see that their suggestions are taken seriously. So, if teachers and staff refuse to implement these suggestions, then students may lose motivation to get involved.
Directors/coordinators need to make a conscious decision to include students in meaningful ways. This is easier said than done. It takes time and energy to find ways to include students. It can mean letting go of controlling how and what happens and being open to new ways of doing things.
One way that directors can encourage student involvement is to support and cultivate the development of Student Councils. Student councils are a great way to find and develop potential student leaders. Depending on the purpose of the student council, it can even be an active tool to improve the program or do tasks that Directors need or want to accomplish. For instance, student councils can organize activities, plan student events, conduct a student orientation, help solve problems at the program, advocate for funds, and advertise the program.
One way to get started organizing or even reorganizing a student council is to have a group of interested students from each class, all levels, etc. meet and do a needs assessment. If possible, try to encourage one or more student leaders to run the needs assessment. Below are some steps to guide the process.
What is a Needs Assessment?
A need assessment is a way to identify and prioritize the concerns, needs, interests or ideas of a particular group of people. When a group is newly formed it is a good idea to do some kind of needs assessment. You can also do a needs assessment by asking individuals questions using an interview format and collecting all the responses.
How to Do a Needs Assessment
Step 1: Think of some general questions that will lead to a discussion about the needs of the individuals participating in the group.
(You may want to focus on only one question at a time)
- What would you like to see happen at our program?
- What would you like to learn about?
- What are your interests?
- What do you see as the role/purpose of a student council?
Step 2: Brainstorm a list of issues, concerns, ideas, or interests.
There are many ways to gather the needs of individuals in a group. One way is to go around the room asking each person to state one idea or issue and keep going around the room until there are no more responses. Another way is to ask people to jot down their thoughts and then share them aloud. (But please note some students may be uncomfortable writing). During a brainstorm you do not discuss, agree or disagree about what a person says; instead you just list all the ideas. There are no right or wrong responses.
Step 3: Categorize or cluster
Look over your list of issues or needs and try to organize or group the ones that are similar and then label the category. Then use these categories for prioritizing in the next step.
Step 4: Prioritize
One way to prioritize is by using dot voting. Dot voting gives each person several votes and allows them to distribute their votes evenly or unevenly across the choices. For example, if you get 3 dots you can put 1 dot on three separate items or you can put all 3 dots on one item if you feel strongly about it. Then you see which items have the most votes and this may be what your group should focus on first.
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The 5 W'S: How to Organize a Student Council
The information below is a guide for setting up a student council. The order of the "W" questions isn't as important as thinking about the answers to all the questions.
The 5 W's are the questions: Why? Who? What? When? Where? These questions need to be discussed and thought about with a variety of people at your program. It may be interesting to see how or if the responses/ideas differ among director, teachers, staff, current students, and former students.
Why does our program need a student council? How will it serve our goals?
What are the goals of the students, program director, teachers, and community?
What do we want to accomplish in the short-term and the long-term?
What do we mean by "student council"? What is the purpose of a student council?
What is the purpose of student council meetings?
Ideally, it would be great to find a student or group of students who want to organize a student council. You may want to personally ask/invite students that have shown some initiative or you may ask the teachers to recommend and ask the students who would be interested in forming a student council. Remember many students belong to other organizations and may have more experience than you realize with organizing groups or planning events, etc. Try to get a variety of students to attend the meetings such as current students, former students, new students, ESOL, ABE, or GED students, etc. If at first, there are no interested students, then maybe a teacher or Director could organize the first few meetings while encouraging or mentoring a student to help lead the group in the future.
Find out the needs, concerns and interests of the students at your program by doing some type of needs assessment (see above), interview, or survey. Decide which issue would attract the most students and plan your meeting around that topic. Once you decide on a topic think about the best way to present the material. If you plan to hold another meeting in the future, assign simple tasks for everyone who attended this meeting. This will increase the likelihood of people coming to the next meeting.
Once the purpose of the student council is decided that will help determine how often and when would be the best time to schedule the meetings.
Determine the location of the meeting. Will someone need to reserve a room or building? How many people do you suspect will attend? This will be important in selecting what size room is needed. You may also need to think about the transportation needs of the students when choosing a place to hold the meetings. Make sure there is food at all your meetings or events.
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Logistics: How to Start a Student Council
Questions to discuss about student councils:
Remember there are no right or wrong answers to these questions and what works best for one student council may be different from what works for another student council because each program is different.
- = some possible responses to the question
What is the role or purpose of the student council?
There is no one right answer to this question but rather something that needs to be discussed and developed with the students because if it comes from the needs and/or interests of the students it will ultimately be more successful. Although there are many options it is important that there is a clearly defined purpose of the student council. Here is a list of some possible ideas:
- To give input about program policies
- To plan special events or projects
- To fundraise for student activities or the program in general
- To support students
- To give the student body a "voice"
- To socialize with other students
What is the structure?
- 1-2 representatives from each class attend meetings. These student reps gather and share information with their classmates.
- Volunteers or elected representatives attend meetings
- Roles: president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, etc.
- Open to all students at the program- general meeting or assembly
- Some type of commitment of one term or one year
Who runs the meetings?
- 1-2 Student leader(s) - voted by other members
- Rotate each meeting- everyone take turns
- Teacher/student team
- Program director/student team
Who attends? (Make sure students are the majority.)
- current students
- former students/alumni
- new students
- program director?
How often does group meet?
- once a week
- once a month
- every other month
- twice during a term/session/semester
- four times a year
When does group meet?
- before or after scheduled classes
- morning/afternoon/evening depending on program schedule
- both morning/evening or rotate
- weekdays or weekends
- during class
- how long are meetings: 1/2 hour, 1 hour, 2 hours, 3 hours
- set certain time each month: say, first Wednesday of each month
Where does group meet?
- student lounge
- staff lounge
- conference room
- Public places like a restaurant, local library, etc.
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Things To Do List
Below is a sample of "things to do list" for a first meeting. Perhaps this would be helpful to pass along to student leaders who are involved with running the meeting.
- Figure out best time to hold a meeting
- Set a date, time, place
- Put up fliers in the classrooms, common areas, bulletin boards at the program
- Ask teachers to announce the meeting during classes
- Personally invite or ask students to attend meeting
- Arrange for some kind of food at your meeting
- Make an agenda for the meeting
- Prepare any materials or handouts: sign-in sheet, etc.
- Evaluate each meeting
General Tips for Supporting Students
Once you have established a student council, the goal is to keep it going. It is important to realize that students may be reluctant to participate in a student council for a variety of reasons. Here is a brief list of some possible barriers and ways to help overcome these obstacles. (Note it may be helpful to have your students brainstorm their own list of barriers and solutions because this will give you insight on what specific things to focus on at your program.)
Barriers to student involvement
- Lack of time
- Fear that their English is not good enough
- Lack of confidence
- Not clear about their role in the group
- Uncertain of the purpose of a student council
- Feel cynical that program will not really listen to their ideas
Ways to Overcome Barriers
- Everyone is over committed with work, family obligations, school, etc. so try to schedule student council meetings during times when students are planning to be at the program such as before or after class. You may want to have students commit to serving on the student council for a specified amount of time such as one term or one year.
- Emphasize that this is an opportunity to continue learning English and that many other students are in the same situation.
- Personally invite the student and tell him or her why their expertise is needed. For example, many students have computer skills, artistic ability, language skills, program experience, organizational skills, or enthusiasm that are needed.
- Assign specific tasks at each meeting. The tasks should support the short and long term goals of the group. Also, encourage everyone to participate in the discussions during the meetings by using participatory approaches such as brainstorming, small group discussions, dot voting, etc.
- Spend time defining the purpose and goals of the student council. This may take more than one meeting to accomplish.
- Be direct about which suggestions will be implemented and why. Discuss and develop ground rules regarding how differences will be resolved. Implement student suggestions whenever possible.
Tell students the benefits of being involved
Make sure you advertise the benefits of being part of a student council. Let the students know what they will gain from this experience such as having opportunities to practice English, read, speak in a group, learn new skills and gain experience that could be useful for a resume. In addition, they will learn more about how their program operates and even help influence decisions about policies that affect their program and/or community. The social aspect of a student council may motivate many students, so make sure to emphasize that this an opportunity to meet new people. Lastly, pay students a stipend for particular roles or jobs where their expertise is needed.
Find out the particular interests and talents of each student
- Plan "social time" with students, and/or teachers and staff. This can be very informal such a coffee hour once a month, softball games, etc. This will enable students to feel more comfortable sharing ideas, thoughts, or opinions. It is also a good way to discover potential student leaders.
- Have individuals discuss what talents, skills and knowledge they bring to the group. Emphasis that students are the "experts" about what it is like to attend their local ABE program and/or to live in the community. Students may also have skills such as knowing many languages, computer skills, drawing, being organized, etc. that are useful.
- Ask students what they personally want to accomplish, change or learn from their experience on the student council. Students want to make a difference - find out how. For instance, maybe a student is really motivated to learn about fundraising and they see this as an opportunity to accomplish that.
- Assign "doable" tasks for all members of the group. For example, students could ask other students in their program about "scheduling needs" for classes.
Provide ongoing support to students on the council
- Go over the notes and agenda from each meeting.
- Clarify what happens at each meeting.
- Encourage students to ask questions and then try to answer them.
- Discuss the "unwritten" rules of the group.
- Help students figure out transportation needs.
- If a student makes a suggestion or states an opinion during a meeting, acknowledge it!
- LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN
A truly successful Student Council is one where the student voice dominates! For instance, if a group of students does a needs assessment and decides on a purpose or structure for a student council that is completely different from what you envisioned, then you need to keep an open mind and support their decision. If your program already has a student council then try to find ways to improve it and make it even more effective.
Ernest Best, Director, Massachusetts Alliance for Adult Literacy (MassAAL)
Voice for Adult Literacy United for Education (VALUE)
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Michele V. Sacerdote formerly worked with SABES, first as the Hotline Coordinator and then as the Student Leadership Coordinator. She presently works with adult literacy programs in New Hampshire and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org