The Mount Airy City School District considers Stephen Covey’s “Leader in Me” program in its middle schools a hidden gem for students.
Contrary to popular media presenting its as merely seven habits of successful people, Student Services Coordinator Jesse Hiatt stresses it’s not a “golden nugget” but about helping children be better versions of themselves.
According to Hiatt, Leader in Me schools are now found across the country and internationally. It started in 1999 when struggling magnet school A.B. Combs Elementary in Wake County was asked to reinvent itself or loose its status because of its performance. Given one week to come up with a plan, Principal Muriel Summers, who had attended a seven habits conference, sought suggestions from teachers, staff, parents and business leaders about how to save the school.
Summers, who ran into Covey by chance at the conference, asked him if his rules would work for young children. His reply was he didn’t see why they wouldn’t. Putting this with what businesses, teachers and parents were looking for fell into place for Summers as the plan fell into place. It worked and the school not only kept its status, it has a waiting list of students for the Wake County school.
Dr. Darren Hartness, who was the Mount Airy school superintendent at the time, and Lydia Lovell attended a conference on this in Raleigh and were inspired. They returned and the program was started in the city’s elementary schools.
“I think the first thing Covey would tell you is these seven habits are timeless,” said Hiatt. “The aha moment for me was when I understood it is not the seven habits of highly successful but highly effective people. Practicing the habits is a way for me to be better at what I do.”
He prefers to think of Jones Intermediate and Tharrington as leadership schools and not seven habits schools with the approach used to teach leadership as well as other things.
“We are using leadership tools. Leaders are known for looking at data. This is one thing we do in classrooms all the time,” Hiatt said. “It is no longer a classroom job (for students) but something you do because you’re the leader you choose to be. Everybody has a chance to be a line leader. Maybe that’s because the child likes being a line leader. It could be they choose to be a greeter instead they get to do that. It’s about a connection of duties and goals. We are trying to help students identify whatever it is they’d like to be. Setting personal goals is a leadership trait.”
There are academic goals as well personal goals with students concentrating on only a few goals before setting other ones. He said he as seen the personal goals, which are often something away from school, such as making their bed every day, making a difference at home.
“You’re responsible for you, no matter what’s going on around you, it’s your choice,” said Hiatt. “That’s one of the habits. No one else is going to make you happy or sad but you. You can choose to be more positive and on an even keel. You can choose how to act and not just react.” This modeling of leadership is not only carried on between classmates, it is also modeled by teachers and staff.
Hiatt explained each school has adopted a theme. Tharrington’s is “discover your greatness” which translates into discovering what they individually are good at. Jones’ motto is “learning, leading, succeeding” and equates to learning academically and about leadership will help them succeed in what they choose to do.
He stressed this is opposed to the current trend of “reality” television shows which highlight dysfunctional persons. The program remains at the middle school level in the district as it keeps focused on strengthening student educational foundations. Success also depends on teachers and staff using the seven habits as well.
“This is not something we have to do but is what we made a choice to do,” Hiatt said. “Our teachers have to practice the seven habits. They have to go that route so they can teach others. When I look back on the Leader in Me over the four years we have had it the greatest impact has been on me and the teachers, not only the students. I hope this allows me to have a greater impact on those around me as well.”
He explained one example of this is “The Golden Broom Award” given by Jones Intermediate custodians weekly to a class which has kept its classroom the cleanest. Hiatt said classes are excited to arrive in the mornings to find a gold colored broom displayed over their classroom doorway. Custodians felt moved to create the traveling honor in appreciation to students who took the lead on keeping the room’s neat.
Leadership fostering action which supports students as well as staff. Literally and symbolically a clean sweep for all involved.
David Broyles may be reached at 336-719-1952 or on twitter@MtAiryNewsDave.