ON STUDENT LEADERSHIP

Should rebels and rule-breakers be appointed to prefect positions?

27 January 2018

One of the trickiest decisions to get right for school principals or their leadership team is the appointment of pupils to school leadership positions.  Whether they are called prefects, guardians, head girls or head boys:  in schools where students are taught to be ambitious, these are usually coveted positions.  In some schools, the situation can be even more complicated if the ambitions of pupils are fuelled by those of their parents.  Many of us can tell tales of tiger mums or helicopter parents who fight their children’s fights for them, who bitterly complain if their child misses out (we usually have wrecked their life for good) or who challenge the principal’s decision and take the matter further – if necessary, to the Chair of the Board.

I have dealt with parents who told me their child was so upset and distressed about not being made a prefect that it messed up their AS Level oral and that she needed special consideration from the exam board.  Others told me that their daughter’s confidence had been shattered for life when they were not appointed.  Two parents at two different schools got in touch with me proactively and tried to question or challenge the fairness of the election process before it had even started and most certainly before any results had been announced.  Usually the girls or boys in question would get over their disappointment far more easily if they did not suffer from the pressure of parental expectation or the weight of having disappointed mum and dad.  Parental intervention often causes the opposite of what well-meaning and misguided parents are trying to achieve:  a sense of failure, helplessness and perceived worthlessness.  Let us not underestimate young people’s natural resilience.

In those schools where I held positions of senior management and/or was directly involved in the process, we certainly agonised over getting it right.  Should we appoint as many student leaders as possible, thus giving as many pupils as possible the opportunity to experience leadership, yet making the failure of the few who had not achieved success even more devastating?  Or should we appoint fewer students, thus avoiding inflationary appointments and preserving the elevated status of these posts?  Should we unilaterally, simply based on staff votes, appoint the worthiest students, thus avoiding the pitfall of making the process into a popularity contest?  Or should we conduct democratic elections and respect and honour their results?  If so:  should votes be weighted?  Should staff votes count more than student votes?  Should the senior year group be allowed to vote for themselves?  Or should they, because of their inevitable bias, be excluded from the voting process altogether?   Should the youngest students have a voice, even though most of them don’t know many of the senior girls?

There are also a whole host of philosophical considerations:  are such appointments a reward for good behaviour or hard work?  Or are they more like an employment contract, expecting pupils to make a contribution, prove themselves and serve others?  If the former:  does that rule out pupils who have a poor track record of behaviour, who blotted their copybook with uniform infringements, lateness or other discipline issues?  If the latter:  should or could such appointments be used to give those who strayed off the path of virtuous obedience an opportunity to show their mettle and to prove their worth to those who may have doubted them?

This is a proper dilemma and one where I have often played devil’s advocate in discussions.  At one school where I taught almost twenty years ago, I had an animated discussion with a very angry girl (let us call her Susan) who felt that she would have richly deserved a prefect position.  I took her out for a walk to help her cool off and get her frustration off her chest.  She was particularly annoyed about the appointment of another girl (let us call her Lily) who in her opinion was a rather compliant and obedient Little Goody Two-Shoes and who, so she felt, had only got the post because she was a teacher-pleaser. 

“Susan” was a spirited girl, with plenty of energy and a strong sense of fairness.  She liked to challenge teachers and boarding staff and she repeatedly skived school services or lessons, smoked like a chimney and spoke up fearlessly for those she felt were treated unjustly.  The positives were clear to all of us:  she only had to learn to channel her energy into doing something constructive with it.  Nonetheless we had felt that appointing her to a prefect post would send out the wrong message to her peers.  She had simply broken too many rules, and I explained this to her, while at the same time acknowledging her disappointment.  “Lily”, conversely, had indeed been a role model of neatness and compliance, her appointment was well-deserved and her contribution to the prefect team was solid and reliable, though probably not as spirited as “Susan’s” would have been.  Since that time I have often kept that situation in mind when judging similar ones in recent years.

I don’t really have the answer but I have made an observation that worries me:  compliance of school pupils, certainly in the private school sector in which I am more experienced, has risen over the past few years.  There are more students these days who strategically ‘like’ their school’s social media posts, who collect potential character references from an early age, who set up LinkedIn profiles and Twitter accounts even before they leave school, joining up with influential people, and who seem to have lost the spark to start a rebellion, to question staff decisions, to learn – in a safe and protective environment – the art of civil disobedience.

Of course it is nice and easy for us teachers to have respectful, obedient and compliant pupils, but at their age I do expect a healthy dose of distrust, some level of critical discussion and on occasion even some form of polite protest from my students, rather than calculating networking.  I enjoy watching them transform into confident young adults who are not afraid to stand up against injustice and who don’t just accept unquestioningly what those ‘in power’ tell them.

My concern about young people who learn, far too early, the art of compliance and of operating tactically, is very much informed by my interest in 20th century history and the cautionary tale how over-compliance, an absence of autonomous thinking and a lack of courage led to the horrors of mass genocide and political dictatorship in my native country.  I completely agree with the judgement of an elderly Holocaust survivor who, after the war, went into schools to talk about her experiences and who told the children:  And all the concentration camp directors said the same thing: ‘I wasn’t responsible.  I just did what I was told.  I had a good Christian upbringing and I was taught to be obedient.’  This kind of obedience is a disaster.  Children must be helped to develop their own sense of what is right by questioning.

Returning to the example of “Susan” and “Lily”:  coincidentally I am still loosely in touch with both of them, now successful young women in their mid-thirties.  Both had to deal with extremely serious challenges:  one of them several years ago when she had only just left school, and the other one very recently.  Both have responded magnificently and courageously, and both have proven to be incredibly good and strong role models.  If anything, this goes to show that anybody can go on to prove themselves and be successful in life, regardless of whether or not they have obtained a coveted school leadership position. In the big scheme of things (parents, take note!), this is a meaningless indicator of future success and should be viewed accordingly.  If you get one – great.  Make the most of the opportunity to learn and serve others.  If not – don’t despair.  The next opportunity is just around the corner.  In the meantime:  be yourself.  Be kind, compassionate, truthful, courageous, authentic and autonomous. 

And in the words of the poet Günther Eich I want to tell some of today’s students:  Seid unbequem.  Seid Sand, nicht das Öl im Getriebe der Welt.  Every now and then have the courage to be a nuisance, to be the sand, not the oil to the machinery of the world.

Maybe as school leaders we should reward such courage.  I have known many a rebel whose reluctance to follow rules and whose questioning of authority was simply driven by a burning passion to find their own path.  It is often said that those who can’t obey cannot command, but those who always follow orders are not necessarily the best leaders of the future.  Entrusting a rebel with responsibility can be the making of them.

There are links to themes from previous blogs:

Leadership in a Girls' School

On Moral Courage

21st Century Skills?

© 2013 by Astrid Seele