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On-Campus Feature: Collaboration Culture

By Betty Emrey, freelance writer
 
All over Love Hall, the first 30 minutes of every day are dedicated to the cultivation of future leaders.

In Morning Meetings, children pause in the rush of getting to school, take a breath, and connect with themselves and their surroundings. “It’s a safe space where every child’s face is seen, every name is spoken, and everyone counts,” says Becky McKnight, Lower School Director of Student Life. “It’s a process of shaping wholeness, where children develop a sense of self, an awareness of others, the ability to express themselves and to listen. It’s a beautiful thing to see.” It’s in these moments when our youngest Wildcats learn to care for themselves in order to care for others.

 
Morning Meeting activities are actually designed to build the neurological connections that support social and emotional development. “The oldest part of the brain, the limbic system, is the emotional center,” says Dr. Anna Moore ʼ89, Director of Student Support. “It’s very strong. And when it’s activated by intense emotions, it can take over. The part of the brain that regulates emotions and self-control, the frontal lobe, isn’t fully developed until the age of 25. But there are activities we can do beginning with very young children to engage the frontal lobe. For example, much of the development of language happens in the frontal lobe. So the mere act of naming emotions can activate that part of the brain and helps children begin to develop the ability to self- regulate when the limbic system tries to take over.”
 

SOCIAL/EMOTIONAL SKILLS

The lessons taught in Morning Meetings are designed to help students develop the skills they need to succeed as individuals, in community, and, ultimately, as leaders:

  • Self-awareness

  • Self-management

  • Awareness of others

  • Social skills

  • Responsible decision making

Leadership isn’t a new topic at Westminster.
It’s long been a hallmark of our graduates. You just have to glance at the Atlanta skyline to see one facet of the impact our graduates have had on the city. To ensure our students are tomorrow’s collaborative leaders, the School sets a high bar for the evolution of leadership development.

 

"Leaders don’t always have to be right, or perfect, or the ones to solve the problem— they can empower others, rather than doing it all themselves."
- Brooks Batcheller, Upper School Dean of Students

The curriculum needs “to be structured enough to ensure every child has opportunities to be touched by leadership, but not static,” says Heather Karvis, Middle School Dean of Students. “Developing leaders is embedded in the fabric of Westminster, but the process must remain fluid so it can evolve dynamically.”

Westminster’s focus on leadership development is shifting toward a holistic model that creates and connects leadership experiences that emphasize teamwork from pre-first to 12th grade. These efforts help our students develop into leaders who are collaborative, authentic, and lead in a sustainable way.

Collaborative Leadership: “One of the biggest things we work on with students is helping them understand that leaders don’t always have to be right, or perfect, or the ones to solve the problem—that they can empower others, rather than doing it all themselves,” says Brooks Batcheller, Upper School Dean of Students. The collaborative model means we teach that leaders are people who work well with others to move the best ideas forward rather than lone heroes. In this framework, leaders aren’t the only ones in possession of greatness. They’re people who can also develop that greatness in others.

Authentic Leadership: Our students’ leadership opportunities have potential for real-world impact. Last year, a group of eighth-graders came up with ideas to improve campus security. They created a website and gave a presentation to President Keith Evans, which is now being used in discussions among faculty and staff. Our students are developing skills to work with each other and other groups to create real positive change on our campus and in the world.

Sustainable Leadership: At one time, campus leadership was entrusted to our oldest and most experienced students. And every year when those students graduated, a new group of leaders arose who were not only green, but whose development was also limited by the fact that they only had a year to practice hands-on leadership before graduating. With our current model, leadership is much more sustainable. We’re cultivating leadership capacities at every level, and students have many more years and many more experiences designed to expand their skills and grow their abilities.

In fifth grade, students have their first opportunity to take on official leadership responsibilities within the School.

The fifth-grade leadership clubs have been around for a while, but last year, instead of diving right into activities, teachers slowed the process down to create a context for students around what leadership actually means.

“At first, the kids think leaders are the people in charge who order others around,” says fifth-grade teacher Tom Marine. “But then they start to see there are also quiet leaders—those who lead by example and those who step back and give others opportunities.” President Evans stopped by to talk about how a leader’s true effectiveness can be measured in the success of the people around them. Middle and Upper School students also visited to discuss their respective leadership roles. These sessions helped students see that many qualities can define leadership and identify those qualities in themselves.

Then came a brainstorming session between fifth graders and faculty members. Instead of the faculty coming up with a list of clubs, students and faculty collaborated to explore the kinds of clubs that would give students opportunities to apply the leadership concepts they’d been learning about to their areas of interest. While many existing clubs, like the MentorCats, remained, a number of exciting new initiatives were born, including:

AssemblyCats: teams of fifth graders now work together with faculty advisors to plan and help implement community morning meetings for the entire Lower School.

AdmissionsCats: for their first project, students spoke with the Office of Admissions and Enrollment Services about how they could help make prospective students and their families feel more welcome at Open Houses. As a result, they created a virtual reality tour of Love Hall so prospects could experience the Lower School, even before visiting campus in person.

AthleticCats: these students support the PE staff, helping younger students with various sports activities, and collaborate with each other to organize and run a Lower School Field Day.

WCATS: students learn the importance and power of mass communications, working in teams to investigate, write, and produce broadcasts on Lower School news and events, which they send out to teachers who share them with their classes.

Faculty mentors guide each club’s activities, but the wisdom goes both ways. “Our AssemblyCats Club opened up my vision about how assemblies connect our entire Lower School community the same way Morning Meetings do in the classrooms,” says Becky McKnight. “Because of this, we’re actually changing the name to Community Morning Meeting. It’s a much larger vision, and it was totally inspired by fifth-grade student leadership.” Inspired by the common bonds between the two programs, the leadership clubs and Urban EdVenture are beginning to operate in concert with one another under the umbrella of CATapult.

URBAN EDVENTURE

Urban EdVenture, a yearlong service-learning course, offers fifth-graders another opportunity to build leadership skills and become agents of change.

Students drive the entire process, from selecting an organization to highlight at the start of the year to developing a daylong hands-on service project by the end of the course. Over the years, projects have included conducting sidewalk accessibility research along Peachtree Road with the Shepherd Center, creating a Mother’s Day brunch for more than 50 refugee women, and learning to dance with dancers of varying physical abilities with Full Radius Dance Company.

Students enter Middle School ready to take on bigger and more complex opportunities.

“So much is changing for students at this age,” says Tina McCormick, Middle School Chaplain and Director of Student Life. “We want to give them a lot of different experiences. We’re not asking them to be perfect; we just want them to explore if this leadership position is one they can grow into—if they can take what they’re good at, practice, and see if it works. Then they can get some feedback and reflect on the type of leader they want to be and consider the opportunities around them that will help them grow.”

Students fill out applications for leadership positions and attend an intensive leadership retreat to explore such topics as service and ways to develop and instill skills in others.

Global Ambassadors take care of Westminster’s international students by working together and with faculty to design cultural exchange activities. Admissions Ambassadors take responsibility for creating exceptional campus experiences for prospective students. The Chapel Council plans and leads monthly chapel assemblies.

“Sometimes turning the responsibility for running parts of a program over to students can be scary,” Tina says. “But every time, I come away saying, ‘these students really have the vision, creativity, humor, and resilience to do it all.’ And, when they need us, we’re here to guide and support them.”

THE FOUR C'S

  • Care

  • Commitment

  • Communication

  • Collaboration

The four C’s are concepts taught in fifth-grade leadership clubs. The building blocks, however, link back to Morning Meeting, where children first learn about other perspectives and how to listen for what others have to contribute. That’s critical to collaboration, for example, because collaboration is not possible if you can’t see the value that a different perspective provides.

Leadership experiences expand to give students opportunities to see a broader world in Middle School and Upper School.

Through service and study abroad opportunities, they experience the power they have to make an impact in communities beyond our campus. They also begin taking on more significant roles in School governance. Students on the Honor Council are responsible for addressing issues involving Honor Code infractions. “Honor Council members learn how to engage in difficult conversations with peers and younger students and how to balance defending the Code with empathy for the student involved,” says Brooks Batcheller, who oversees the Honor Council. “You can see how the peer message hits differently than if it were coming from an adult. When a student from Upper School comes down and talks about the things they wish they had known in Middle School, it just resonates differently.“

 

"Leadership is the courage to explore my own unique self, to serve with my own unique gifts, and to support others in doing the same."
From the Middle School leadership retreat

 

The Discipline Council is also led by students who are specially trained for situations involving student behavior. “Being student-run gives the process more weight than if it were headed by the faculty or administration,” says Kristin Hunter, an Upper School English teacher who oversees the Discipline Council. Students on the council are responsible to both the School and their peers and are tasked with giving appropriate consequences, but also supporting the student body. “They have to collaborate with each other and vote on whether or not they believe an infraction occurred, and if so, how to proceed. These aren’t abstract lessons. The conversations students have aren’t always easy; they can get heated at times. But the process helps them refine their values and learn to navigate through gray areas. Ultimately, students discover they’re more capable of being morally courageous than they ever realized.”

“Moving from one division to the next isn’t just about being ready,” says Tom Marine. “It’s about thriving.” Lower School faculty and administrators meet regularly with a group of Middle School faculty to discuss how to best prepare fifth graders for Middle School leadership roles. “It’s been amazing,” Tom continues. “Any time you get to work with another division and hear about the opportunities awaiting our students, it inspires us to make sure they’re prepared to put all of the elements they’ve learned into practice.” This year, Upper School representatives are joining the group to unite and strengthen the leadership development experience all the way from pre-first to graduation.

MIDDLE SCHOOL LEADERSHIP 101

In this eighth grade class, students learn self-awareness and reflection and compare different types of leadership structures and frameworks across a number of Atlanta organizations.

The first year the class was offered, 13 students signed up. The second year, that number rocketed to 55.

Upper School Leadership 101, a JanTerm class led by President Keith Evans and Upper School faculty members Brooks Batcheller and Liza Cowan, is another opportunity designed to help students expand their thinking on leadership.

The course utilizes direct experience, readings, reflections, and conversations to explore what it takes to be a leader at Westminster and beyond. As guests including current and former executives from The Home Depot, Habitat for Humanity, and Starbucks, a naval commander, a state Supreme Court justice, and religious and nonprofit leaders spoke, Keith noticed a shift in the quality of student conversation. While they were still interested in learning about skills, knowledge, and technical competencies, the inquiry began to focus more on the value of personal capacities for empathy, patience, resilience, and selflessness. The ways they conducted the conversations were different, too. Ideas built upon others’ thoughts in a way they hadn’t in previous years.

When Head of Lower School Whit McKnight joined as a guest speaker, he, too, noticed the shift.

“The level of inquiry was different,” he says. “They asked the kind of really thoughtful questions about linchpin experiences that affected the trajectory of my leadership and how I have adapted in times when my go- to strengths might have actually hindered a successful outcome. These are very high-level concepts.”

Keith and Whit soon realized this cohort were among the first students to participate in Morning Meetings way back in Love Hall. Now in Upper School, they perceive leadership not so much as an individual role, but as a set of behaviors and a way of interacting.

Upper School gives students opportunities to lead together through participation in student government, athletic teams, and more than 60 clubs covering topics that range from science and math to rock and roll.

 

“We don’t just put groups together and expect them to work well,” Whit says. “We explicitly teach our students the skills that allow them to assert their ideas while also respecting others. We give them opportunities to explore the definition of leadership and to identify and develop the leadership qualities they see emerging in themselves.”

The seeds of collaboration that are planted on campus are tended throughout the Westminster journey. The leadership that grows from this careful nurturing may just be exactly what the world needs.

 

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