5 Success Tips for Strengthening Your Student Leadership Team

John Norlin · March 22, 2017

Being a student activities coordinator is challenging. But even more challenging is being a student activities coordinator for over a decade. You really have to be in touch with your why to make it through the busy Fall when you are working 80+ hour weeks, the winters where you come to work in the dark and leave in the dark, and the long springs where you are doing everything possible to motivate your student leaders to the very last day to fight back that ever present “senioritis”.

However, there are some things that I learned over my decade in the classroom as a full-time student leadership teacher and activities adviser that helped us create a positive climate and culture that infiltrated, not only our school, but our community at large. This advice comes from many years of learning from amazing teachers and activity advisers and from being in the gauntlet of student activities, which although difficult, is one of the most rewarding and purposeful adventures someone could take.

1. Ask the Question that’s Not Getting Asked

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ -MLK Jr. If you were to ask any size group of students how many of them have had a parent or guardian at the end of a day in the last month ask you the question, “What did you do for others today?,” you might be shocked to learn that rarely will a hand go up. What is extra alarming is that our youth are inundated more than ever before with the message, “It’s all about you”. We need to start asking the question that is not getting asked. A teacher at Connell High School in Connell, WA came to a two day CharacterStrong Educator’s Summit commented that he teaches bell to bell and does not want to waste one minute of time in his math classes. If there is ever time left in the period he points his students’ attention to walls of his classroom where he has up on the wall in big letters, “WHAT DID YOU DO FOR OTHERS TODAY?” This simple addition to his math class has put a focus on teaching the whole child and not just one's intellect.

2. Put your Focus on the Little Things and the Big Things Get Better.

The very first switch that I made as a new student leadership activities adviser was where we put our overall focus. Instead of starting every week or every class talking about the activities that we were planning, we put most of our heavy focus on how we were going to connect one on one with students and staff intentionally and without expecting anything in return. I knew when I started advising that this was the right move and aligned with why I started teaching, but what I did not know was how quickly it was going to improve the big activities that we planned throughout the year. Within two years of changing our daily and weekly focus we were getting 1,300 out of 1,500 students to our Homecoming Dance. Within three years our holiday community dinner where students fundraise to put on a wonderful holiday meal for anyone in the public as well as decorate, get entertainment, purchase toys for kids as well as serve those that come went from 89 people attending with 30 student volunteers to over 800 people attending and over 250 student volunteers. In fact, this was happening with everyone of our major activities, more involvement, higher fundraising numbers, and a greater sense of pride in our school and community.

3. Teach a Core Foundational Model

It is very easy in the field of student leadership to pull different lessons from here and there, which can produce some great lessons and learning, but for the information to really stick, we need to teach our kids a core foundational leadership model so that they can have a mental model to connect the different topics and lessons to. We have been given the great gift of utilizing international best selling leadership author James C. Hunter’s Servant Leadership Triangle in which he describes in two of his books, The Servant: A simple story about the true essence of leadershipand The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle. This model enabled our students to really understand "The Why" behind the different skills we were teaching them in leadership and also dig deeper into how a leader builds influence through love in action that starts with a will that consistently aligns intentions + actions. Everything we do hangs off of this model. The best part is that my ninth graders understand it and yet it is a model used with Fortune 500 Companies in big business and organizations.

4. We Need to be Reminded More Than Taught

With the change of focus to the little things and teaching a core servant-leadership model, I needed to introduce a tool that would help students remember day to day what we had been talking about when it came to servant-leadership. We first take our students through an intentional 40 Day Character Dare where they are given many different ideas of what strong character looks like in action. Students are not graded on whether they complete the dares or not, but rather on their reflections during the process. Some students will do only a handful, some will do half, and some will do all of them! Next comes the Character Card (e-mail [email protected] if you want the template and directions). The Character Card is a simple (but not easy or everyone would do it) process where my student leaders and myself would come together for thirty minutes, near the beginning of the week, and set intentional character goals in three categories. One category is “Overall” and asks students to set an overall character goal for the year that would show consistent and predictable acts of service on a weekly basis at their school. Another category is “School” and each week I would come up with a different focus for the entire team for that week only. This goal could be something very simple like writing one note of appreciation to someone in the school who does not get recognized enough, or it could be showing up as a team to greet at the front door of the school on Wednesday and Friday morning to welcome students as they enter to show that we care. The third category is “Home” and this is a goal that changes each week like the school focus, but is set by the student to improve relationships at home in little ways each week. This could be related to doing something without being asked, meeting a parent or guardian’s love language in an intentional way, or putting technology away when a student gets home and spending intentional time with their family

5. Trust the Process

One thing that I have learned from training hundreds of leadership teachers and activities advisers is that it can be discouraging when teaching character-development when you feel that students are not buying into the process. I have also learned from personal experience to trust in the process. When taking students through the Character Dare or Character Card process, it is just as important that students are going through the process of discussing and reflecting on the dares, while hearing others experiences with the challenges, as it is anything else. Sometimes the process is what sets students up to complete a character challenge they would not have done otherwise. Whether it was a girl who did only four character dares, but writing a letter of forgiveness to her alcoholic father was one of them. She did that one. Or the time a boy, dealing with an emotional behavior disorder, found his voice in our class after taking a simple suggestion from one of the character dares to “act interested instead of trying to be interesting” while out on a Homecoming date, later to have his Mom show up to parent/teacher conferences and be told for the first time in thirteen years of schooling by each of her son’s teachers that he was a rockstar. He did that one.


John Norlin

John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.