It takes an oil tanker approximately seven miles to make a full turn and change course. A colleague of mine shared this fact with me on my first day as the ASB/Leadership advisor at Arlington High School. I was young, brash, and, blissfully naïve. Naturally, I had no idea what he meant. Tankers? No, I was going to change the world.
Except that I didn’t.
At that time, the Leadership program was in rudderless and without direction: the small class catered to 10% of the population, there were few events and/or assemblies, and there was little effort made to reach out and provide a voice for the rest of the student body. It was bad, like, 1980s-movie-about-high-school bad.
Things didn’t improve when I came aboard. I didn’t have tangible vision or the vocabulary to elevate my students. It wasn’t until I scribbled down the title of James Hunter’s The Servant after overhearing John Norlin (gratuitous shout-out) that we found our course. I bought the book and, lo and behold, there it was, all the answers in one place. It was like discovering the Rosetta Stone. The turn had started.
Every Leadership student at AHS reads The Servant, and the concepts of service and character suffuse everything we do. It was slow process requiring patience and public stumbling; however, we’re now at a point where I don’t get blank stares when I ask the students,
“How does your idea meet the needs of our student body?”
We still stumble from time to time, but we’re purposeful in each and every act.
Moreover, we’re fortunate to work with a staff that values character and supports our efforts. They participate and hype up most of our campus activities; they have also integrated the servant leadership vocabulary into their classrooms. As a result, we’ve been able to reach far more students. Here’s what some of the students across our campus have to say about our focus on character (grades 9-12):
“Teaching character has served AHS in a positive way by making people feel good about themselves.”
“It’s hard to walk down a hall and not have someone you know yell out “hey (first name)!”
“The atmosphere […] is very accepting which allows people to really come into their own, including me; it’s helped me gain confidence."
“I get this vibe I don’t get anywhere else. It’s like everyone is family, even the teachers and upperclassmen.”
At this point, we’ve made the seven-mile turn. We’ve managed to change the direction of the Leadership program and, in a small way, our school; however, we find ourselves in uncharted water. We have new administration at the building, district, and national level. Like our country, we’re in a bit of an identity crisis, and I feel the foundation on character we’ve worked hard to establish struggling under the weight of this change. This scholarship puts me in the room with the kinds of minds that will help us chart the next seven miles for the AHS Leadership program.
BEN BALLEW - ARLINGTON HIGH SCHOOL
The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.