Local Elementary Students and Educators Find Success With Leader in Me Program

Writer / Annette Skaggs
Photography Provided

Teachers have a myriad of hopes and expectations for their students. Perhaps they emphasize equipping students with the basic fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic, or put more focus on social and/or analytical skills. Whatever the skill sets that a teacher strives to impart, there is one rather universal tenet throughout the field of education – to provide the student with knowledge and an educational background that will lay the foundation for that student’s success in their life and career.

Leader in Me

Through the years, many programs have been developed to assist teachers in their quest to provide the foundational background for their students’ success, such as using leadership programs. One such program has found success in our area – Stephen Covey’s Leader in Me program.

Derived from Covey’s award-winning book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” the Leader in Me program uses some of the tenets and ideas of the book, and creates a structured model for learning and leadership development.

The Leader in Me program focuses on five specific paradigms of student development and achievement – everyone can be a leader (not just a few), everyone has genius (not just a few), change starts with me (as opposed to the system needing to change), educators empower students to lead their own learning (as opposed to educators controlling and directing student learning), and development of the whole person (not focusing solely on academic achievement).

In using these ideas and paradigms, teachers and students develop a new way of learning both inside and outside of the classroom, which leads to well-rounded development and appreciation for learning.

Fortunately for our area, Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) leaders have paved the way for some schools and leaders to use this tool, such as Middletown Elementary and Principal Danielle Doelling.

When Doelling came on board as the principal of Middletown Elementary about three years ago, her 20-plus years in education, which ran the gamut from teacher to administrator, hadn’t quite prepared her for one of the nation’s most challenging shifts in education, and how we teach the youth of our nation and the world – the pandemic.

After years and years of roaming the halls, with children sitting at their desks or tables, classrooms turned into dining-room tables or living rooms, with teachers instructing via internet through nontraditional instruction. Just as the students adapted, so did our teachers and administrators like Doelling.

Despite having to take a break in using the Leader in Me program because of this new challenge of nontraditional instruction, Doelling knew her teachers and administration could still apply the Leader in Me program, once in-class learning could resume. In the meantime, Doelling certainly had positioned Middletown Elementary with a culture and climate that invites teachers, students and even parents as a place of learning that espouses leadership development and cooperation. Now that the classrooms are buzzing with noise once more, the Leader in Me program is in full effect.

While Middletown includes kindergarten through fifth grade, the Leader in Me program is geared toward third through fifth grade. Instructors hope students begin to build what are considered soft skills, which are included with JCPS’s Backpack of Success Skills, which are: 1) Be a prepared and resilient learner, 2) Be a globally and culturally competent citizen, 3) Be an emerging innovator, 4) Be an effective communicator, and 5) Be a productive collaborator.

Incorporating the Leader in Me program, Doelling has found that her students are doing quite well in reaching the goals of both programs.

As one might imagine, a teacher or administrator cannot just walk into a classroom and begin using the Leader in Me program. There are many required hours of classes, as well as reading and certifications.

Leader in Me

“There are three different parts to the training that we then use to teach our students – Core 1, Core 2 and Core 3,” Doelling says. “In Core 1 we look at understanding the habits of our students as well as diving into the curriculum. Our teachers are teaching different success skill sets or habits each month, and we track the improvement of the students. In Core 2 we look to the goal setting of our students for leadership and development of their portfolio, much like the JCPS Backpack. It is also within this Core that we will impart goal setting for our students, which we affectionately refer to as WIGS – wild, important goals. Within Goal 3 we are now assisting our students in the development and discovery of strength as a leader and student.”

“While Leader in Me was developed using ‘The 7 Habits,’ there is an eighth one that we use – a focus on finding strength in each and every student,” she continues. “Among those strengths is the ability to do for others, so part of our dynamic is service learning. Our students have been involved with numerous programs and activities that include assisting some of our special-needs students, as well as having a drive to collect duffel bags and backpacks for children to use at the Home of the Innocents. Our students are also involved in anti-bullying campaigns and environmental club.”

Doelling shares that the motto of Middletown Elementary is “Discover the brilliance in every child.”

“I certainly share with my staff that we need to strive to meet this, and I believe that the Leader in Me is a great foundation for doing so,” Doelling says. “Not only are we building strength and a want to learn within our students, we ourselves are learning from them. We as educators have an accountability to our students and to their parents as well, that we focus on an education that will serve as a foundation for their continued success going forward in life.”

Doelling says her teachers take continued classes for the Leader in Me program.

“In fact, we will be taking a Core 2 class over the summer, which usually takes a day and a half of training that then has occasional follow-up sessions,” she says. “There are also other courses that our staff can participate in, that take three to four days of training that usually occur over the summer months. Oftentimes, coaches from the Leader in Me program come to us or provide virtual access when we have these meetings and training sessions, as it is the most efficient and cost effective. The program is not at all inexpensive, which may be part of the reason why it is not implemented in every school.”

Doelling says only a handful of schools including Middletown Elementary and Locust Grove Elementary – which is considered a Lighthouse School, a term the program leaders use to distinguish a highly successful use of the program – currently use the program.

“At this time we are experiencing about a 75 to 80% goal-setting rate,” she says. “For the 2022-2023 academic year I’d really like to see us at 100%. I also want to see us sustain the teaching habits and use them as they were meant to be, as a tool for success. In two years’ time I’d be delighted to see a full implementation of all of our goals. I am happy to say that the Lighthouse Group – part of the Leader in Me trainers – will be able to assist in training 10 more educators, including those in our special-needs department and our assistant principal.”

Leader in Me

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