What is leadership?

Early in the session, as I dove into the research on classroom management, I came across the following definition of successful leadership: achieving a shared goal through other people’s effort. It struck a chord. Leadership isn’t about the leader at all, but about all those other people expending their own effort. No matter how good the goal, it’s only going to be reached if they’re committed to it, and if they agree with the leader about the type and amount of effort they’ve been asked to expend.

In my Recycled Crafts classroom, I work with a team of four university volunteers to create a safe and exciting environment for our 20 students. If you’re doing the arithmetic, then yes, that’s one adult for every four kids, hardly unmanageable. As it turns out, though, chaos is still the default state, even in a classroom with five adults. Here’s where leadership comes in. We need to work as a united team despite language barriers, differences in vision and experience, and unequal power over classroom resources.

In most classes this session, I introduced the activity to the students as a full group, then assigned them to sit at a table with a volunteer, who helped them to actually execute the project. Play dough too sticky? Add some more flour. Can’t cut through the sponge? Peel off the scrubby part first. Magazine clippings peeling off of the tin can pencil holder? Slather it in watered-down glue. The volunteers helped the students troubleshoot these and countless other hiccups as we used recycled materials to make arts and crafts.

This system, though, left me as the decision maker. I chose which activities we would do and on which days. I chose and prepared the materials. I handled disciplinary problems. I was the teacher, and they were volunteers. Sometimes they performed fantastically, and sometimes they seemed checked out of the class. As those disengaged moments increased, I knew that my leadership style just wasn’t hitting all the right motivational points. So as we entered the last few weeks of class, I asked the volunteers if they wanted a chance as the teacher. They jumped at the opportunity. Fakhri led the class in making colored ice candles; Zaki taught them how to make pencil holders out of tin cans; Areej showed them how to make play dough out of everyday kitchen items and use it to color their own drawings; and tomorrow, Hanin will help them plant “flowers of hope” in old soda bottles.

They all came in on off days to prepare for their classes, thinking for the first time about all the large and small details that go into running a classroom. They had the freedom to try out new games, new ways of dividing the kids into groups, and even new spaces to play in around the center. While they led the classes, I got to sit at the tables with the students and worry about nothing other than bonding with them as they completed their projects.

Moreover, by observing the different teaching approaches of each of the volunteers, I learned a lot myself. No two teachers will ever be entirely alike, but we can all learn a lot by watching each other in action. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from my volunteers as they’ve taken center stage in the classroom.

When we met at the end of each class to discuss the lessons learned, the volunteers were animated and engaged as I had never seen them before. They shared details they’d observed about the children’s work, the challenges around focus and discipline, and recommendations to make the activities better for future classes. And so, it was by abdicating the position of “leader” that I really became one, guiding, supporting, and encouraging Areej, Hanin, Fakhri, and Zaki as they expended serious effort to provide fun, formative activities for the children we have all come to love.


Karen Campion is currently a TYO Fellow as a recipient of the Princeton Class of 1956-81 International ReachOut Fellowship.