New Approaches to Teaching Leadership Skills

While most educators would agree that it is important to teach students how to be leaders, few have thought more deeply about the best way to do that than Rivers Middle School teacher Melissa Dolan ’98.
In an article titled “Using Systems Thinking to Develop Student Leadership in the Classroom,” which was recently published on the Gardner Carney Leadership Institute (gcLi) website, Dolan shared some of her best thinking on the topic—thinking born out of her own classroom experience. The article focuses on practical techniques for creating a “student-centric” learning environment that maximizes the ability of students to become creative problem solvers.

According to Kate Wade, executive editor of the gcLi blog, Dolan’s article is “one of the most useful and practical roadmaps for rethinking the nuts-and-bolts of ‘turning it over to the students’” that she has ever read. “It really is a ‘must-read’ piece for any middle school educator trying to lean into this work meaningfully and purposefully,” she says.

The content for the article comes from Dolan’s experience at Rivers where, over the past few years, she has spearheaded the effort to redesign the Middle School humanities curriculum to center it around the concept of “systems thinking,” a learning technique that helps students analyze complex subjects. The course she teaches, “Systems of Justice and Injustice,” uses the concept to help students think deeply about the world around them, a skill she deems especially valuable these days given the divisiveness that characterizes the political landscape.

“Civics teachers across the country have been challenged in many ways over the years while trying to navigate the increasingly polarized political environment. The teaching approaches many of us have relied upon in the past suddenly weren’t working as effectively,” says Dolan. “So we’re in uncharted territory at times, and this approach felt to me like an answer to some daunting questions I was facing in the classroom.”

In her article, Dolan shares some of the teaching techniques she has found to be especially useful, and even discusses some of the self-doubts she encountered as she crafted her new approach to teaching. While Dolan acknowledges that the process of developing and implementing new teaching techniques is not easy, she encourages teachers to lean into the challenge.

“On days when it might be easier to retreat to old teaching approaches,” she writes, “I remind myself that if we want the next generation of problem-solvers to be more successful than this one, we have to do our part to chart a new course.”