by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — What is leadership? What traits do good leaders have in common? How do people exhibit leadership in their daily lives?
These are just a few of the questions students from Topeka’s Washburn University tried to encourage students in the sixth through eighth grades at Holy Family Grade School in Topeka to consider as part of one session of the school’s advisory program.
Now in its second year, the program consists of students in small groups participating in half-hour sessions every Monday afternoon. The program covers five main topics or subjects, including: vocations and career awareness; digital citizenship and information literacy; organization; philosophy; and leadership.
While faculty and staff lead the various sessions, the school has also hosted people from the Topeka community. For example, during a session held earlier this school year about career awareness, Marisol Estrella Marcelo, a graduate of the school, spoke about her work as the director of marketing for one of the city’s Catholic funeral homes.
The required advisory program was the idea of principal Travis Lamb. And while many of the topics are not necessarily traditionally taught in depth at the middle school level, Lamb said he thinks it’s important to start talking with kids about these topics earlier. So, he took the idea to the faculty.
“We wanted to formalize this in a way and structure it so we can give it the attention it deserves,” he said. “I think the kids like it. Philosophy can sometimes be heavy for them, but we wanted to get them prepared for high school. . . . When they get to high school, they’re expected to know some of this.”
Lamb speaks from experience.
Previously, Lamb taught at the city’s only Catholic high school, Hayden. He took students to participate in Washburn University’s Leadership Challenge, an annual two-day event during which student teams of five “compete to fulfill the challenges and overcome the obstacles placed before them in a manner that demonstrates exemplary leadership knowledge and execution.” The competition is hosted by the Washburn University Leadership Institute.
Upon his arrival at Holy Family School, Lamb inquired about the possibility of a middle school competition or program. Instead, the Washburn University Leadership Institute offered for its students to come to the school and facilitate some conversations and activities about leadership.
And so, this past September, Kira Bird, Rhen Calhoon and Stephanie Vannetti came to the classroom of Jeff Stuewe and led a discussion, encouraging the kids to think about how they can exercise leadership every day, whether within the classroom, their families or on sports teams. The trio also encouraged the kids to come up with their own lists of good leaders and consider their personality traits.
For Calhoon, a graduate of Hayden, the experience helped her develop confidence.
“Leadership definitely builds. If you instill it at a young age, it just helps you become more confident as you mature,” said Calhoon. “All of the things I learned as an adult I could have used as a high school or middle school student.”
So, exactly what do the students themselves think about the program?
Seventh grader Joey Schneider said the sessions, especially those focusing on leadership, have helped him learn how to be a better leader, particularly to his basketball teammates.
“I’ve learned how to better listen to my teammates and help them through the hard times,” he said.
Snyder’s classmate, Sophia Torrez, agreed, saying the advisory program has given her a better “understanding of how high school and the real world are going to be.”