How to Teach Students to Lead and Motivate Their Classmates

Schools come in different sizes and with different resources, but there is one resource that every school has, no matter how small: the students. Students can be a huge asset to teachers in the classroom. They can work together for peer learning, assist younger students, and generally support each other during difficult lessons. 

While your students might be comfortable socializing with each other, they might not have their leadership and mentorship skills sharpened just yet. As part of our future-ready skills series, here is how you can foster an environment of leadership within your classroom. 

Student Leaders Can Positively Impact Entire Schools

There are many reasons to invest in student leadership, but primarily because students make up the majority of the school population. They set the tone for what is cool or acceptable. 

“As adults, we often think we are the architects of a school’s culture, but we underestimate the influence and impact students have on their own school community,” writes Betty Edwards, Ed.D., chair of the National Education Leadership Network for the Special Olympics.

She highlights the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program as a key example of this. The program unites students with and without disabilities to pursue leadership opportunities and form social bonds to improve their schools. After participating in this program, 88 percent of students reported a significant reduction in bullying, teasing and offensive language. Students applied their feelings of ownership and engagement to the rest of the school, creating a better environment for everyone.

There’s something incredibly powerful in peer influence. Peers can quickly become role models and show students what they can accomplish if they just try. 

“When someone else undertakes an action and succeeds and a child can then relate to that person all the while believing they are similar, then they too believe they can do it,” explains Aisling Larkin, children’s food and science specialist and cofounder of Foodoppi. “It is not just the learner comparing themselves to their peer that matters but rather the learner observing their peers succeeding in the task which carries the psychological message that they themselves also have the potential capabilities to do the same thing.”  

Student mentors don’t just inspire others; they start to believe in themselves too. They see their futures in the same bright light their mentees do.

Students can start mentoring by helping younger kids in lower grades. For example, Bartlett High School in Illinois developed a Mentors For Tomorrow program where high school students help middle and elementary students with STEAM subjects. They complete projects together and form bonds as role models. The older students get leadership experience while the younger children learn and model themselves on their mentors.

While you may not be able to set up a school-wide peer mentorship program, you can identify leaders and foster peer guidance in your classroom. 

Mary Ann Burke, Ed.D., who co-wrote “Developing Community-Empowered Schools,” encourages teachers to nominate student leaders in the classroom. These leaders help their peers through language translation, instructional teaching, and general guidance. Teachers can foster a sense of leadership by listening to these student leaders and asking for their ideas to improve the classroom. 

She provides a sample student leader reflective assessment teachers can use to guide the discussion with student leaders on what they learned and how they can improve their role as classroom student leader.

Start by Identifying Natural Student Leaders

Teachers often start by identifying who they think are the natural leaders in their classroom. This is easy for some teachers, but can also cause conflicts for educators working with students with big personalities. 

There are likely many students in your class who want to lead, or try to lead when they can, writes young adult fantasy author Jenny Fulton, a former teacher. She gives two examples: a student who is a natural leader and whose peers look up to them; and a domineering student who takes over the classroom — and the teacher. The latter student is a leader, but needs to hone their leadership skills in order to improve.

Of course, there’s a third example, adds Fulton. The quiet students who doesn’t want to lead at first. She stresses that it doesn’t matter whether leadership comes naturally or needs to be fostered, any student can lead if they have the right guidance and opportunities for growth.

Interestingly, the best leaders might not be the highest academic performers. Jim Schleckser, author of “Great CEOs are Lazy,” says the majority of West Point graduates who went on to be general officers in the U.S. Army (with billion-dollar budgets and thousands under their commands) were B students. 

“Leading organizations rarely has anything to do with pure intellect alone,” he writes. “While A students can make great individual contributors…they may not have developed the same interpersonal skills that B students have.” 

There’s something to be said for students who are charmers or who slack off in favor of chatting with their friends. These students often have the natural charisma and likeable qualities that get them hired.

Then Foster Unconventional Student Leaders

Any one of your students can go on to lead their peers. You’re not limited to fostering leadership in a few high-achievers. 

For example, Nina Parrish, owner of Parrish Learning Zone, partnered her behavioral special education with a class of students with severe disabilities. Each week, she rewarded a few top students for their effort and behavior by sending them to the classroom of students with severe disabilities. They were able to serve as student leaders and form strong peer relationships while they helped the students with academic and daily living tasks. 

“I watched kids lift their heads off their desks, completing their first full assignments in a long time so they could go help the students with whom they’d been matched practice greetings or learn their letters,” Parrish writes. “They realized they knew something of value they could teach someone else. In teaching, they became motivated to enhance their own skills.” 

Both classes benefited from student leadership.

As their teacher, you can create opportunities for student leadership, but that doesn’t mean you should be the only one to provide feedback on their leadership skills. Student leaders and their peers need to evaluate each other on their teaching and learning styles. Educator Alice Keeler created a peer feedback template that guides students through the feedback process. This also makes giving feedback the actual assignment, rather than an afterthought by both teacher and student. 

Learning how to give and receive constructive feedback is a skill that students will need wherever they go after your class, in whatever leadership position they are in.      

Use Group Work to Foster Collaborative Leadership

As you bring leadership into your classroom and look for ways to foster it, consider developing group projects and opportunities for collaborative work. This will give multiple students the chance to lead while working together toward a common goal.

“Some students really do learn best when they can talk over things,” writes the team at Connect for Education. “While they may not raise their hands to ask the instructor a question, when some students are in a peer group, those questions have more of a chance to crop up, and the individuals may be less inhibited about asking them.” 

This benefits both levels of learner, as more advanced students can reinforce their knowledge by reviewing questions and explaining concepts to their peers. 

Michael Ralph, master teacher at the Center for STEM Learning at the University of Kansas, says it’s up to teachers to decide whether they want to randomly assign student groups or form them strategically. While random assignments are fair, you could have some groups that are more productive or knowledgable than others. By planning strategically, you can pair high and low achievers so the high achievers help their peers. 

Alternatively, you can pair students within their ability levels, so more advanced students can challenge each other while you help their struggling peers. This also gives less obvious leaders and lower achievers space to step up and lead when they otherwise would just follow a more advanced peer. Find out how easy it is to see insights on how each student is performing with Ozobot Classroom

That said, one of the biggest mistakes teachers can make in a group project is grouping students as a way to solve personal conflicts. “Class assignments are not the time to force students to get along,” writes Jennifer Rita Nichols at TeachThought. “If you have students that clash often or are having trouble in their relationship, do not pair them for an assignment.” 

Try Different Forms of Peer Teaching

One of the most effective ways to encourage student leadership is with peer teaching. This can be done one-on-one or with one student teaching the entire class.

“Peer teaching isn’t a single strategy — it is a full menu of learning techniques that can enhance student achievement, content knowledge, and student engagement,” writes educator Lisa Hollenbach. This means it is up to you to structure the learning experience in a way that the material is taught in an accurate (though still engaging) manner.  

Teacher Amber Crawford Chandler, author of “The Flexible ELA Classroom,” shares how she inspires students in her literature class to lead through teaching each other. She assigns “passion projects,” where students have to read at least 100 pages on a topic of their choice, review the literature, and develop two projects around the material. These students will present the material learned in a slideshow, which piques the interest of fellow students and encourages further exploration of the materials.

This is a great way to incorporate STEAM learning as students choose subjects that might not be directly literature related. 

Of course, you don’t need to establish dedicated leaders in your classroom to take advantage of peer teaching. Marcus Guido at Prodigy Game lists 15 ways teachers can facilitate peer teaching. These include running peer editing sessions for written work and partnering with other classes so students can teach other and interact with different students. You can modify your student teaching methods to your classroom needs. 

“Think back to when you were training to become a teacher,” writes Lee Watanabe Crockett, author of “Literacy is Not Enough” and founder of Wabisabi Learning. “Did you become a more independent thinker when you were listening to your teacher or when you thought about how to get students to think about a subject while you prepared your lesson plan as a student teacher and while you taught?” 

There are so many benefits to peer teaching that extend well beyond the leadership aspects. Students learn to think creatively and communicate while having the space and freedom to decide how they present the materials. 

Images by: Ian Allenden/©, dolgachov/©, rawpixel, Komsomolec 

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