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Professional Opinion

Transforming schools through ‘The Leader in Me’

Illinois school gives teachers a common language and vision to unleash the potential in every child
Kathleen Miller is principal of Mechanics Grove School in Mundelien, Ill.
Kathleen Miller is principal of Mechanics Grove School in Mundelien, Ill.

School administrators are increasingly being made accountable for improving test scores, reducing behavior issues and creating vibrant school cultures where everyone has a sense of belonging. Adding more layers to this already complicated list begins to entangle the educational system with too many change initiatives—unless we can fundamentally alter the roots of our paradigms and relationships.

Mechanics Grove School in the Mundelein School District in Ilinois is one of 1,500 schools using “The Leader in Me” process to transform education. The Leader in Me unites teachers with a common language and vision. It unleashes the potential found in every child every day. Students learn to take responsibility for their behavior and learning, and subsequently, test scores increase.

The Leader in Me program teaches the principles of Steven R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey found that these life principles can be applied to any individual in any situation, and, once applied, they transform outcomes. Our teachers believe they can integrate the 7 Habits into whatever they are teaching.

Trust is the key

My own experience with The Leader in Me is a testimony to the power of this process. Three years ago, I closed a school and merged two distinct faculties. Both faculties competed for “the hearts and minds” of the same students, and relationships became contentious. Our first step, as we merged the two faculties, was to begin studying Covey’s The Leader in Me.

Soon, the walls of mistrust began to crumble as both faculties left their past behind and began to work toward a new purpose and vision for an extraordinary future. The faculties created a collective school vision while individual classrooms designed mission statements.

We saw changes happen quickly as students and teachers practiced the 7 Habits. This new culture began to align around a common language and a common vision for student leadership. Importantly, the first three habits teach children to lead themselves first, and then to lead others.

As the team began to incorporate the 7 Habits into daily lessons, children transformed their language and behaviors. Discipline referrals dropped significantly. Our union president remarked, “I can’t believe how powerful this program is in empowering children to take ownership of their own learning and behaviors.”

A remarkable metamorphosis

Our teachers began to identify and reinforce each child’s unique talents so often that students began to believe in themselves more. The paradigms shifted from a deficit model to one of strengths and abundant opportunities. Test scores rose. Children took responsibility for their learning, their relationships and their school community. They understood that all of the relationships nurtured within the school created synergy.

Mark, a child who came to America from Honduras, said, “I believe the saying and habit ‘work first and then play’ is the key to my success. I wanted to learn English so well that I went home and studied hard, and now I am a strong student.”

One child at a time

Our classrooms can be likened to a team—a close-knit community where every child belongs and is responsible for the success of the whole. This leadership model begins with uniting everyone behind the common purpose of ensuring that students will achieve their academic and personal goals.

The Leader in Me dramatically increases student engagement, which reduces behavior referrals. The culture becomes focused on student success and empowering children to learn at higher levels. Our teachers say the results validate why they chose teaching as their career. We can transform our schools, one child at a time, and thus positively impact the world.

Kathleen Miller is principal of Mechanics Grove School in Mundelien, Ill.