Author, Todd Nesloney, suggests it’s time to think differently about how we prepare and encourage students to grow as leaders. We should equip them with the tools and skills that will allow them to identify, take on, and solve real-world problems. This podcast explores the “why” and “how.”
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Steve: 00:30 When students lead. Joining us today is Todd Nesloney, the director of culture and strategic leadership for the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. Todd was previously a principal lead learner, a teacher, and he is the author of the book, “When Kids Lead,” a book where he encourages educators to think differently about how we prepare students and encourage them to grow as leaders. Todd, welcome.
Todd: 01:04 Hey, I’m so thrilled to be here. Thanks for having me, Steve.
Steve: 01:08 Terrific. I wonder if you could start with what drew you to focus a book on developing students’ leadership skills?
Todd: 01:16 Yeah, well, you know, I wrote it with my friend, Adam Dovico and we actually run a conference series called, “get your lead on,” where we help adults who are in either aspiring leaders or current practicing campus or district leaders and we really grow them. But as elementary principals, Adam and I were doing a lot of that leadership stuff in our students as well. But as we started thinking about it, you know, there’s tons of books out there for adult leaders. I mean, John, Maxwell’s one of the most brilliant ones out there leading that, but we couldn’t really think of anything out there growing student leaders. So in all of our leadership work, we were like, well, let’s write a book about it and really help any adult whether you are a teacher, a principal, a coach, a parent, it doesn’t matter what your role is, let’s help you understand ways that
we can grow all ages of kids into leaders.
Steve: 02:07 Do you have a definition for what you mean by student leadership?
Todd: 02:12 You know, I think it’s different for depending on where you are and what you’re looking for. I think everybody’s got leadership in them and sometimes it’s just figuring out how to bring that out. I don’t think there is one definition of leadership and we talk about that in the book because Adam’s an extreme extrovert and I’m an extreme introvert. And so we talk about too, how, when you’re working with introverted students, that leadership growing looks a little bit different and whether it may be they’re a great leader and how they write emails or how they do phone calls, or maybe they lead really well in a small group, or maybe they are meant to stand on a stage or lead a large group of people. I mean, I think leadership, isn’t always the loudest person in the room and it’s not always the first person to volunteer or raise their hand. And we really dive into that it has to look different for everybody. It’s pulling on strengths and helping them amplify those strengths.
Steve: 03:06 It’s interesting, I made a click this week – my wife’s an elementary school counselor and she’s currently exploring a program around
bullying, but the program is focused on what she labeled as “training bystanders.” In other words, if you’re in the situation and you see it happen, how do you step forward? And as she was describing that to me, I clicked knowing that I was having this conversation with you and realizing that really would be a leadership piece that somebody stepped forwa
Todd: 03:42 I think you just hit the nail on the head and that is that all of us have leadership within us. In some kids, it just takes a little bit helping them see it, but the same is true of adults. I mean, if you think of growing adult leadership, it’s the same kind of ideas, it’s just that we got to stop making excuses and we just got to figure out how to inspire others to see their own brilliance.
Steve: 04:07 I was wondering as I was having this discussion with my wife, that the tendency of schools would be to identify kids who are “exhibiting” leadership and giving them more opportunities so that you get this smaller group of kids who develop a strong set of leadership skills, where it struck me that we gotta be looking for ways to create opportunities for kids to take on a leadership role prior to being prepared to do it. I don’t know if that makes sense. In other words, you learn by doing. If I put you into the role and I provide you supports, now you’ve got a reason to learn the skill. Am I on base here at all?
Todd: 04:55 Yeah, I think you’re hitting it right on. And that is, sometimes we all have those students in our classrooms and in our schools who naturally step up or we automatically see, oh, they’re a great speake or everybody follows them, they lead and we go and seek to grow them and really amplify their strengths. And what I’ve seen is often those kids who don’t see themselves as a leader, or have never been given opportunities because they often make a lot of poor choices, so people don’t believe in them that they can make great choices and see that those often become the more influential and powerful leaders because they’re unexpected and have untapped strengths.
Steve: 05:34 Yeah, cool. I just listened to a Malcolm Gladwell podcast where he is working with a program for students in a student government setting. And the idea that was being promoted was to base it on a lottery. So all the kids who were in being on the student government put their names in, and the lottery makes up the student government instead of a vote. And as he was talking to the person implementing the program, they talked about the high number of times that teachers were totally blown away by some kids whose names were picked out of the lottery. And those teachers went, “oh no” and then the kids stepped in and pushed ahead and proved the set of leadership skills that that people didn’t imagine that he or she had. And the problem was, we never gave them the opportunity to exhibit the skills.
Todd: 06:44 You know, what I find is often that adults, the ones who get in the way the most, seeing kids lead. And sometimes it is because they’ve made a lot of poor choices before and we’re terrified of putting them in charge of something, or they have a lot of struggles or, sometimes the parents are the ones who get in the way too, because, you know, I love the lottery idea. I’d never thought about something like that until I’ve read about it as well. And I just thought that is such a cool idea to really show that anybody’s capable of leadership. But then at the same time, my principal had is over here going, but I can see a couple of parents whose kids would have ran for president that they are like flipping out because their kid didn’t get selected and they know they would have been voted in and they would have been the best leader. And I’m like, okay, my principal head goes, how do I deal with that? Because the kid probably doesn’t even care, but the parent will.
Steve: 07:36 The more I played with that, I actually ended up doing some writing about it – I brought the word equity into it. I don’t think I’ve ever pondered equity in leadership skill development. And I’m afraid it’s a pretty small group of kids that the traditional school structure creates those opportunities for.
Todd: 07:58 And it’s funny that you say equity because I think, you know, sometimes too, people can automatically, when they hear that, jump to think, oh, he’s talking about poverty or he’s talking about skin color or different things like that. But you know, Adam in the book talks about how at his campus, he had a large population of deaf and hard of hearing students and they were traditionally viewed as, let’s just put them in a special classes. They can’t really read. Some of them can’t communicate with words, some of them can’t hear at all. And he found that some of those students were the best kids to be student ambassadors or to be student council members. Or he even had one of them give the closing graduation speech at the fifth grade graduation where she was up there signing the whole thing and he interpreted it with his voice. And so I think when you say right there is the equity piece, sometimes we’re so caught up in our traditions or in what we view traditionally a leader looks like, or what we’ve always seen done, that we forget there’s so many kids who are often set by the wayside because of boundaries we put in place as adults.
Steve: 09:05 They then lose the opportunity to gain the skillset. So they can have the potential, but not being given the opportunity to gain it.
Todd: 09:15 Exactly.
Steve: 09:17 Is there a particular kind of mindset that teachers need to have in order to be consciously seeking leadership learning opportunities for students?
Todd: 09:29 The mindset that I’m thinking of, it doesn’t even necessarily submit solely for leadership, but I think as educators, and even as parents, the mindset always needs to be, the kids are capable of anything. And they may take a lot longer to get there than some other kids, there may need to be a lot of scaffolding done and a lot of handholding and things like that, but I think, you know, we tend to say, well that kid’s not ready for that. They can’t do that. Well, they’re not meant for that. And it’s like, instead, if we empowered our students to believe that with hard work and effort, you can make steps towards your goals – what do you want to be? What are your big dreams? Let’s go and support and encourage those. And even in the book, “When Kids Lead,” at the beginning of the book, we decided to do something different and you know, most books that you read, there’s endorsements by people in the field who endorse the book and say that it’s got great stuff in it.
Todd: 10:30 And Adam and I didn’t really want to do that because we have other books out there. So instead, we thought let’s use the endorsement section where we endorse kids that we have found across the world who are doing fantastic things. And we interviewed those kids and interviewed their support system. And every single kid that we spoke to, whether they were eight years old, starting their own charity, that’s recently been featured on CNN and the today show or whether they were 16 years old and had their own bakery business and building open, the same thing always became the focal point of the conversation. And that was, the adults around me told me I could do it. And because they were there to support me, I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way. And they had that confidence built in them that I’m gonna make this happen. I know there’s things that are going to go wrong. I know there’s failures that are going to happen, but I’ve got people all around me who were saying, you’ve got this, you can do this. I believe in you. And so that’s that confidence piece, the only way to build that up is to have adults in their lives who can help them see their value.
Steve: 11:41 That’s so cool. The thought that’s going through my mind is, I frequently use the phrase that, anytime I find a teacher who did something great with kids – I did a podcast on a teacher in North Dakota who’s fourth grade kids ended up raising $25,000 over two years and redid the school playground so that a kid with a wheelchair could get the wheelchair out on the playground and do the things that they could do. There’s countless of those examples. But every time I get to the bottom of one of those examples, I always uncovered that the teacher never set out to do what they did. The teacher got the kids engaged, and then the teacher had the courage to let the kids lead. And once the teacher had the courage to step forward and follow the kids, the kids ended up taking taking teachers to a place where we wouldn’t have gone with it with our own planning. I’m wondering if there’s some particular strategies you might recommend to teachers who are listening in here that they could look at implementing in their classrooms.
Todd: 12:51 And that’s the joy of having a book out too, when we share ideas like this is, you know, Adam and I just didn’t share the big picture idea. We went through and shared specific strategies for different people and no matter what your role is and ways to grow that up. Some of the strategies that I think about are really getting to know the kids. You need to know their strengths, you need to know their weaknesses and you need to know how hard you can push them. And the reason I say that is, a lot of kids right away will say, I can’t do that. There’s no way – I don’t want to do that. That’s outside my comfort zone. And so just like with adults, and I think about as me, as the principal, working with my teachers, I have to know them well enough to know, can I push them really, really hard towards what I see they’re capable of or do I need to have little small increments of things that we do because they’ll break really quickly?
Todd: 13:36 And once they break, they will never trust you again. And so all of that centers back on the relationship building and really getting to know the people that you’re working with. Because you sometimes are the only one who sees their strengths. They may have been so beat down and I’ve had so many people in their lives that have said, “no, you can’t, you’re not worthy, you’re not capable,” that even though you can see it in them, it takes a lot of work just to get them to see it. And like I said, you have to know how hard you can push, because there are some kids who are like, “I could never do that.” And you know, but I know I can push you real hard and we’ll get there. While other ones, you’re like, you know what? This is going to take a really long time, so we’re just going to try this one little step forward for you to begin to see that.
Steve: 14:33 It has a coaching sound to it.
Todd: 14:35 Yes, very much so.
Steve: 14:38 Knowing the appropriate challenge for the appropriate student for that appropriate next step.
Todd: 14:45 Yep.
Steve: 14:45 Well, Todd, I’ve really enjoyed really enjoyed this this time. Could you talk a bit about the best way for listeners to find out about your book and connect with you?
Todd: 14:58 Yeah. So you can check out my website, toddnesloney.com. If you’re not sure how to spell Nesloney, you can just go to Google and spell it the best way you can. There’s not many of me out there, you’ll find me right away. But it’s got all my social media, it’s got links to all my books and even my two new campus and culture building courses that I have online as well.
Steve: 15:17 Terrific. Well, we’ll be sure to put the link in the lead-in to the podcast so people be able to find it there as well.
Steve: 15:24 Thanks so much.
Todd: 15:25 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 15:28 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me
your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.