Titles should mean something

If you spend much time around kids, you know what “nose goes” means. You’re looking for a volunteer, and suddenly everyone touches a finger to their nose to signify “not me!”

Last one to touch their nose is “it.”

High school students are very quick to use “nose goes” when you need someone to run an errand, make a phone call, organize fundraising, tutor other students, run a meeting or help keep their peers on task.

And yet, many will step right up when you are looking to name a “leader.”

It’s a little ironic; everyone wants the title, but very few volunteer when actual leadership is required.

A few weeks ago, my outgoing Viewer (newspaper) editors and I selected the editors for next year, and in the next week I will work with econ club captains to name their replacements, so I’m right in the thick of cultivating and naming new student leaders.

It’s a very difficult task. Students are in an arms race to add these titles to their college applications, so the process is emotional and competitive, but many don’t really want the responsibility of being “captain,” “editor” or “president.”

How do we discern who is actually a leader — and who just wants the name? How do we ensure our activities will be in good hands, and that the responsibility won’t all fall on us? And how do we teach students the leadership skills we want to see them demonstrate?

Sometimes this process is so thorny that advisers and coaches give up. I know several who have decided to do without student captains and others who have decided to make everyone a leader, rather than deal with the inevitable parent and student complaints.

I’ve found the best strategy is to give my student leaders a lot of responsibility and make sure any prospective leaders understand the expectations.

When students were applying for editor positions last month, I told them about two past editors, Emilie and Christina.

When Emilie was editor in chief, our printer called one morning to say they were going out of business and couldn’t print the latest issue. Rather than tell me, Emilie took on the responsibility of calling every other printer in the metro area that day — and missing her AP French exam.

She got the newspaper printed, and she works for ProPublica in NewYork now. I didn’t find out she missed an AP test until years later – she never even complained.

Christina found herself in an even more difficult situation as EIC. In her senior year, the school administration decided to impose prior restraint after the students ran an article they didn’t like. Christina and her fellow editors hired a First Amendment attorney, refused to publish under prior restraint and endured a whole lot of stress to protect their free speech. They won their struggle.

Those stories are enough to convince most students that being a Viewer editor isn’t just resume fodder – it’s a real job. And the students who still want to apply? They’re the ones I want.

Rather than giving up on student leadership, we need to find way to make it weightier and more meaningful. Don’t tell me what title you want or how bright you are – show me what you’re going to contribute, how invested you are, and how you are going to make everyone around you better.

We need to teach students what leadership looks like — because they really don’t know. Leadership isn’t a badge or a crown; it’s responsibility and commitment. It’s staying late to make sure work gets done and volunteering an extra shift when someone fails to show up. It’s making everyone feel welcome and sharing the glory when you win.

If we want students to be prepared for college and the future workforce, we need to get them past “nose goes.” We need to foster authentic leadership, so those titles will actually mean something.