Cathy Sork has always had a passion for leadership, dating back to her days as student teacher.
When she became an administrator and earned a doctorate, that passion was put aside for awhile.
But a few years ago, the Dorothy Fox Elementary School principal decided to form a Student Leadership Team, with a focus on service, teamwork and school improvement.
“I’ve found that student leadership is a strong fit with even the youngest kids in the system,” Sork said. “Student leaders at Dorothy Fox have helped to make our school a better place. My meetings with fourth- and fifth-grade student representatives are the best meetings I attend as a principal.”
One of the issues she and student leaders have addressed is playground equity. This has resulted in a “buddy bench” being installed on the playground. If students are lonely during recess, they can sit on the bench, and fellow students will come over and talk to them.
“We have a real focus on being inclusive at our playground, because that is where it all begins,” Sork said. “A lot of times, if there are issues sharing or with a certain game, some elementary schools will just decide, ‘Well, we aren’t doing that anymore.’ We talk about it with the students and try to come up with a solution.”
With that in mind, Sork applied for and received an $1,800 Camas Educational Foundation grant to bring leadership training to all fourth- and fifth-graders.
The “Walk, Talk and Rock like a Leader,” half-day workshop teaches students to understand what a caring school looks like, sounds like and feels like. They learn to recognize and report bullying, and to create a culture of acceptance and belonging.
“I really believe that when students think of themselves as leaders, it changes how they feel about themselves in the school community,” Sork said. “Our student leadership team gets to do a lot of team building and problem solving, and I wanted to bring that to all of the fourth- and fifth-graders. They are the leaders in the school and set the tone, so it has a trickle down effect.”
Sork decided to offer the leadership workshops at the beginning of the school year, so that she can observe whether it helps make a difference in the school culture.
“I really want to thank CEF for this grant,” she said. “I think it will really help the kids learn what it means to be leaders and what their own leadership style looks like. It’s so important for them to understand their role and responsibility within the school.”
During the workshop, the cafeteria bustled with the sounds of excited students. One of the concepts they were taught by an instructor and high school volunteers is the “bird leadership styles”: Owls, parrots, doves and eagles. They also learned the “S3” interpersonal communication skills: Smile, shake and share.
“How can you be nice in the lunchroom, classroom, recess, hallways and cyberspace?” asked facilitator Amy Dunnagan. “How can you notice others to invite, compliment and encourage?”
It was Dunnagan’s first workshop at an elementary school.
“Typically, I work with middle and high-schoolers,” she said. “I am having fun. It’s a great way for kids to get challenged and step up at recess and in the classroom. It is neat for them to interact with others, and I love that the high schoolers are here, too. Hopefully it is fun for all of them.”
Lead facilitator Joe Fenbert addressed the students at the end of the workshop.
“You are going to take all of these skills and put them into action,” he said. “The playground is sometimes a lonely place if you don’t have anyone to talk to, and we don’t want kids to be left out.”
Fourth-graders Owen Chandaria and Austin Gillespie enjoyed learning about different leadership styles and the activities during the workshop.
“I liked that we talked about friendship and gave each other compliments and played fun games,” Chandaria said.
Added Gillespie, “I liked how we got to know each other and learn the names of new people.”
Fifth-grader Avery Gardner liked meeting new people and learning about his own leadership style.
“I learned there are different steps for leadership and that learning about what they are is important,” he said. “I found out I was a parrot, which means in a group I like to share my ideas, and give others a chance to speak and a chance to be included.”
Katie Redmond, a leadership advisor and teacher at Lacamas Heights Elementary, attended the workshop to observe.
“I want to teach the kids what it means to be a leader, and I really like how this is structured,” she said. “It is important for them to understand their role and responsibilities. I also enjoy how inclusive this is, and the way it builds a school community.”