Lessons on Leadership from a 9th Grader

The amazing thing about learning is that it can take place anywhere, any time, and from anyone.

On Friday, I escorted 50 students from my school’s Computer Information Technology Academy (CITA, for short) to Excape Games in Clarksville, Tennessee.  Excape Games is one of our business partners that invests in students by forming relationships with schools.  On this day, they were hosting us at their business, teaching us about the process they use to develop their games, and letting the students run through a few of them.  I got to play the game “Jail Break” with nine students.  Most of them I teach, but all of them are ninth graders in our academy.

The game was a complete blast, and without giving away any spoilers, I will say that I was shocked at how intricate the game was designed, how difficult it was, and the amount of collaboration that was necessary to solve all of the puzzles.  When we got out, I heard one of the students say “Mr. Walls carried us”.  That wasn’t true.  It couldn’t be further from the truth.  We broke out of the room because everyone worked together, and one student did an amazing job facilitating our performance through his leadership.

I was deeply invested in solving the puzzles, but I kept noticing that one student was coaching and supporting his classmates while they were working on their parts.  He didn’t do the work or the thinking for them.  He didn’t boss anyone around.  He was asking questions that were getting the others to think and consider possible solutions.  It’s difficult to describe how he was doing it; I wish I could have recorded it.  It was one of the best examples of servant leadership I’ve ever seen.

During one of the puzzles, I was working on a task.  The student offered to do it for me so that I could help others.  He didn’t understand that he was the leader the students needed, not me.  I told him that I thought it would be a good idea if he continued working with others.  It wasn’t that I wanted to do the task myself.  I could see that his effect on others was great; better than anything I could have done.  He continued to piece things together and ask the right questions until eventually we broke free.

Once we were out, one of the owners of Excape Games came up to the student and commended him for his performance.  She had seen, while monitoring the room, what I had seen as well.  He was our difference maker.  The student did not realize or think he was doing anything special.  He was trying to solve the puzzles the way he knew how to: by distributing his strengths to support others.

The trip was easily the most fun I’ve ever had as a teacher.  Breaking out was exciting, but the thing I will remember most was the performance of that student.  It was amazing to see one student empower others in such a way that it impacted their performance.  I have no doubt that without his leadership, we would not have conquered the room.  It reminded me of how subtle leadership can be.  That’s probably when it functions best.  As I move forward, I’m going to consider how I can empower others around me in the same way the student did in the room that day.