Leadership through Service: A Case Study of Teacher Leadership Constructed through a Socially Conscious Curriculum

Leadership through Service: A Case Study of Teacher Leadership Constructed through a Socially Conscious Curriculum

By Patrick Duffey

Exiting the fifth and seemingly longest season of the year in education – testing season – and limping into spring break, our middle school’s culture reeked of exhaustion. Amidst this slow-moving train of anxiety and good intentions, more and more great ideas were discussed, but action was halted out of fear of overworking staff. New events or instructional tweaks produced echoes of grunts and whines. For instance, our school’s humanities instructional leader deemed it useful to analyze standard-specific performance on a summative third quarter exam across the grade levels. Utilizing weekly PLC’s, she produced a strategic plan for teachers to analyze their classes’ data in order to produce new re-teaching plans for the standards with the lowest performance. Great intentions did not produce great receptions. Teachers complained about the extra workload on top of tougher classroom management going into break. 

Reading this situation, there could be a contentious debate over who’s at fault: the teachers or instructional leader.  However, that’s not what spurred an idea for me. Instead, I thought about the tasks and workloads being asked. In the classroom, course work and instruction are, sadly, not often partnered with engagement. High levels of engagement spark intellectual curiosity, which can yield positive behavior and a willingness to battle rigorous content. For teachers, intrinsic motivation must be tapped into as well. Both staff and student investment can sprout from new engagement strategies.

Recent coaching sessions and PLCs have focused on instructional planning with the hope to put the “heavy lifting” on the scholars. From a staff culture perspective, having the staff carry the heavy load is beneficial from a learning perspective, but daunting given the state of our staff’s current sagging morale and shifting culture. However, engagement could be a catalyst to make it rebound and maybe even prosper.

In an effort to recalibrate the energy and focus of the staff and students for the last part of the school year, my principal approached me as the eighth-grade nonfiction reading and writing (NFRW) teacher to head a cross-curricular unit aimed at producing social awareness. The topic would be water scarcity. The ELA team ordered hundreds of copies of Long Walk to Water, which they utilized through an almost scripted curriculum for comprehension. The science and math teams would follow up thematically after spring break. The NFRW team needed to jump out ahead of everyone to provide background knowledge on the global water crisis and spark engagement for the various other subjects. I was put in the situation of low investment across both staff and students and asked to create something to drastically change it. If we didn’t start off well, other teachers would have a much more difficult time engaging scholars in their classes. 

Our school had the ongoing notion that people were continually being told what to do. The teachers were clearly told they needed to incorporate this water scarcity unit into their scope and sequence.  The scholars, as they tend to be, have been told what to do every day of their lives, and when they deviate, they become mischievous. So instead of following suit, I posed to my eighth graders an inquiry-based literacy lesson giving the facts of the global water crisis and incorporating specific case studies of countries and individuals who desired safe potable water sources. Going into the two lessons, I hoped a service project would be suggested, but restrained myself from introducing my ideas. Fortunately and truly inspiringly, an eighth grader proposed the students fundraise to build a well in Africa. An idea both simple and impactful, it was most remarkable for the reasoning behind her suggestion. She stated, “It’d obviously cost a good chunk of money, and it’s not like we can solve this whole crisis. But we’re one school and we believe we’re all doing great stuff. If we could do something to change another school or a group of people who need it, they might be able to then go and do great stuff like us.” Despite the vague terminology of stuff and something (I’ll give her a pass this time…), it was inspiring knowing what could be created when things are simply left to grow. 

Throughout March, our leadership team of administrators implemented extrinsic motivators for both the staff and scholars.  Dress-down days were rewarded for positive (or sometimes the absences of negative) behavior. Special lunch treats awaited scholars on the Honor Roll and those who scored higher than 65 percent on network summative assessments. On the teacher side, there was much of the same with the entire month serving as casual dress-down days. Although these tweaks to the school environment were nice in the moment, it rarely translated to sustainable positive culture and performance. In fact, our network summative assessments produced the lowest scores all year. 

This new transition to an initiative aimed at intrinsically inspiring engagement yielded much better results than extrinsic incentives. In fact, the scholars requested a student-led effort to build the well. After spring break, we began hosting fundraisers and partnering with the School Culture Team to create a competition among house advisories to raise the most money. The Water Project (we’re much more creative, I promise) would be conducted throughout the month of April.  Scholars were excited, teachers enjoyed the content instruction in their classes, and our school had the opportunity to better fulfill its mission of making true change across the world and instilling ethical leaders amongst the young men and women. 


We did it! The project’s goals of empowering scholars, motivating staff and raising funds all achieved success. We raised over $1,000, effectively providing clean water through a newly constructed well in rural Africa through the Water Project. 

Through teaching eighth grade, it’s interesting to analyze the perception of leadership from adolescents. Most of the time student leaders are cherry-picked based on grades or behavior. Not that either of those areas are unimportant, but I’m not sure if too many CEO’s are walking around being told they are a success because they’re keeping their mouth shut in the hallway and are always sitting up straight in the conference room. This project relied solely on student interest, and no one was turned away. (I may have made it seem like it was selective to build up some confidence among the Water Warriors.)  So the scholars, who had the responsibilities of speaking in front of advisories or writing to the charter network’s board, weren’t necessarily at the top of the school’s Honor Roll. Instead, it was a mix of detention frequent flyers, artistic individuals without outlets for their craft in the curriculum, social justice minded debaters, and yes, some honor roll students wanted to participate, as well. 

Motivating teachers is much less observational than students. The assessment accountability was a burden teachers felt continually tied down to this spring. Our school’s scope and sequence has always been very fluid across all content areas.  Therefore, adjusting the schedule with something new was welcomed by most teachers. I led the charge by introducing the topic of the global water crisis in Nonfiction Reading and Writing classes as I planned the sixth- and seventh-grade lessons,as well. We were fortunate enough to have the majority of students interested about the state of resource inequality and excited about the opportunity to make a real change. The teachers quickly took notice in March as students brought the topic into conversation in other subject areas. Then, when students returned from spring break, other subjects like math, social-emotional learning and science utilized the theme in their classes. Morale across the school demonstrated noticeable improvements. Discussions in the teachers’ lounge echoed the positivity of students in class instead of entirely negative complaints about behavior. Don’t worry, though, the complaints didn’t completely vanish.

The increase in student engagement caused a welcome shift from a sagging morale to reinvigorated staff and students. All three goals of student empowerment, staff motivation and fundraising synergized well in this effort. Student leadership kept scholars engaged in class lessons. The engagement recharged and inspired teachers through the dog days of testing season. Then the tangible result that the kids will forever remember is that hundreds of individuals will have a water source to accelerate education, business and better health practices amongst a community in dire need. The original plan was for this practicum to strengthen school culture by instilling student autonomy and leadership through advisory. This project was a clear indicator of the powerful impact of leadership training and display from students on the construction of positivity in our school. The plan for next year’s interdisciplinary, socially conscious, global impact learning project is already in the works. I am sure it will help keep staff morale and scholar culture in a better place during and beyond the longest season of the year.

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