This month’s conversation is with Kathy Goff, assistant superintendent of Warren County Schools, who has led her district in the implementation of The Leader in Me process and is a certified trainer in it. Dozens of Kentucky school districts are using the Leader in Me program, but Warren County Schools, which serves 14,000 students, has the longest track record with it.
The program, based on Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” bills itself as “a whole-school transformation model” that improves academic achievement, discipline and teacher/parent engagement. Its profile in Kentucky has been raised with its planned use by the 22 school districts that are part of the Race to the Top grant awarded to the Green River Regional Educational and Ohio Valley Education cooperatives.
Q: Why did your school district select The Leader in Me program?
A: In Warren County, we look at it as a process that we use to teach children and adults how to use and practice Covey’s 7 Habits. We believe that these habits are universal principles that are beneficial regardless of individual beliefs, religions or cultures.
The 7 Habits are very sound principles that will help anyone have a more productive life. The 7 Habits of Happy Kids developed by Sean Covey are: Habit 1–Be Proactive (You’re in Charge); Habit 2–Begin with the End in Mind (Have a Plan); Habit 3–Put First Things First (Work First, Then Play); Habit 4–Think Win-Win (Everyone Can Win); Habit 5–Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood (Listen Before You Talk); Habit 6–Synergize (Together is Better); and Habit 7–Sharpen the Saw (Balance Feels Best).
Q: When was Leader in Me introduced in the Warren County schools?
A: We started it about three years ago after our chamber of commerce brought it to our attention and helped us with funding. I visited a school in Olney, Ill., to see The Leader in Me in action and we came on board. The first year, we had eight elementary principals sign on. The second year our other elementary schools came on board and our middle schools followed. Currently, all 14 elementary and four middle schools are using the program and our four high schools have started the process this year.
Q: What was the Warren County district’s goal in adopting The Leader in Me?
A: We realized that we had lots of great programs, but there was a missing piece for students. We felt we were failing to instill motivation and some of those 21st-century skills, such as taking responsibility, being organized, developing good communication skills and learning how to collaborate.
The Leader in Me was a piece that would take our curriculum to a higher level for our students. We also felt that our 2,400 employees could benefit because the 7 Habits are universal principles that would make us better instructors, better workers in our schools, better team players, better with our civic responsibilities.
Q: When a school begins the process, how much training takes place before introducing it to students?
A: We start with an intense three-day Vision Training with the mindset that we are looking at a different definition of leadership. When we talk about leadership, we normally think about people who are “selected” or who are “elected” or have gained a position in some fashion.
This is a new paradigm for leadership: Everybody has leadership. It is our responsibility to find the leader in each child. Next, additional training covers the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Staff learn to apply and internalize the Habits so that they can establish the culture of leadership with students. You don’t do everything at once. By the second year, you see how leadership tools are being applied. Into the third year, you really begin to maximize the results.
Q: How has The Leader in Me been received?
A: Once you start The Leader in Me program, you can’t hold it back. It takes off. One of my skepticisms in the very beginning was whether or not young students would be able to use the terminology. But that is one thing the training really emphasizes – do not change the terms. They will get it. Believe it or not, they do. Nothing is sweeter than hearing a kindergartner or preschool student talk about being “proactive” and about what that means.
Q: Are parents involved?
A: We introduced The Leader in Me in our schools with the idea of perfecting it there first. But students went home and shared it with parents and they began asking, “What is this?” A quick lesson for us was that once we started this process, it spread so quickly and easily that we had to catch up by bringing our parents on board.
Q: Do you teach all Habits at each grade level?
A: The 7 Habits are the same for all grades and we incorporate them in lessons at every grade level. We begin with the first three Habits: Be Proactive, Begin with the End in Mind, and Put First Things First. This establishes the foundation. These are the things they have a choice about – they can decide if they want to be proactive. Habits 4, 5 and 6 (Think Win-Win; Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood; and Synergize) are things you do with others. The 7th Habit (Sharpen Your Saw) stresses balance – emotionally, mentally, physically.
Even at the young age of a kindergartner, we want them to Synergize – learn how to work together, how to be a good team player. We want to teach them how to be proactive.
Q: With so much emphasis on academics, how do schools carve out time to devote to The Leader in Me process? Does this add just one more thing for teachers to do?
A: Many programs require you to stop and do something. But with The Leader in Me, we see that the best way is the natural way. We teach or review all of the habits at the beginning of the year then let them flow naturally throughout the curriculum. For example, a class might be reading a piece of literature and the teacher might ask, “How might this story have ended differently if the character had been more proactive?” Or the class might discuss how there could have been a “win-win” in the story if things had been done differently.
We don’t teach the 7 Habits in isolation. It is fully submerged within the curriculum so that the students see the connection. We have purposely made connections in other areas. We were practicing districtwide PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) as a discipline program. We drew up a correlation so that everyone could see that when you are thinking win-win and you are synergizing, it is all about expectations.
If you think of this as just another thing you have to do, it will turn into a negative for you. But if you internalize it, feel it, practice it and believe it, then you will have the biggest impact on your students.
Q: Are all schools implementing the 7 Habits the same way or individualizing it?
A: The habits are the same, but there is room for individualization. One of our middle schools uses it to emphasize college and career readiness, with teachers adopting a college and creating a campus atmosphere. Other schools have focused on the use of data notebooks to emphasize the way students take responsibility. Student-led parent conferences have been a big hit.
Q: Are you seeing a change in school climate and student behavior and success?
A: The Leader in Me is one of the engines that drives the students in Warren County Schools to a different level of learning and understanding. The program is helping our students beginning at the earliest levels of education to make the connection between learning at school and its application to a successful career and the importance of being a part of the community.
Q: What about academic improvement?
A: It is early to really tell much about this yet because it is early in the process. However, I am very optimistic that it is going to have an impact on our schools. Motivation and confidence are two words that I hear frequently from our principals and teachers.
Q: Would you recommend this program for every school or does it work better in some than in others?
A: Obviously you have to have the mindset and leadership in your school to do this. The Leader in Me principles are authentic and good principles for everyone. In Warren County, we have a high number of English language-learning students and we have found that it doesn’t matter what their cultural backgrounds are because learning to be proactive is a good habit that doesn’t get into any areas that can become controversial.
Western Kentucky University supplies a lot of our student teachers and we hire many of their graduates. They saw what was happening in our schools and began using the 7 Habits with education students so that they will be able to use it when they come into our classrooms. Eventually, we will have students who have gone through 12 years of this and it will totally change civic responsibility and community leadership.
It is forming some wonderful partnerships – the chamber, the university, the district, community. Community leaders are already seeing the impact this is having and how it is changing their family lives. Parents have come and said this has totally changed their homes.
— Click here for more information about The Leader in Me.