As we were sitting around waiting for the Capen Room to fill up with students and faculty in preparation for the Day of Awareness opening session, Rebecca Peterson and I were talking about leadership styles. Rebecca, who had been nominally in charge of organizing the event along with the student-faculty diversity group known as Community Alliance, confided that she really hates to be placed in a leadership role and sees herself as much more of a facilitator. “But that is a legitimate leadership style,” I commented, adding “It’s also a style that is perhaps especially valued in a girls’ school.” My thoughts turned to last week’s MOCA meeting.

It has been fascinating to watch MOCA this year. As part of the leadership curriculum for the group, I always start off running meetings myself, and then facilitate a transfer of power to the students that varies from year to year in its timing and completeness. After a few projects have gotten off the ground, I ask them to think about what has been working well in MOCA and what hasn’t been working that well, and then ask them to write a MOCA Constitution. Though written afresh each year, these Constitutions have tended to have a lot in common. Usually, the themes include some call for personal responsibility and mutual respect. Usually, the leadership model guarantees positions for both the 7th and 8th grades and sets up some sort of rotation to allow everyone who so desires to have the chance to serve as leader at some point in time during the year. This year’s Constitution is no exception, and yet meetings are working somewhat differently in practice from previous years.

Most Friday mornings, a loose coalition materializes at the front of the room as the meeting progresses. This group may consist of the elected 7th and 8th grade leaders, the two elected representatives to Student Council, a note-taking person or two standing by the chalkboard, and perhaps one or two other general assistants. MOCA members are participating in meetings not just by responding to agenda items and questions raised by the leaders, offering their ideas and their takes on each other’s ideas, but also by reacting to how the meeting is proceeding and proposing ideas on how to facilitate the process of coming to decisions on key issues. Different students do participate to different degrees, but all in all the line between MOCA leaders and MOCA members is far more blurry than ever before.

This past week, I watched them come to a consensus on a general theme for their color wars skit, a list of characters, a way to find out who wanted to play each character and to solve any possible conflicts resulting from multiple people wanting the same role, and as it became increasingly obvious they were not going to produce a script during the meeting, a way to ensure they did in fact have a script in time to rehearse before performing their color wars skit in front of the school. It was impressive to observe their awareness of all that needed to be accomplished, their ability to acknowledge when it was time to lay a specific issue to rest, their sense of how much time had been used and how much time remained, their sensitivity to each other’s needs. It was, I thought to myself, what democracy can and ought to be. Perfection? Of course not. Inclusive and smoothly run? Absolutely. And yet, for much of the meeting, someone unfamiliar with the group would have been hard pressed to identify which students were actually elected to be in charge.

The NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) Annual Conference takes place next week, from Feb. 24-26. NAIS is making a strong effort this year to include educators who can not be physically present, and has set up a webpage for people to be able to follow the conference. Chris Bigenho of Greenhill School in Texas is keeping an overview blog as people prepare for the event, four educators have been assigned as official bloggers of the conference, and many others from all over have responded to the call for additional bloggers and are also linked from the site. Peter Gow of Beaver Country Day School in Massachusetts was among the familiar and well-respected names who jumped out at me, and I eagerly followed the link to his “When did it all become about leadership?” posting on his “The New Progressivism” blog. After looking with some bemusement at how many students today seem to feel the need to develop leadership skills, leading him to wonder whether our focus on developing leadership has paradoxically caused us to devalue the term, Peter observed, “I guess I am just a little puzzled, and kind of amused, that every child today must be a leader of tomorrow. I think we’re overselling an idea that serves the ego (and polishes the resume: “I am your president/captain/leader!”) at the expense of a broader, more historically relevant and socially and politically crucial concept, the simple and venerable idea that participants in a society need to think for themselves and act when they must based on principle and reason.” Reading these words catapulted me back into our most recent MOCA meeting. This was exactly what these students had taught themselves to do!

Periodically, the 7th graders ask me when my generation is going to admit we’ve really messed things up in the world, step aside and let their generation take over. My standard response is that I know a number of people in my generation who are actively looking forward to the day when that can happen. (Personally, while I do believe their generation has strong potential to bring about significant and positive change in the world, I’m not yet ready to give up on my generation altogether.) Peter Gow concluded his blog entry by observing, “Leadership is about knowing when and how to step up and when and how to support–and sometimes oppose–others in the service of making the world a better place. ” Whether or not they would put it in those terms, this seems to be exactly what MOCA students are learning, and what we in turn can learn from them.