Everyone’s worried. Who will pay for Social Security and Medicare 50 years from now? Will this texting/tweeting/PlayStation generation of kids have the requisite social skills to conduct the business of the world when their time comes? How will we support our music, arts and theater if government contributions fall victim to budget cuts?
Yes, there are concerns, but I’m writing with a different message. As a lifelong educator in public and private school systems and director of a summer teen leadership program, I consider myself qualified to assert that we can be hopeful about the future.
Members of every generation, it seems, worry about who will succeed them. Yet youth of the Roaring Twenties, the Depression Era, World War II, the Cold War, the rebellious ‘60s, the substance-abusing ‘70s, and the “me” generation all have, in their turn, risen to the demands of corporate, government, scientific, and humanitarian leadership and have made substantive contributions. And so it shall happen going forward, in my view.
There is, however, a gap. Increasingly, K-12 curricula focus on skills for learning and on subject area content. Our students learn to read, write, compute, experiment, opine, persuade and express themselves off and online. But I don’t believe they learn to lead. They may learn about leadership; it may be nurtured where it spontaneously emerges; it may be commended when exhibited. It may be a kind of leadership that is top-down as opposed to collaborative; it may be focused on product more than process. But it isn’t often systematically implemented sensitive, responsible leadership training directed toward the betterment of students’ communities and the world.
And yet, I’d like to reassure you about tomorrow’s leaders. They are there. They are many. They will grow into their roles as the forces for productivity and goodness we so urgently need. With experience of more than four decades as a teacher and leader of schools and school districts, I now work with an extraordinary summer leadership program. I have seen teen leadership emerge and when nurtured and taught, I’ve seen it endure over time.
There are individuals who make our communities and the world better every day, through their personal commitment to caring, constructive leadership. Many youngsters around the world are eager to absorb and appreciate the skills and knowledge we make available to them and we should do so deliberately and in multiple venues. Teenagers can understand globalism; capitalize on the added value of diversity; solve problems collaboratively; advocate for themselves, for their ideals and for others; lead with strength tempered by sensitivity to the needs of their peers; learn by doing; and improve their communities.
The summer program with which I am associated has an exciting, reliable, replicable methodology. Participants acquire their skills by exercising them. It is an experiential program, not a didactic one. The program curriculum and structure are accessible to others. The staff training component is well documented and has been evaluated and improved over time. The program impact has been assessed and documented, short-term and long-term. The methods can be adapted to a school’s co-curricular offerings or even to a voluntary program on weekend mornings or afternoons.
There is no more important endeavor than assuring our world’s future through the kind of leadership in which people matter as much as products, and helping others is its own reward. I urge schools, other youth organizations, other educational programs and summer experiences for teens to explore and apply experiential ways of teaching leadership for the betterment of our communities and the world.
Judith R. Fox is the executive director of the Louis August Jonas Foundation. She is a life-long educator who joined LAJF after a rewarding career as a teacher, an administrator and a superintendent. Fox has been active and held office in several professional organizations throughout her career. She has been a frequent presenter at professional conferences, an adjunct professor, an executive coach and a mentor.