Growing up in rural Nebraska there were three things I knew I would take away from my upbringing: a tenacious work ethic, a strong sense of community, and an obsessive passion for Nebraska football. Legendary football coach, Dr. Tom Osborne not only taught the Husker faithful about the finer points of running the ball behind a giant offensive line, but he knew the importance of developing his players as leaders and principled citizens.
In order to establish a culture of responsible citizenship and appropriate social skills, Dr. Osborne implemented a Unity Council. The Unity Council was a student-led group elected by their peers that held all the student athletes accountable for their actions, gave the athletics a sense of empowerment, and upheld ideals of citizenship, discipline, and a positive team culture.
The leaders of the Council were student athletes, and if there was a discipline issue or any situation that could negatively impact the team culture, the Unity Council would meet to discuss solutions and possible consequences. As most are aware, Dr. Tom Osborne is known as one of the most successful coaches of all time with 13 conference championships and three national championships.
Over the years, as I have attended professional development events on effective practices that empower students, I've reflected on Dr. Osborne's Unity Council in which student athletes became leaders, empowering them to become not just better athletes, but better citizens.
The majority of my students at the middle level were students coming from poverty and English language learners. I thought it would be beneficial for my students to have an opportunity to develop their critical thinking and communication skills. So, I began to integrate within my classroom a Community Council, in which students become leaders, and address academic issues, understand the value of character and citizenship, and take ownership of their learning environment by holding each other accountable.
Developing the Community Council
The primary purpose of the Community Council is to empower students to take control of their learning environment. The Council is established by placing students into groups of 4-6 students where each group elects one leader out of their group to be on the Community Council. The Council rotates leaders every two months to give every student the opportunity to serve as a leader on the Council.
With the help of teacher-guided questions, students write bylaws for the Council. As hard as this may be for some teachers, it's important to be open to their suggestions. Remember, this is their Council and if you truly want the students to be able to lead and hold one another accountable, they have to believe in the system.
Students may decide on class assignment expectations, behavior disruptions, bullying incidents, small group expectations, rewards/incentives, and team building activities. In my classroom, the Community Council primarily would meet to discuss behavior matters and team building activities. Of course, the environment of each classroom differs, so team building activities may not be an assigned classroom activity.
In addition to the bylaws, the classroom discusses the role of the Council and what it might look and sound like in the classroom. Classroom scenarios are provided to the students based on the items listed in their bylaws, and the entire classroom participates in role-playing the scenarios so everyone knows what to expect and how to appropriately and respectfully respond to the given situation. Ensuring all students are included in the process of creating the Council motivates students to participate fully in ensuring the success of the classroom.
After the leaders are chosen by their groups, it's a good idea for the teacher to meet with the leaders separately to discuss behavior and expectations. In my classroom, I had the students meet either prior to or after school for approximately 15-30 minutes to discuss leadership qualities and skills, speaking and listening skills, behavior expectations, and meeting guidelines.
The student leaders were provided a sheet that contained meeting guidelines and behavior expectations. For example, I only allowed 15 minutes to conduct their meetings and they had to conduct their meetings using appropriate behavior skills. I also provided my student leaders my Student Communication Model (SCM) a simple script that teaches students how to articulate their ideas and opinions appropriately and effectively.
An example of the Community Council in action would be a classroom debate over a homework assignment. The classroom teacher would announce to the class that this is an issue the Community Council needs to address. The leaders would gather the suggestions from their groups, meet outside the classroom to discuss and share ideas, and agree on a resolution. Meeting outside the classroom may not work, so you may designate an area within your classroom. Once a decision is made among the student leaders, the Community Council would present their solution to the teacher and the class. The teacher may have to ask questions to prompt the leaders to consider the short- and long-term impact on the students and community. Ultimately, the teacher has the final decision if the solution is not within reason.
Ideas to Consider
The leader is elected by the students, however the teacher may appoint one student as well. I often appointed an at-risk student, choosing someone who was charismatic, maybe perceived as the class clown, yet possessed strong leadership skills. This student may require a little more guidance on communicating appropriately, but it provides an opportunity for the student to develop their leadership and social skills, increases responsibility, and often has a positive impact on motivation.
More importantly, this may be the first time they feel they have a voice and that they're a critical member of the classroom, which, in turn, could have a positive impact on their academic achievement.
The Community Council provides a platform for students to feel valued in their ability to make responsible decisions, self-regulate, and be active participants in creating a positive classroom community. The Unity Council had profound effects for Tom Osborne and his football team. They won three national titles, which Osborne attributed a great deal to having the Unity Council.
While the Community Council did not help my middle grades math classes win national championships, it does create a positive work environment for students to achieve their goals successfully.
Victoria S. Lentfer, Ed.D. is a secondary instructor and middle school program director for the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Published October 2017.