Student Leadership

Dear Parents,

Putney takes student leadership seriously, as you know. Teenagers are asked to take unusual responsibility here, both for themselves and for the workings of the community – and that isn’t easy. We are heading into the time of year when we elect and appoint students to a whole lot of leadership positions, and a time when we reflect on the many meanings of that word. Some of our positions are really more management than leadership – work committee, student dorm head, barn crew boss, for example. But it takes time to learn how to hold others accountable and set an example of a good work ethic, and certainly some leadership ability makes management go much more smoothly. Some of our positions are memberships of larger adult teams, and provide relatively little autonomy but considerable influence – trustee, educational programs committee, admissions committee. Some positions, and some of the most difficult, give students wide scope in how to define their goals, and few carrots or sticks to get anything done. Being student head of school, for example, is a difficult and often thankless job – and is, of course, enormously educational.

Students are now wrestling with decisions about what they are interested in doing, what they think they would be good at, and whether they think they might be elected or chosen. Although the student heads of school, admission committee, and cabin dwellers are generally seniors, there are no grade-level requirements for any other position. We will elect the heads of school and trustees before the March break, and the rest will be chosen in the spring. If your child asks your advice, give it freely!

On the other hand, it can feel as if we overdo all this. I worry sometimes that Putney values leadership so much that students who don’t hold a leadership position think they don’t have a real role here, or think that they must not have leadership qualities. I have pointed out to students in assembly that on the list of people who have changed the world there is a high proportion of those who have never set out to lead anyone intentionally– Einstein, Toni Morrison, Beethoven, Jonas Salk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jimi Hendrix, Rachel Carson….the list is endless. So if your child is a pure intellectual, or an artist or scientist, or just isn’t that interested in making other people do things, please help them to understand that we do not value them less, and that their contributions come in other forms. When students find themselves in leadership positions they really didn’t want, but thought they ought to want, it rarely goes well, and it takes time away from the things they really care about.

This Saturday evening we will have our annual Snow Ball, a grand dinner and dance. This year it coincides with our Lunar New Year celebration, so will include an eight course meal and fireworks. I am always amazed at how many neckties and high heeled shoes there turn out to be on this campus!

All the best to all of you,

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