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Not Going All Lord of the Flies

March 17, 2014

Recently, I had a conversation on Twitter with a member of my personal learning network about how to develop leadership skills in girls within a school community where female leadership is respected by both men and women. I put forth that schools should work to do away with the notion that there are traits specific to males and ones that are feminine in nature because what we really want is an amalgamation of both.

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Intrigued and hoping to develop the idea in my mind, I decided to blog my response.  Here it is:

So do I… I was thinking about your question on the way home from dropping off my two boys at school this morning.  My older son, who is in the throes of being a teenager, was angry about some simple limits being set.  We had given him his allowance, and he chose to spend it on Pokemon cards.  This morning, he wanted money for breakfast at school (the PTA is having a fundraiser), and we usually split the cost for things like this with him.  Upset about only getting one dollar instead of two, he got pretty upset.

The part of him that is so angry is what I think brings about situations like the one in the Lord of the Flies.  It’s been 30 years since I read it so the details are sketchy, but I would say that what they did was an attempt to control their environment just like my son did today.  So, I think kids have a seed of evil in them that when watered can grow into anger and hate.  Just last week, a girl at my son’s school called him a faggot probably because she just wanted to feel better about herself.

So, I think the running thread here is that when people have negative feelings about themselves they act negatively towards others and can lash out when angry.

So how do we as teachers prevent this from happening?  I think it begins by helping students feel better about themselves.  If they are in a good frame of mind, good flows from them.  And how do teenagers get into a good frame of mind?  By being a part of a community where they feel included and where they believe that the things that make them special are valued .  Part of my son’s anger is that his passions aren’t shared by most of the kids in his grade.  While many of the other boys have moved on to sports, music, or girls, he is still loving his Pokemon cards.  And there is nothing wrong with that except that his passion for them has helped to isolate him and garner negative feedback from his peers.  That feedback stems from the negative thoughts adolescents feel about themselves.  So, as teachers, we need to go to war with the negative paradigm in which kids view themselves.

Last year, when I worked at a school for students with dyslexia, I told a group of visiting parents that did earn my paycheck by teaching history but for being a positive force in their son or daughter’s life.  I’m not bragging;  I’m saying that I made it my job to change the way they thought about their past failures in school in order to empower them in the present.  Everyday, I found ways to reinforce the good that I saw in them, and I believe that as their self-confidence grew, they were kinder to themselves and empathetic to others (and they were more present and worked harder both in and out of class).  So as teachers, we can fight back against the tendency for kids to go all Lord of the Flies  (the dark side of the force) by loving them for who they are as people and learners.

Additionally, I believe it’s important for schools to hire faculty who possess the type of traits you want to bring out in your students.  Last week, I went to the funeral for Terry Bartkus who I had the pleasure of working with at Bancroft School (here is a tribute to her from Bancroft’s website).  The massive St. Peter’s Church in Worcester was packed with past and present students, parents, and teachers who came to honor her life.  Each of them had been touched in some way by this strong and saintly woman.  Terry possessed the traits and character we want all of our students to emulate.  She was incredibly hard working and was tough when it came to standing up for what she thought was right,  She also possessed a kind spirit and giving soul and put the needs of others first.  The best way to get students to care about others is to give them opportunities to be cared for.  And when you fill your school with people like Terry, you mute the competitive nature that marks adolescence and provide students an example of how to be a compassionate leader.

Institutions also play an important role in how students treat themselves and others.  Schools that provide plenty of opportunities for students to discover what they’re good at is so fundamentally important that I wouldn’t teach at a school that didn’t have a thriving clubs, arts, and sports program.  When students are able to take part in activities they are passionate about, they tend to create great things,  whether it’s a work of art, a beautiful voice in a chorus, a passion they have for something, or a goal on the soccer field.  But that’s only one part of it.  As communities, teachers need to create opportunities for students to get positive feedback from their peers.  Cheering at sports games, applause at plays, a decision to join a club.  That positive feedback has two purposes: to make the individual feel good but also to make the person providing the praise feel good about making others feel good.  This kind of culture continues to reinforce itself. In the example of a school play –  kids applaud more, actors try harder which generates more applause, which in turn generates more passion, good will, and good feelings.  To take it a step further, the pumped up actor who now feels good about him/herself now has more energy to cheer on others, even those with unique interests (like my son’s love of Pokemon) because s/he knows how good it feels it feels to be praised.  That cycle of kindness creates a warm and rich environment that prevents people from going all Lord of the Flies and instead makes them more prone to do good deeds and to be kind to themselves and others.


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  1. I continue to think about this topic, though admittedly more on a personal level than a broader philosophical one. I am intrigued by the “Ban Bossy” campaign ( because I consider myself to be a recovering bossy girl and have a bossy daughter who couldn’t possibly be any more like her mother! I’ve worked hard over the years to overcome my bossy tendencies. As I’ve matured I’ve learned how to treat people with dignity and respect, as well as discovering that gentler approaches often yield better results anyway. I look back on who I once was and cringe, which is the exact response I have when I see all my old bossy qualities emerging in my daughter. As a result, I find myself being harder on her than on sister. I want her to learn how to lead with empathy, something it took me 30 years of life experience to figure out.

    So my husband and I have been quick to point out her bossiness. We’ve told her that leaders lead by example, not by ordering others around. We’ve seen her abrasive tactics rub her friends the wrong way and seen the hurt it causes her when they push her away. But the “Ban Bossy” campaign made me question if we’re doing her a disservice, if we’re hindering her ability to lead or merely honing it. Just this evening I found this Time article entitled “I’m Going to Keep Calling My Daughter Bossy” ( It gets right to the heart of this issue that I’m wrestling with as a parent and the question I posed toward the beginning of this conversation: how do we promote leadership abilities while also building empathy?

    You’ve done a nice job here of explicating some ways we can do this as teachers. While I agree that leadership skills should be developed in both boys and girls, I do think that females are still somehow different. I’d like to see us continue to build a world where girls don’t have to worry so much about being called bossy and where women leaders are not such intimidating forces (to both sexes). Thanks for engaging in this conversation with me!

  2. In my last blog, I focused on what we could do as teachers, so let me reply to your excellent response by speaking as a dad. I have a five year old daughter that many would call “bossy”. She is strong willed and wants things done her way. As a dad, I want my daughter to have inner fortitude (just like my boys) so when she is challenged by people or circumstances, she will be able to push back and do what’s right. So, being strong willed or “bossy” (I prefer the word leader) is something that I encourage in both my sons and daughter.

    But there are other times when I need to refocus my daughter’s willfulness/stubbornness because she acts in a way that is not acceptable. Just last week, she told my wife, “Mommy, it’s all about me. I want to…” When Heidi, said, “Excuse me,” with a disapproving tone, my daughter calmly repeated, “I said, It’s all about me.” In this moment, she had gone from being strong-willed to rude and overbearing. Knowing that this headstrong behavior has cost her friends at school, we both called her on it and tried to refocus her power by telling her to say it in a different way. (We settled on, “it’s important to me that…” and reminded her that she couldn’t always get her way.

    As a dad, I want all my children to speak up for themselves. I want them to feel enough confidence to take the lead and tell friends what they want to do. Sure, there are times when they should lead, and then there are times that they should follow. I want them to ask to do what they want and to have enough self confidence to provide feedback to others that might be seen as negative. But, what is really important is that they do it in a strong yet kind way. That’s what I expect of my boys and it’s what I want to cultivate in my daughter.

    As a leader, you have learned a valuable lesson: it matters how you talk and interact with others. While you have maintained aspects of your inner bossyness, you have polished it so you can get the best out of those you work with. You are what I want my daughter and sons to be, someone who has power but who leads with respect. Being kind and strong, now that is true power.

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