Jen Bladen

I sat down with my future students on a beautiful May afternoon. My new boss introduced me as the yearbook adviser hired to replace the outgoing guy (who was quietly packing his things at his desk in the corner).

I looked around the table at the 20 or so sophomores and juniors and said, “I’m here to serve you. My job is to make sure nothing stands in your way.” Twenty or so teenagers stared back at me, stunned.

I had just spent six years as a yearbook sales representative planning how I wanted this year to go. I’d served my 30 yearbook advisers well, taught their students frequently, and created important relationships with them — and I wanted more. My decision to leave the yearbook publisher and go back to the classroom was something I’d been dreaming of and getting ready for.

I wanted to teach my new staff of yearbook veterans how to be leaders, how to create the best book by being the best of themselves. I wanted to teach them all that I had gathered over my six years in the field. But apparently, I had no idea how to go about that.

When Harvard-Westlake hired me, I was an eight-year veteran yearbook professional. I was fired up to create an award-winning book with a completely student-run organization. “My job,” I used to brag, “is merely to prevent you from burning down the building.”

My first year advising Vox, I was barely able to manage that. For the first two weeks of the new school year, my new students screamed at each other. I would stand at the front of the room, call them to order, call the roll, and try to garner a game plan.

One day during my first quarter, the Editor-in-Chief asked me for a meeting. We stepped outside and she said, “Jen, you’re overstepping your bounds. You said you were here to serve us and you’re just too bossy.”

I’m too bossy?! I’m not screaming at my peers. But okay. Let’s see where this goes.

“Okay. I’ll step back. You’re in charge.”

And for another two weeks, I sat at my desk. I silently took the roll. I let the EIC scream at her staffers. I watched nothing get done. I waited. Two weeks later, the EIC asked for another meeting — this time asking for my help. She and I each identified a leadership vacuum.

While I was thrilled to be back in the role of adviser, what I didn’t know could fill a six-day workshop. And so I found one.

I Found My People.

And it turns out, not many people know how to go about teaching students to be leaders. Teachers can learn to be leaders themselves at seminars offered year-round, around the country. Teachers can send their students to leadership seminars run by colleges, student leadership organizations or even businesses. The only place I’ve found that teaches leadership pedagogy is the Gardner Carney Leadership Institute at Fountain Valley School in Colorado. Fortunately, after my first very rocky year at my new school, I had the privilege to attend gcLi.

gcLi is held for six days each June on the campus of a lush green residential school near Colorado Springs. Deans, principals, Associated Student Body advisers, and in 2007, this yearbook adviser, “learn how to develop the leadership competencies of their students” (gcLi).

When we first got to Fountain Valley School, the 47 of us introduced ourselves. I was the only yearbook teacher in the room. Workshop teachers and attendees alike were perplexed why a publications adviser would care at all about the teaching of leadership. Clearly, they’d never heard my EIC scream at her staff.

Shepherded by some of the greatest authorities on student leadership, we learned the latest research about brain science, social and emotional intelligence, and group dynamics. We participated in ice-breaking activities, team-building exercises, role-playing and other experiential learning. We worked hard, studying diagrams of adolescent brains with a developmental psychologist and learning current leadership theory from giants in independent school leadership. We played hard, kibitzing over beers with new friends, and sharing long stories about our school situations and challenges in our classrooms.

I learned very quickly that my classroom was missing things like ice-breaking, team-building and any direct character or leadership education. I took notes furiously, and I took furious notes. “DO THIS FIRST DAY!” I wrote in the margin next to an ice-breaking activity in my binder. I was desperate to learn how to make my vision of a respectful, communicative, student-run publication a reality.

In Memorium

In 1995, Gardner Carney died in a kayaking accident during his senior year at the University of Colorado at Boulder. James H. Carney II (Chairman of Carney, Sandoe & Associates, a placement service for teachers, heads of schools and other independent and charter schools around the world) and his family, established a restricted endowment at the Fountain Valley School in Colorado, in Gardner’s memory (gcLi).

“Initially, the endowment supported the professional development of the school’s faculty in leadership training. Quickly, however, the idea was born to build a program with a much larger scope. A research project was initiated to reframe the project, a strategic framework was set, and distinguished educators from across the nation were asked to join the dialogue.

“In 2005, these efforts coalesced into the Gardner Carney Leadership Institute, which is dedicated to researching, developing, and disseminating a pedagogy of leadership—research based methods, drawing from the fields of brain science, psychology, leadership theory, and teaching and learning, by which teachers can help young people learn to lead” (gcLi).

In 2007, I was a member of the second class of gcLi graduates.

A New Me.

What I brought back to Vox from gcLi changed my life. I had new ownership of my classroom. I have information about how your brains work that you don’t have, ran through my mind as I called class to order the first day of school my second fall.

We spent a lot more time on the why of yearbook. We spent a lot more time getting to know each other. We found a balance between “student-run” and “taught by a professional”. Of course the change was gradual. But slowly I come to advise a respectful, responsible, communicative yearbook staff full of student leaders.

I sat down with my past students on a chilly December afternoon. My former editors gathered for an informal visit.  I looked around the table at the five or six EIC alumni, smitten with their maturity. When my ’09 editor recalled how she screamed at her staff and the power rush it gave her, the younger editors were stunned.

And I silently thanked gcLi for helping me break the cycle of screaming EICs.