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CAG Blog: Powered by Optimism

"Powered by Optimism" captures my reflections of life in and around an all-girls' school and highlights the values of C.A.G.: leadership, global citizenship, wellness, and teaching and learning. Underscoring it all is a deeply ingrained sense of optimism that we are preparing a generation of boldly creative women who will help change the world.

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the story of lilly- 1.8.13

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01/08/13 12:00 AM   | reply

How do we define leadership? As a member of a group of faculty grappling with that question at our School, the story of Lilly has become a bit of a crucible for us.

Lilly did not merely bring our attention to the idea that even four-year old girls can exhibit leadership, she has also forced us to question what in her environment allowed her to feel free enough to step up and be heard.

Here is the story of Lilly, as told to us by her teacher.

One day, in the PreK classroom, all the girls were busy at various stations set up across the room. Lilly, a quiet “follower” was talking with her teacher about her shirt. Her shirt had “Ho Ho Ho” written on it, and the teacher wanted to know if Lilly could read the words. Lilly could – and her teacher then asked her if she could write the words on the board. 

With great concentration, Lilly wrote “Ho Ho Ho” on the board. Her teacher then asked her if she could count the letters. Lilly counted them – one, two, three, all the way to six. 

We can assume her teacher praised her for a job well done, but Lilly was not finished yet.

In that moment of her accomplishment, Lilly also found her voice. She grabbed hold of her confidence and let herself be known.

One by one, Lilly called over her classmates and asked them to copy “Ho Ho Ho” on the board. She did this with such quiet authority, not one girl resisted. One by one, the pre-K girls moved to the board and wrote the words on the board, looking to Lilly for confirmation they had got it “right”.

Lilly, standing slightly off to the side, cocked her head and pursed her lips in quiet appraisal, much like she had seen her teacher do for the three months she had been in the classroom. Each girl received the praise they deserved, but each girl was also asked to count the letters in the words before they were released back to their previous activities.

The interactions with her peers must have propelled Lilly toward an even greater need to exercise the leadership she had just discovered, for Lilly asked each girl to come back a second time and do it all again. And again, each girl complied. 

We can dismiss this story as a happy accident – a random moment in a girl’s life in which she found the confidence and motivation to organize an activity for her peers. We can also look more closely at the components of this moment and ask ourselves why and how Lilly was able to accomplish her task. Why did the girls comply? What motivated Lilly to ask her peers to join her at the board?

In my mind, there are a number of aspects to this story that bear remembering.

For one, Lilly’s teacher knew to engage Lilly in a relevant exercise of literacy and numeracy. Lilly was motivated (as we know that all students are) by the immediate real-world application of the task. She was learning to decipher and make sense of a shirt she was wearing, and we can assume, she liked 

Lilly’s teacher also knew to get out of her way when she started asking her classmates to join her at the board. Her teacher understood this moment of Lilly’s confidence and let her try her hand at engaging her peers. This point especially speaks to the importance of creating an environment in which girls can “find their voice” without the interference of adults.

There is something particularly appealing about Lilly’s imitation of her teacher as she called the other girls to the board – pursing her lips, cocking her head – and it begs the question whether the youngest of girls learn leadership through the act of observation of adults and then, the imitation of their actions. Our assumption here can be that as Lilly grows up, she will not continue to imitate, but find her own version of how to influence others. 

A more difficult question to answer, without the benefit of talking with the other girls in the classroom, is why every single girl complied with Lilly’s request. We might assume that she exuded authority, but how she did that may remain an unanswered question. We might also assume that the girls were intrigued by the task and were particularly interested in matching Lilly’s writing and counting skills.

Finally, there is Lilly herself. Lilly, until that day in the PreK classroom, was known as timid and a follower. Lilly has now shown that she can take charge and is not afraid to do so, under the right circumstances.

Is Lilly the girl who helps us understand that leadership lies within all of us? Will she help us define how to draw out leadership in all girls? Will she make us more keenly aware of the environment we must create in order for all of our girls to find their voice?

Lilly is teaching us lessons in leadership. As adults, it is our job to understand and apply them. 

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