Here’s another field experience reflection from a series on learning about leadership through my internship at SCSU. This one’s about volunteering. Have you had the opportunity to give back to your community recently? Please share your experience in the comments.
Since the end of October I have been working with The Beat the Street Community Center in Meriden, CT as a part of the community service component of this internship. The center was originally a boxing club, but it has grown over the past twenty years and now includes dance and fitness classes, a program for students facing expulsion, homework help, mentoring, college planning services, career placement services, and even a community garden. I originally offered to volunteer my experience as a martial arts and fitness instructor; however, after meeting with the director, Larry Pelletier, I was asked to tap into a different set of skills. I have spent the last few months working with high school students individually and in small groups to write their résumés.
How the Experience Contributed to My Understanding of Leadership
Working with these students has been enjoyable from teaching and leading standpoints. As a teacher, it is nice to teach a practical skill to students outside of the classroom. As preparing career documents is a life skill not on any standardized test, both the students and I appreciate the informal, stress-free learning environment. They are excited to translate their experience into a presentable document, and I am proud of their effort and interest. It is also a new experience for me to teach sweaty students wearing hand wraps, fresh from sparring in the boxing ring. They are more focused and disciplined thanks to the sport, having spent time training and expending their excess energy and aggression. If teaching at Beat the Street is not a call to keep physical education in the public school curriculum, I do not know what is.
As a leader, the teaching and learning environment promoted by Beat the Street reminds me of the importance of small-scale, personal interactions and how they can improve teamwork and morale among members of an organization. It is all too easy for an administrator to get stuck in the office, and spending time with people on the job is very important. The director, mentors, and coaches at the community center know all the kids by name, and they interact with them on a daily basis. One of Heifitz and Laurie’s (2001) leadership tenets is to “get out on the dance floor”, and that’s exactly how leaders at Beat the Street operate.
In What Ways the Experience Relates to the Connecticut Leadership Standards
My experience at Beat the Street aligns most closely with the CT Standards Three and Four, Organizational Systems and Safety and Family and Stakeholders. As described above, my assignment at the center is to mentor at-risk kids, to help them write résumés, and to prepare career documents. This work aligns with Family and Stakeholders because it draws on community resources, as Beat the Street has been an integral part of city life in Meriden for over 20 years. However, once the director learned of my interest in educational leadership, he began mentoring me as well. Larry has spent many hours outside of my volunteering commitment to share how he runs his organization, how he procures funding needed to maintain a nonprofit, and how he networks with other leaders in the community to improve the effect of Beat the Street. These conversations have reminded me to always be mindful of organizational development as a leader, and I am very thankful for the extra time Larry has spent with me.
The Extent to Which I Built Competency Vis-à-Vis the Twelve Leadership Competencies
Leadership competencies on which I mainly focus at Beat the Street include “Implements a coherent, strategic and systemic plan for instructional improvement”, “Employs programs based upon research, theory and ‘best practice’”, “Develops collaborative ‘communities of practice’ among staff”. The first two competencies are axiomatic; the last competency mentioned occurred spontaneously and requires some explanation. I ran into a few other mentors during the most recent class I held, and they identified some of my students as their mentees. When learning this, I immediately discussed goals and outcomes expected of the students, and we shared our conversation with the director. This was not planned, but the director saw the value in it, and we may set up meetings to discuss students’ needs similar to how PPTs work in public schools. I found my instinct to lead in a collaborative way helped enable this conversation, and I will try to continue to identify such opportunities in the future.
New Knowledge and/or Skill did Acquired as a Result of the Experience
Fulfilling my role as volunteer at Beat the Street does not include any direct leadership responsibilities. As previously noted, however, learning through observation, reflecting on what the director shares with me, and identifying opportunities to improve the organization in little ways via my contributions are helping to improve my skills as a leader.
How the Experience Changed My Opinion about Organization, Culture, Climate and Leadership
Larry Pelletier epitomizes the servant leadership style. As director of Beat the Street, he runs the organization but also works alongside his staff to meet the needs of at-risk youth. Servant Leaders support followers and their work. They do the same work as their followers, but they are better at providing structure and direction for their followers (Greenleaf, 1977). After the center closes for the night, Larry prepares reports for the United Way, sends e-mails to other community leaders, completes grant proposals, and cleans and inspects the facility–all while preparing for his day job as a lineman for Frontier Communications. A role model to students and staff alike, Larry has taught me much about what it means to be an effective leader.
How the Experience Enhanced My Personal Style of Leadership
Learning about leadership from Larry reminds me that hiding in the office to complete paperwork all day or micromanaging teachers’ practice are not effective ways to approach school leadership. When I assume a formal leadership role, I plan to promote growth among my staff members through support, transparency, and availability. School leaders are either unable or unwilling to make these aspects of leadership part of their style, but I plan to make them a priority.
My Recommendations to Improve the Activity I Observed
As my time at Beat the Street comes to a close, I have few suggestions to make for improvement. The community center has been a mainstay in Meriden for decades, and its past success is laudable. However, Larry is the founder and director of the organization, and may at some point look to reduce his responsibilities or to retire. In this case, he will need to establish a legacy and groom other staff members to take his place. While not dictatorial in the least, the center looks to Larry for guidance in nearly all of its affairs, and the other staff members will need his support should they transition to a higher leadership position. One suggestion to ease a change in directorship is to begin establishing a more distributed style of leadership in the organization as soon as possible. Elmore (2000) states, “Distributed leadership, then, means multiple sources of guidance and direction, following the contours of expertise in an organization, made coherent through a common culture” (p.15). Right now, the multiple sources of direction do not exist, and other staff member will need to be more involved in the vision and planning to ensure the continued success of The Beat the Street Community Center.
Beat the street community center (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2015 from
Elmore, R. (2000). Building a new structure for school leadership. Retrieved January 29, 2015
Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey in the nature of legitimate power and
greatness. New York: Paulist Press.
Heifetz, R. & Laurie, D. (2001). The work of leadership. Harvard Business Review. December