Leadership, Pet Rocks and 3 Children

Well I arrived back safely from my family holiday to the USA. A family of 5 living together for 76 days, moving from one small hotel to another every 3-4 days, while spending countless hours driving cross country. Sounds like a great recipe for teaching life lessons, but also disaster!!! We all got some valuable practice in listening, communicating and negotiation skills. The daily requirement to compromise and resolve conflict peacefully will hopefully benefit my children for many years to come, or not!! Seriously though there were so many highlights, and I do wish to share one that I feel will help us with leadership philosophy in schools.


It involved my three children completing an activity over three days in Yosemite National Park in California. My children loved to collect rocks while out on hikes. It was something my son and I would do when walking. We would then try to skim the rocks across the next body of water we found. Well on this day the kids decided to keep the rocks and take them back to camp.


On arriving back at camp I watched all three children work for over an hour separating the rocks into groups, and collect other rocks lying around the campgrounds. I watched my eldest daughter direct and organize, as she normally does, her two younger siblings. I watched my son happily collect rocks and follow orders. I watched my youngest daughter have her creative input and sort the rocks into different groups. It was harmonious play, no fighting, simple negotiations, each had a role and they accepted it. My wife and I started to become intrigued.


Once all the rocks were sorted my youngest daughter came over and asked for a marker pen, something to write on the rocks with. We were informed they were making pet rocks. Me, being the “Rule Following Dad”, thought this wasn’t a great idea as writing on rocks in National Parks goes against the environmental philosophy of ‘leave no trace’ (good old phys ed teachers!!). However ‘Creative Mum’ had already walked inside and found the white board markers and handed them over.


For another 30mins all three continued to work together and communicate without incident, decorating all the rocks. Only two pens and three children, “why hadn’t a fight broken out?” Something was wrong. They were sharing pens and ideas. They were helping one another. They were laughing and having fun. They occasionally sought out help from their parents, mum helped and dad questioned!!


After nearly two hours they walked over to present some of their works of art. It was amazing. They had mums, dads, babies, rocks of different colour, rocks with different features. I was truly impressed and quite proud of what they had done. Thank goodness mum had just let them go and create. All three had smiles from ear to ear and you could see the enthusiasm on their faces.


The next day after our hike and more rock collecting we arrived back at camp and immediately they started playing with the rocks. Again 30mins of cooperative play!! Then our eldest informed us they wanted to sell the rocks to the other campers!!! “Rule Following Dad” kicked in again explaining how intrusive this would be to the other campers, “Creative Mum” went and got paper and pens for signs. After 10mins of talking with each other they decided that selling the rocks would not be good as some campers wouldn’t like this, but giving them away was fine. It would allow them to go and meet other campers, be friendly and kind.


I then watched for the next 30mins as they hand delivering pet rocks to approx. 15 camp sites. Surprisingly, it was my youngest who stepped up, she took on the leadership role. She is normally the shy one, but she lead her two older siblings around, even the oldest daughter who normally wants to be in charge of everything, let her take on this role without incident. By now I was questioning if my kids had been lost on a hike and I had picked up someone elses’.


They received a mixture of responses. Some told them to go away, one even quite rudely, (lesson in resilience) others rewarded them with chocolate and one even gave them money. They experienced a sense of fulfillment and excitement as after every couple of sites they would run back to us and provide a summary of the interaction they had just had. They had set a goal, got together and planned it out, put the plan into action and now they were seeing how rewarding it could be. It was their plan, not “Rule Following Dad’s” plan. They had taken ownership, they watched their vision unfold.


The true reward however was seen the next day when before we had prepared for the morning hike two children from another camp site arrived to play with our kids pet rocks. The five of them played cooperatively for an hour before we left. When we arrived back that afternoon another two families joined in within 48 hours there were 4 different families playing pet rocks at the camp site with us. My three kids had just brought people together with one simple activity. Sometimes leadership can be seen in very simple aspects of life.


So, over the space of 48 hours my three kids had demonstrated to me that my leadership philosophy and the team philosophy I have developed is not rocket science. It is fundamentally what most of us know. If the students we work with are motivated and passionate about something then they will achieve great things. Over the last 10 years, I have sat in many pastoral care meetings discussing student leadership structures and inevitably most conversations ended with well “what jobs are we going to give them”, “if they don’t have jobs they shouldn’t have a badge”, and “well they have a badge make them work”.


Well, I didn’t give me kids a job to make pet rocks. I didn’t tell them to deliver them to other families and I didn’t ask the other kids to come and play. It happened because my three kids made it happen. They had the opportunity to be creative (thanks to mum largely). In schools we are sometimes conformed to the standards of getting things right rather than letting students experiment and learn. I remember listening to Maggie Dent one day at a presentation and she highlighted that some of the most important learning her boys had happened in the backyard sand pit, where the boys set the rules.


At schools do we stifle creativity too much, in the name of getting the event right? Do our years of teaching experience sometimes make us too overzealous in helping the student try and achieve their goal? Is the end product more important than the process? When running a cake stall does the school put more emphasis on making money under teacher direction or are the students to do it their way even though they might make a loss?


I have sat at student leader interviews and listened to creative students ideas that have never come to fruition. Yes some were too far fetched, but others sounded like they could make a difference. The students lost their creative energy as they battled through the year doing the mundane tasks of running canteens, reading notices in homerooms, writing out prayer rosters. If that is what student leadership is about no wonder why in year 9 and 10 students don’t apply for leadership positions. Student leadership should be about creating a vision and then being giving the opportunity to work towards their vision.


If we allow students to create their own jobs, they will earn their badge. Yes this is risky, but if you get the opportunity to read anything about leadership in business or sport in todays climate it is about providing this generation with the opportunity to take risks. This is what they want. People don’t learn from doing safe things, they don’t grow, they don’t learn. This is not what student leadership should be about.