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Leading the way to educational success

When I first learned about Exponential Education and its peer-to-peer programme, I was most intrigued by the organisation’s positive impact on the tutors. Besides providing academic support to JHS students, our model is designed to make the tutors grow and to support them in their personal development towards becoming strong leaders. Exponential Education’s tutors are so much more than teachers. They become role models for their younger peers, inspiring them to take education seriously and motivating them to overcome their weaknesses. As a Programme Associate, one of my main tasks is to lead a group of five tutors: developing leadership skills is an essential part of my work, both those of my tutors and my own, and that is the reason why I started reflecting about different leadership styles.

Different personalities mean different leadership styles

Prince has only been a tutor for five sessions but I can already see many improvements in his leadership style. A first, Prince’s tutoring style was less focused on student participation; instead, most of the session was spent with him explaining that day’s subject and the students actively taking notes. What he quickly realised was that the students got bored and often disrupted the class, and that his teaching style was not the most appropriate given his students’ needs. After our training session, he tried to make his classes more inclusive and went from a more commanding leadership style to a more participatory one. He managed to channel the students’ energy through activities and engaging them more at the board. Interestingly, Prince has never been an authoritarian leader: he is an outgoing and funny person, and he focuses his leadership style on befriending his students. I have noticed that that strategy is very efficient for handling those that are rowdy and by becoming friends, students see in Prince someone approachable to whom they can be honest and show their weaknesses. They know that they will not be judged, but that they will find the support they need.

Like Prince, Randy is one of the new tutors and it is his first term working with Exponential Education. As a leader, Randy is very task-oriented: he follows my guidelines rigorously and always has a well-planned session prepared. Randy is the same age as many of our JHS students and knowing that age is an important determinant of respect, I saw his young age as a challenge. I was afraid he would have to work harder to gain students’ respect. I was wrong! What Randy has done successfully these last sessions is to balance his attention between the students and the tasks. He has become more people-oriented, focusing on supporting his students and encouraging creative thinking, thus gaining their respect and trust. For instance, the level of English of one of Randy’s students is very low and at first, Randy spoke exclusively in English with that student. But when he realised that the student’s struggle in math came mainly from a lack of English knowledge, he decided to translate as much as possible into Twi to make sure that everyone could follow. Actually, it has been beneficial for the other students in the group too, who are often too shy to ask when they don’t understand.

Mamuna was one of last term’s scholarship winners, which means that she was one of the two best tutors, and this can clearly be seen in her leadership style. Mamuna is a calm and mature girl, always in a good mood. Of all the tutors, she has the most maternalistic leadership style: besides being good at listening to her students’ needs and concerns, she knows exactly how to take care of and support them when they feel overwhelmed. Mamuna was also the one who was genuinely concerned about how her students had performed at last term’s tests and wanted to keep the same group as last term to be able to follow the students’ progress. Mamuna has managed to create a strong loyalty among her students and each time I sit in Mamuna’s class, I am pleased to see the power of the relationships she has built.

Faustina has also been a tutor since January 2015, which implies that she has already some experience from tutoring and is more familiar with Expo’s expectations than are Prince and Randy. Faustina is the kind of person who will never be afraid of telling the world what she thinks, regardless of if she is happy or angry. Thanks to her honesty, Faustina is very good at boosting the students’ self-confidence and will always praise them for something they did well, even if it is a small progress. This has led to her students really wanting to prove to her that they can work hard. Also, Faustina spends a lot of time with her students one-on-one. When correcting an exercise that the students have solved in their notebooks, she will always take her time to pass by every student making sure that they understand what they have done.

Like Mamuna and Faustina, Abigail is a returning tutor. I was impressed when I saw Abigail teach at this term’s first session: when she is with me and the other tutors, she is a rather shy, very polite and serious girl; but when she takes on her role as a tutor, she becomes this confident and charismatic leader. Abigail has also managed to create a solid relationship with her students. Yet, she is not afraid of being strict when it is needed and because she always makes sure to be fair, I feel very confident giving her students that can be disruptive. Interestingly, Abigail has been less focusing on one-on-one relationships with her students, unlike both Faustina and Mamuna: instead, she has created a good feeling of belongingness to the team. For example, when one of the students has made a mistake, she will not correct it but instead let another student to explain why it is wrong. By doing this, she has managed to create a strong team spirit and feeling of mutual support among her students.

Different leadership styles but one important characteristic in common

There are as many leadership styles as there are leaders. And each leadership style has its own advantages and disadvantages. My tutors all have their own personalities and leadership styles, and their complementarity that is what contributes to the efficiency of our programme. Yet, what strikes me at every tutoring session is that they all share an important characteristic: all five of them have the ability to adopt different leadership styles depending on their students’ need or on the situation. I strongly believe that the most effective leaders are those who have this ability to adapt their leadership style to the people they lead and to the situation they are facing. No one style of leadership is suitable for all situations and especially in Ghana, where so many things are unpredictable, being able to adapt your approach is crucial. It is currently the rainy season here and the rain is a perfect example of an uncontrollable situation that the tutors have to adapt to: at our first session, when half of our classrooms became unusable, Randy and Faustina merged their groups together and came up with a system to share the tutoring. They were suddenly leading new students in an environment that was far from ideal and by listening to each other and seeing how the other tutor interacted with his/her students, they were able to lead the session together successfully. Also, in our programme, the JHS students are far from being a heterogeneous group: their unique personalities imply that they learn in different ways (for a more detailed reflection on different learning styles, see Laura’s article), thus their needs for leadership differ from one student to the other.

Being a good leader implies a continuous learning process and my tutors still have a lot to learn – but they have come a long way already and I am proud of what they have accomplished so far. Prince, Randy, Mamuna, Faustina and Abigail have all gained their students’ respect and trust. And by doing so, they have also gained mine.

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