Sunday, June 26, 2016

Helping teens learn leadership skills

One rising seventh-grader said to another, “Which school supply is the most important?” She replied, “I don’t know, which school supply is the most important?” He said, “The ruler!”

That’s how one of the AYLA presentations began last week at Elon University. AYLA stands for Alamance Youth Leadership Academy, and rising seventh-graders are chosen to participate each year. The program began with two schools in 2007 and currently serves 205 seventh and eighth-graders in 11 public, independent and charter middle schools in Alamance County. The Alamance Chamber of Commerce program is supported by the Elon University Center for Leadership, Alamance-Burlington School System, Alamance Citizens for Education, and Leadership Alamance Alumni. The model includes a three-and-a-half day summer experience, school-based chapter meetings that take place during the school year, and quarterly joint events hosted by the Chamber’s AYLA Advisory Board. Developing and implementing a school improvement project is at the heart of the learning experience. (

I had the privilege of presenting a workshop with the students on public speaking. Each workshop lasted about an hour, and I spoke to 50 young people at a time. It was a lot of fun, but when one of them asked me during the question and answer time if I ever get nervous before speaking, I had to say, “Yes! I was nervous before I came here today.” I was being truthful. Hey, you never know what to expect when you are trying to give a speech to several dozen preteens. But they were excellent listeners, full of energy and genuinely interested in hearing what I had to say. It was a blast, and I was happy to whet their appetite for learning to speak in public. I loved hearing their hearts in their questions. One student asked, “How can I learn to not be so nervous?” Another said, “What do I do if I stutter or have trouble getting my words out?”

The next day, 300 family and friends gathered to hear these students give presentations about the strengths and weaknesses of their schools, and what they hope to do in the next two years to improve them. They did a great job, and took my encouragement seriously about being enthusiastic, organized, and interesting.

Several groups started their presentations with some kind of hook, in order to get the attention of the audience and make them want to listen. One student started with, “How many of you have been frustrated about poor internet connections?” Of course, nearly every hand went up. Another student started her presentation by asking, “How many of you have served on student government?” Then, with a smile she said, “And how many of you enjoyed it?” One of the improvements her group was proposing would re-establish a thriving student government in their middle school.

My favorite hook was a two-man standup routine that was short but sweet. One boy said to the other, “Why don’t they give tests in the jungle?” The second boy said, “I don’t know.” The first replied, “Because there are too many cheetahs!”

It’s a tough world we live in, and a scary proposition to be raising children these days. I am thankful for this program, for the adults and college students who are taking time to invest in future leaders. They are showing them a way to go beyond just recognizing problems in their ‘community,’ but looking for and implementing solutions.

Jesus would say, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

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