Calhoun is shaping a community of leaders, one student at a time. From an early age, our students are trained to think deeply, to be confident in expressing themselves, to take responsibility and to work for new solutions, innovation and positive change.
“Calhoun students learn as much about leadership skills as they do about reading, writing, history, science or math,” says Upper School Director Danny Isquith, who notes that, at every division level, students learn to work as part of a team as well as take initiative through independent projects. They learn how to make choices— in a safe environment that accepts that there are risks inherent in those choices. They practice communication skills through presentations and demonstrations to peers, faculty and parents; and they are encouraged to analyze problems from multiple perspectives to make thoughtful decisions. Most of all, they learn about empathy and inclusion. In fact, the model of leadership that students practice at Calhoun is deeply rooted in empathy. “Leadership isn’t about bossing people around; it’s about being a supportive equal,” explains Rea Brayshaw ’18, a Peer Leader and co-captain of the Girls’ Varsity Soccer team. “Leadership is teaching others . . . it’s about being there for others,” adds Eli Fortunato ’18, who serves as Upper School co-community manager and a Peer Leader.
Beyond their academic studies, there are a multitude of opportunities for students to step into roles of responsibility. In Middle School, students are encouraged to spearhead clubs, organize grade-wide social activities and initiate division-wide community service projects. By the time they get to Upper School, students can volunteer as tutors or admissions ambassadors, represent the student body on faculty committees, serve as Peer Leaders for incoming ninth graders or direct town hall meetings.
“Leadership is teaching others …it’s about being there for others.” – Eli Fortunato '18
“Calhoun allows you to be part of making the school better,” says Sam Horn ’18, who counts faculty rep, president of the Young Democrats club and Peer Leader among his leadership positions. The result of this intentional focus on leadership across Calhoun is that students are prepared to make a difference not just in the school, but in the outside world as well. “We want Calhoun students to feel that they can make an impact on the communities they will join throughout their lives,” says Head of School Steve Solnick. “By teaching leadership skills throughout our programming, from the youngest ages, we equip our students with lifelong skills to be changemakers.”
The model for these student outreach programs harkens back to Calhoun’s Peer Leadership program, which was first introduced 37 years ago and has been led by Upper School administrator Alison Foster for the last 22 years. Each year, 16-18 seniors are accepted into the program after an extensive interview process, and then trained to talk to and support freshmen through their transition to high school and the challenges of a teenage life.
Peer Leader Tallulah Hunt ’18, who was brand-new to Calhoun in ninth grade, still remembers the influence of her two Peer Leaders. “It was a great experience having someone who was there for me, especially an older student who I looked up to,” she recalls. Even Rea Brayshaw ’18, who has been at Calhoun since preschool, says she felt “a lot of social anxiety and stress” being a freshman, but that “even the smallest thing like my Peer Leader saying hi to me in the hallway made me feel like, ‘Okay, I can do this.’”
“The things I learned being a Peer Leader—how to talk in front of a group, make presentations, be succinct and clear—are invaluable life skills. Going into the workplace, I felt like I was already ahead.” – Todd Garrin '02, TV Producer
But while Peer Leaders play a huge role in the lives of freshmen, the experience is equally meaningful for the Peer Leaders themselves. Any current Peer Leader will tell you that their own Peer Leaders inspired them to continue the cycle of community building and mentoring. “My Peer Leaders were like a brother and sister to me when I was a freshman,” says senior Sam Horn, “so I felt it was important to repay the favor and be that kind of role model.”
Bart Hale ’00, Calhoun’s Alumni Director and a former Peer Leader, says the experience was transformative. “Peer Leaders grow and learn just as much as the ninth graders they’re teaching,” says Bart. “You learn more about yourself during a very formative time of your life. I would say that it was the most lasting academic experience I had at Calhoun.” Another former Peer Leader, Todd Garrin ’02, agrees, observing that “the things I learned being a Peer Leader—how to talk in front of a group, make presentations, be succinct and clear— are invaluable life skills. . . Going into the workplace, I felt like I was already ahead.”
Teaching Leadership in the Classroom
Leadership training starts in the classroom; the skills are embedded in the very fabric of how we teach.
Starting in Lower School, students frequently engage in group projects that teach them how to work as part of a team. Lower Schoolers write and perform plays together in theater class, collaborate on animated and live-action videos for their media arts classes, and work in small groups on a variety of project-based social studies activities. To promote leadership skills, fifth graders are invited to propose and “teach” an elective special course, open to all Lower Schoolers; this semester, new fifth grader Zoe Stahl collaborated with language arts teacher Dana Wolfson to offer a class in American Sign Language; fifth grader Brooke Howard teamed up with language arts teacher Patrick Ellsworth to lead a class on oceanography.
Middle School introduces an increased level of independent learning while simultaneously engaging students in seminar- style discussions and project-based activities that place high value on teamwork. Projects like the popular Hack ’n’ Hurl Catapult competition frequently include a presentation component, requiring students to take what they’ve learned and teach or demonstrate it to others—another key leadership skill.
Danny Isquith (former Middle School Director, current Upper School Director) introduced a new sequence of study for sixth, seventh and eighth graders, focused on character, independence and leadership. The first course, taught to sixth graders by school counselor Fernanda Couto and learning specialist Jessica Nelson, focuses on life skills, health and wellness—establishing a foundation for self-awareness and executive functioning in students’ emotional and academic lives.
In the seventh grade Leadership class, Jono Hustis’s students discuss hypothetical and real-life scenarios to better understand their individual value systems. “Middle School is when you grow up,” says Jono. “I want my students to come away knowing the impact of their choices on others.”
To build on Jono’s class, Sabrina Spiegel Zurkuhlen ’06 dives into the topic of leadership during a unit in her eighth grade Identity and Mindset class. Students dissect stereotypes surrounding leadership, analyze the way their identity impacts their leadership style, and work together to identify the qualities of true leadership. The focus on self-reflection is crucial, Sabrina explains to her students, because “leadership is a relational process. You have to think about yourself in order to be aware enough to relate to someone else.”
In Upper School, cross-divisional projects give students additional opportunities for practicing their character-building and leadership skills. Debbie Aronson’s Community Action: Students Teaching Students class is specifically focused on helping students practice organization, mentoring and leadership through on-site experience where they are expected to guide younger children and see a project through to fruition. The students work as mentors or teaching assistants at Calhoun or an outside organization. As a final assignment, each student designs a project on a topic of interest for the young children he or she is working with, following through with the steps to bring that vision to life: writing a proposal, creating a plan of action and researching the topic, before the final implementation.
The in-class study of leadership skills is a crucial component of Calhoun students’ leadership training. “Learning isn’t just about doing; it’s the combination of doing and reflecting,” says Upper School teacher Bobby Rue ’85, who organizes a Community Engagement Workshop to prepare juniors to be leaders in their senior year. The fact that Calhoun teachers take time to define leadership qualities—an often misunderstood and elusive set of skills—drives home the lesson that leadership can be practiced by anyone, anywhere.
Leadership Is Teamwork—on the Field and in Life
“Leadership isn’t something that you do to get an A,” says Danny Isquith. “We’re teaching kids that it should exist in all parts of your life.” This plays out in a very visible way in the realm of sports at Calhoun. Cougars don’t just learn how to shoot a basket or decrease their running time; they learn how to be leaders and teammates—and the results of their training are paying off.
If you’ve been following Calhoun sports in the past decade, you know that one of the major highlights has been the success of the Girls’ Varsity Volleyball team. For the last 10 years, each successive team has continued the program’s undefeated reign in the NYCAL, even after star players graduate. It’s hard to imagine this winning streak is just coincidence. Sabrina Spiegel Zurkuhlen ’06, Director of Athletics and head coach of both the boys’ and the girls’ varsity teams, says it’s all about building a positive athletics culture. “When you have a strong culture, your results will be consistent,” she explains.
The intentional culture-building that has proven successful on the volleyball court is a focus of the entire athletics department, which sets four core values for its athletes: self-awareness, teamwork, empathy and resilience. These qualities are fundamental to the work of the coaches and their athletes—all of which translate to strong leadership skills that can be used beyond the court, field or track.
Bobby Rue ’85, who coaches the Boys’ Varsity Basketball team, has seen firsthand the evolution of the Calhoun athletics program from his own time playing basketball as a student. “The athletics program has changed immensely,” he says. Part of this change has been the new resources available (in Bobby’s time, Calhoun didn’t even have a full-size gym), but an even bigger change is the cultural shift. “There’s a more intentional culture that’s much more organized, systematic and spread across teams,” he says. “There’s a commonality in the conversations we’re having [as coaches] . . . We’re always talking about coaching for leadership.”
What makes sports such a fruitful vehicle for teaching leadership? One important factor is the interpersonal skills needed to play well on a team. “Sports is practice in human relationships,” says Nicola Zimmer (a.k.a. Zimmer), Assistant Director of Athletics and the Girls’ Varsity Basketball coach. “It’s one thing to define positive communication and talk about it, but then you get on the basketball court and your teammate throws you a bad pass—and you have a choice in that moment of how to react. It’s learning moment after learning moment.”
Calhoun coaches use the teachable moments that arise in practices and games to reflect on their core values. “We ask athletes, ‘How is this an example of self-awareness?’ or, ‘When did we demonstrate resilience in the game yesterday?’” Zimmer explains. The athletics department also schedules dedicated time to focus on teaching values: three workshops per year for coaches, and at least two per season for each team. The act of intentionally naming and focusing on their values frames leadership as a teachable skill. “In the same way [that we think of practicing] a left-handed dribble or flexing a muscle to get stronger, we think about [practicing] leadership skills,” says Zimmer.
Emily Bauman ’21, a player on the Girls’ Varsity Volleyball team, attributes her off-court leadership skills to sports. “Before I played volleyball, I was shyer and less open to people,” she says. “The confidence I have from playing volleyball has given me more confidence in the other things that I do.” Now, she’s actively involved in social justice clubs at the school, and dedicates her Saturday mornings to helping out at volleyball clinics for younger players.
We’re practicing being a community that has a voice and shared leadership. Ultimately, this culture of shared leadership sends a powerful message—that everyone has a role to play.” – Andrew Hume, MS Baseball Coach & Director of Enrollment
Emily’s experience points to one of the biggest strengths of the athletics program: Leadership is modeled not just by coaches, but by the players themselves. While the world of sports is often characterized by showmanship and dominance, Calhoun athletes reject this definition of leadership for one rooted in teaching and giving back. Varsity players often share practices with JV teams, and help out at sports clinics or intramurals for younger athletes. “Even if you are our top varsity athlete, you’re still part of the Calhoun athletics community, which means that you have to give, share and teach in a variety of ways,” says Sabrina.
On the Coed Middle School Baseball team, students of mixed ages and experience levels play together—yet the onus of leadership doesn’t just fall on the oldest or most skilled player. The team has rotating captains, and players take turns leading stretches, demonstrating drills and sharing a quote of the day. “We’re practicing being a community that has a voice and shared leadership,” says coach Andrew Hume. “Ultimately, this culture of shared leadership sends a powerful message— that everyone has a role to play.”
“Often leadership is associated with age or title, but we talk more about democratic leadership and spaces,” explains Sabrina. “We debunk certain myths that circulate around leadership; for example, that leaders are loud or really good public speakers. That isolates kids who don’t see themselves in that kind of leader. There are multiple ways to lead.”
If you look at the decade-long precedent set by the volleyball team, chances are high that this focus on teaching leadership will translate to more wins for all of Calhoun’s sports teams. But any Calhoun athlete will tell you that there is an important difference between winning and success. “Winning is what happens on the scoreboard,” says Sabrina. “Success is walking off the court, field or track every day proud of the work that you do.” Bobby adds, “We want to win if winning is a result of following our values. If it’s not, winning can be an empty experience.”
Whether or not Calhoun’s athletics program goes on to break new records, we have a culture where character always comes first. And that’s the biggest win of all.