Mindset makeover planned for middle school students
The clean and crisp lines of its hallways are now punctuated with colorful murals reminding all who pass to "be proactive," "seek first to understand, then to be understood," and "sharpen the saw."

Copies of "The Leader In Me" sit atop teachers' desks throughout the school, earmarked and notated. Earlier this week, teachers-turned-students attended class in the cafeteria, taking notes on how to incorporate Stephen Covey's "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" into their classrooms.

Thanks to a regional grant secured by the West Kentucky Educational Cooperative, Paducah, Ballard County, Mayfield and Livingston middle schools will soon join over 180 schools across Kentucky working with the Leader In Me program. Based on Stephen Covey's "7 Habits," the program seeks to empower students through teaching them 21st century leadership and life skills.

"In education, you see a lot of new programs come and go, but everyone seems to really be connecting with this," said Stacey Overlin, Paducah Middle principal.

"This one we feel has the potential to change things. I think you'll see more confidence in our students. I think they'll be expecting more of themselves. I think we're going to see classroom grades nudge up and behavioral referrals go down. Those are all things that schools using the program are seeing."

Overlin said when administrators began considering the program last year, they visited several schools already using Leader In Me to see it for themselves. On paper it sounds almost too good to be true, so much so that the first chapter of "The Leader In Me" book addresses that very perception. But Overlin said when they visited their first Leader In Me school, they could feel the difference the moment they stepped inside. The students were leading the building, he said, and they were leading it well.

Though Leader In Me is still relatively new, it's rooted in research that's been making the rounds of the business community for decades. In 1976, Covey began pouring through hundreds of books, articles and biographies of respected individuals in America's history to find common traits and behaviors that led to their success. The end result was "7 Habits," which has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.

The idea of Leader In Me is that these habits, based on "timeless and universal principles," aren't just for business professionals. In fact, they might be even more useful for middle school students.

Independence, collaborative spirit and desire for continuous improvement are valuable traits to develop at any age, after all.

So far, Overlin said Paducah Middle's faculty and staff have welcomed the change with open arms. At this point most have read the Leader In Me book and completed three days of training. By the time school starts in August they'll have the seven habits integrated into their lesson plans.

"It's an attitude change," said Jared Wynne, who is starting his first year as a full-time teacher.

"It's going to be interesting. I like that it's emphasizing getting the students more involved in their learning and increasing their responsibility in what they're doing. I think in a lot of cases in school, especially when I was growing up, goals were supplied for you. It was something that was mandated as opposed to something that you chose, that you could take ownership of."

Wynne said his biggest hope for the program is that it will get kids more excited to come to school and learn.

"The world's changing faster than we know," he said. "Hopefully this will get kids more excited about learning and improving themselves, because if you're not prepared to learn and improve yourself constantly, you're at a disadvantage."

Varetta Hurt, who is going into her 40th year as a teacher, is just as open to the change.

"I think it's going to help our students be more proactive and set their own goals," Hurt said. "From sixth grade on, we'll be empowering our students and helping them to develop the skills they need to make it in the world. I think it's going to spread like wildfire, and I hope Paducah Middle will be one of those schools people visit one day and say, 'What did they do right?'"

Parents and community members interested in learning more about the Leader In Me program are invited to an informational meeting in the Paducah Middle School cafeteria at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 3.

Contact Genevieve Postlethwait, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651.

Photo caption: Paducah Middle School seventh-grader Nick Tooley puts the finishing touches on one of several fresh murals along the school’s hallways. His handiwork outlines Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” the cornerstone of the Leader In Me program being integrated into Paducah Middle’s curriculum.

Photo credit: Genevieve Postlethwait
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