Students Come First – A New Leadership Structure
Senior School ‘Heads of House’ were always teachers. This system was very successful, and it allowed us to hold a lot of great events like the Dulwich Art Competitions and E-lympics. However, we were always conscious that we were making all the decisions ourselves. What if students had the power to put on their own House events? What might our guiding statement, Students Come First, look like in practice? This year in the Senior School, we put students in the driver’s seat for all House activities.
In a restructuring move, our Head of House teachers stepped down, and the new Head of House Students stepped up. Each House now has a Year 12 student Head of House who is supported by three ‘under-secretaries’, following British University tradition. There is an ‘Academic Secretary’, an ‘Art Secretary’ and a ‘Sports Secretary’, with each responsible for spearheading events in their respective domains.
The application process
With over 60 applicants for the House leadership positions (a record for any student leadership role at Dulwich), we decided to add extra roles – two ‘trainee secretaries’ per House from Year 7 and Year 8. To make sure the students took the role seriously, we set up the application process to resemble a job application. Students began by submitting a statement of intent. Then, they had to write a letter of application explaining why they thought they would be best for the role. We interviewed 26 of the strongest candidates. They answered questions and explained how they would manage a range of leadership situations and scenarios. Twenty-four successful candidates became the new House Leadership teams.
How event building works
The House Leadership Teams meet weekly. When an idea is settled on, the Heads of House delegate roles and responsibilities to their under-secretaries and the planning process begins. Our most recent event – The Dulwich Boat Regatta is an excellent case study to highlight how this works.
We watched a video of MIT students in America, building carboard boats and racing them in the pool. It looked amazing and we thought we should give it a try as well! If the best students in America can do it… then the best students in Korea can do it too!
Every student in the Leadership Team had a role. Academic Secretaries worked with the Science department to design a working boat that could hold one student. The Art Secretary took responsibility for visual design – to make their boat stand out. The Sports Secretary put the pilot teams together. Each House would build three boats and each boat needed a pilot and a two-person repair crew to swim alongside and help it across the line! The Head of House oversaw everything. Each Head of House assigned specific roles to 70 students during the boat construction time. Cutting, taping, design, clean-up… every student had a job.
As the Head of Houses, my role is simply to be a facilitator. Students tell me their ideas and, however crazy or big, I try to make them work. Some of the ideas so far this year have included: a House Scavenger Hunt, a Video-game Tournament, a House Drama Competition and Water Fight! These are the kinds of fun things students want to see happen in school, and I am going to help make them happen. When I reshaped the House System this year, I had one goal in mind – to hold events that would create lasting memories for students. I think we’re off to a good start!
What does it mean for students to come first?
Without a doubt, we want our students to come first - academically, in university scholarships and placements, and in all the competitions and events that our students take part in worldwide.
When we think of ‘students come first’, what we often mean is that the rules, expectations, and opportunities we lay out in school are all designed to give students the best possible opportunity for success. But is that all it means? Can we lead and follow at the same time? Can we literally put the students first?
Rather than students following teachers, I hope we can learn to follow them, a couple of paces behind, ready to catch them if they slip or point them in the right direction if they’re lost. As teachers and parents, we are in a position of immense responsibility. At times, it's certainly necessary for us to make decisions on behalf of our students, guiding them as effectively as we can. However, there are moments when we must acknowledge that we don't have all the answers. In these instances, the notion of being responsible for our students can inadvertently shift towards making all decisions for them. While it may feel safer to lead and protect them, it's equally important to trust them and follow their lead, allowing them to explore and learn from their own experiences.
Adults can be wrong, and students can offer more than we think, if given the opportunity. I struggled in school when I was younger because I always felt that every choice was being made for me. I had a voice, but nobody was listening. Of all the incredible opportunities Dulwich College Seoul offers, the one I most wish I’d had as a student is the chance to make choices and be heard. I want students to have as much agency as possible. I want them to come to school knowing that they are being listened to. I want to see students have an idea and make that idea happen. The House System is just one small aspect of life at Dulwich College Seoul, but I want it to represent a starting point for genuine student autonomy.
Mr George Welsby, Head of Houses