By Austin Zheng (14A01B)
We all have that one councillor friend who staggers to school every morning, only to rush off for a Council meeting once lessons end. While juggling schoolwork, CCAs and external commitments like the rest of us, councillors also continuously strive to better the school community. But what exactly do they do? And perhaps more importantly, what does that say about them as leaders?
First, we have to look at the Council’s structure and work delegation. The Council is divided into several departments: CCAD (CCA Department), Welfare, Communications and the five house directorates, each with different tasks and projects. In addition, the councillors also form functions committees to plan and manage school events, like Teachers’ Day celebrations or Grad Night. The secretaries of these departments and functions committees form the Secretariat, which is led by the Council’s secretary of finance and secretary of manpower, serving as a check to the Council’s Executive Committee (Exco). Much of the councillors’ time is taken up by event preparation, meetings and day-to-day administration like running the Hodge Lodge or ‘What’s On This Week’.
The Exco has a relatively heavier workload, with the President and Vice-President having morning assembly duty from Tuesday to Friday, a meeting with the Council teacher in-charge, and a meeting with a member of the school administration every week.
All, in other words, as expected. Though the councillors’ efforts are universally appreciated and respected, the overwhelmingly administrative nature of their work has led some to ask if they truly are leaders. There is the perception that councillors simply manage a pre-set list of tasks, conforming to the structures and instructions of the institution without doing much else.
The chore-like nature of some councillor duties, such as the Moor-Tarbet house committee phoning students for hours to get sign-ups for the Inter-house Competitions, only bolsters such a perspective. Ng Qi Xiang (14A01C) opines, ‘I recognise that the councillors have tried very hard and made sacrifices for the school, and I respect them for what they do…but due to their structural constraints, they’ve turned out to be a handmaiden of the school.’ It is not hard to see why councillors may be seen as managers rather than leaders.
We must first note, however, that managing is a critical prerequisite for leading. It is impossible to inspire people or initiate change if one doesn’t handle one’s basic duties well. In this respect, the Council has done an admirable job. Though there is, of course, room for improvement, the Council has largely run its events well, allowing participating students to enjoy themselves immensely while bonding through shared experiences. Not many schools can claim to have events such as Take 5, a full day of sports, music and games to commemorate Total Defense Day, or even the Inter-House Challenge. We must certainly give credit to the Council for making the school a much more vibrant place and giving many of us a memorable school experience, beyond academics and CCAs.
But genuine leadership goes beyond handling a fixed set of duties. Some of these additional aspects include listening to students’ voices and initiating positive change. As Vice-President Kimberly Chia (14A03A) notes, ‘As a Councillor, it’s a constant duty for us to be in tune with how the school population is feeling; to consider the welfare of students, and to take action.’ Initiatives like Snack Attack, which provided fruit and coffee to Year 6s during their Prelims to give them an energy boost, are the concrete result of this process.
Yet the 33rd Students’ Council has hardly distinguished itself through these initiatives. While well-meaning, Snack Attack is ultimately a mostly forgettable event, particularly since most students would have their breakfasts before taking examinations as important as the Prelims. Even the 32nd Students’ Council’s ground-breaking Smile Challenge initiative, which encouraged students to smile at strangers and brighten their day, received a modest response, at best. Thus, though Council displays leadership in developing these new initiatives, it may not be perceived as leading the student body, because of the infrequency of those initiatives and their limited effects.
Furthermore, even if the councillors’ efforts have significant impact, they may not necessarily be credited for it. For example, should the Council Exco relentlessly and successfully attempt to persuade the school administration to alter some of its policies in accordance with students’ interests, most non-councillors would remain oblivious to the Council’s role, because they did not know about the negotiations. The Council’s leadership may also go unnoticed if its initiatives do not directly benefit the student body, but instead focus on internal reform. For instance, the councillors may seek to improve inefficient practices or structures, or to instil a sustainable, vibrant culture of servitude. Though subsequent Council batches may thereby find it much easier to serve the school community, the wider student body cannot appreciate the indirect benefits of such changes.
Existing initiatives can also quickly become fixed events in the councillors’ list of duties. Back in 2008, the Council noticed that a considerable number of Year 6 students stayed back late in school to study for their A-Levels, and collaborated with the Raffles Parents’ Association (RPA) to organise Mega Mugging Madness, a yearly affair in which the RPA provides luscious buffet spreads of food to the support the hard-working students. This was a glowing indicator of its leadership; it was sensitive to students’ needs and addressed them effectively, beyond its required duties. Subsequent batches, however, could only be credited with running the event well, not with displaying leadership by innovatively responding to student needs. The pressure to continue with previous batches’ more successful initiatives can also take up resources and inhibit future batches from coming up with their own initiatives. And when the Council focuses on performing its existing duties well, for instance by handling a particularly impressive National Day celebration, we applaud the Council’s hard work and event-management skills rather than its leadership.
Add this to the difficulty of pushing out new initiatives in the first place. President Edward Kim (14A01C) clarifies that councillors ‘are given a lot of room to initiate their own events and make their ideas come to life on alternative platforms’.
But creative space is only a part of what is needed to successfully develop and execute initiatives. Councillor Carol Yuen (14A01A) laments that ‘there is a lot of red tape involved when we are attempting to come up with new ideas—approval needs to be sought but that takes time as we have to consult the Exco and teachers. There’s also a lot of uncertainty when budgets are not explicitly given, and schedules are subject to abrupt changes, with miscommunication being a major hindrance. It is difficult to keep the momentum going because of schoolwork, so there may be unwelcome pauses in our planning and execution, particularly when we have to keep revising our proposals.’ To overcome these bureaucratic constraints, councillors must be exceptional managers, working well together while handling their fixed events. It is no wonder that so much time is spent on administrative work.
All this means that the councillors are under-appreciated as leaders, because their leadership, like their regular duties, manifest in tedious background work. At the same time, we should judge leaders not by their efforts, but by their actions, and the Council isn’t known for responding to students’ needs through initiatives.
But even as each Council batch faces enormous hurdles in going beyond their regular duties to lead as an organisation, most councillors do display leadership in their personal capacity. That is, perhaps, the most important aspect of Council leadership. If the councillors are not worthy of admiration in their personal capacity, they will not be seen as leaders; at most, we will respect what they do, but not who they are. Kimberly opines that ‘greatest form of leadership is being able to inspire others in your own way to believe in what you believe in’, and here the councillors seem to have succeeded. Pamela Ming (14S03F) notes, ‘I think a leader is someone you look up to…I see the councillors as role models in terms of morals and values.’ In their enthusiasm, diligence and desire to serve a larger community, there is much to respect the councillors for.
Nevertheless, there is much room for the Council to improve as an organisation to serve the school more effectively. In terms of the Council’s structure, Councillor Andre Hui (14A03A) hopes that information can be clearer and more accessible, and Carol thinks that approval procedures should be accelerated. In terms of job scope and vision, Qi Xiang suggests that councillors can ‘stand up for students’ views… and try to explain why things are as they are, or push for change’.
In line with this, given its unique position, the Council can facilitate communication between the student body and the school administration. It can convey a broader range of students’ feedback, such as their receptiveness to certain assembly programmes, and also help students understand some of the schools’ decisions, so the administration would not appear disconnected. An example would be explaining the full meaning of this year’s theme, ‘Great Expectations’, so that students can better appreciate the rationale behind it.
Ultimately, the Council has made great contributions, and without it, school would definitely be a much duller place. Even though there haven’t been grand, prominent changes, as Moor-Tarbet House Captain Thiviya Kumaran (14S06L) reflects, ‘It’s also paramount that we focus on the things that we can do, instead of those we think we can’t.’ Besides, as mere junior college students, do we really need the Council to enact sweeping reforms? Though we might wish for the Council to play a more active role in the school, we should also recognise their limitations, and remember to appreciate their existing, extensive efforts. The next time your councillor friend stumbles into class, you could pass him some fruit and coffee—with a smile.