Noah Kelley has plenty of leadership experience.
The senior at Karns High School has served as state president of the Tennessee Technology Student Association; class president at Karns for multiple years; and drum major for the KHS marching band, not to mention recognition as an all-state performer on the bass clarinet and contrabass.
But when his good friend Hannah Selph was appointed to the Knox County Board of Education for the 2018-19 school year, Kelley was intrigued by the opportunity.
“When she got the student representative role and I got an even closer look to the influence they have, I was like, ‘This is extraordinary, and if I passed up on this opportunity I’d be stupid,’” he recalled.
This year, Kelley is following in his friend’s footsteps and serving as the board’s student representative, a position that allows him to provide input on a wide range of policy issues and to exercise a leadership style that emphasizes open-mindedness, a willingness to listen and tactful communication.
Jimbo Crawford, director of bands at Karns, said he got to know Kelley when Kelley was a middle-school student, saying that even as a sixth- and seventh-grader he left a positive impression.
The band director added that as drum major, it’s important to find a student who has credibility with the adult leaders, but “he’s also got to have a pretty good rapport with the students. You can’t pick a kid that everybody hates.”
The director said Kelley is nice, and smart in a way that’s not off-putting: “Students all know that he’s the guy that you could go to with a funny meme, and the same guy that you could go to to have help with your homework.”
As a child, Kelley had a heart condition that prevented him from playing sports, and he says that limitation is what led him to embrace other leadership opportunities. It also shaped his goals after high school, which are currently focused on becoming a pediatrician or possibly a cardiologist.
Kelley described his own cardiologist, Yvonne Bremer, as “the coolest woman in the world.” “She always makes my visits fun and it’s never anything miserable, and she’s always super-excited to see me,” he said. “So (seeing) that kind of joy and the passion that she has for her career, I was like, ‘I want to do something like this.’”
In one sense, Kelley’s high school career has also focused on fostering joy for students at Karns. He has worked closely with ProjectU, an initiative that aims to promote unity and inclusion, including activities such as “Break Down Your Wall Day,” which encouraged students to sit with new friends and ensure that no one sat alone during lunch.
At another event, student leaders made a huge doughnut whose sprinkles were small pledge cards, signed by students who committed to showing kindness.
Those lessons about inclusion and unity may also come in handy on the school board, where emotions and passions can sometimes run high. Kelley said he’s realized the importance of being able to adapt as a leader, and to respond appropriately whether he agrees or disagrees with a particular viewpoint.
“Being able to relate with people and seeing their viewpoints and being forced to stay open-minded to all the different viewpoints of the county is kind of a cool thing to experience.”
Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes this blog, Hall Pass, for the KCS website.