Honoring student voice is a cause we should all support. Doing so benefits our schools and our communities. At a time when campus protest is becoming more common, it is important that we take their issues -- and their right to protests -- seriously.
We often say we honor student voice, but do we really? And how far are most of us willing to go in not just giving students voice, but giving them real power over their day-to-day lives at our schools?
Honoring student voice is really about empowering students, but any question about student empowerment is really a question of how much power we, as adults, are willing to give up.
Same Side: Teachers and Students
Currently, many teachers are also feeling disempowered and that the control of their classroom and teaching is largely determined by standardized testing, budget cuts, inadequate pay, and a national culture (at least in the U.S.) that undervalues teaching.
Administrators might be perceived as being empowered, but often they feel challenged by the same forces, on top of playing the role of "bad guy" in managing their teachers and staff because of the constraint and compromises put upon them by those very same forces. So how are we to give students power we don't believe we truly have ourselves?
So maybe the key is to first understand that when it comes to having a voice and empowerment, teaches and students are on the same side of the equation. The forces that are overwhelming teachers and administrators are also what is making our students feel disempowered.
When we see students' concerns and anger from the lens of "us vs. them," we are in danger of seeing the symptoms of disempowerment as the issue. What do disempowerment of students and the suppression of voice look like from that adversarial lens? It looks like uncaring behavior, laziness, and lack of gratitude. It looks like whining and entitlement. It looks like a distorted sense of values, so that when asked what they would want for themselves and school, they are more likely to discuss the rules about dances and not whether they have enough textbooks.
So, like everything, this is a problem of education. Here are five things to consider and take on as an empowering adult in your school:
#1. Document What Students Are Saying
The first step is to create time and space to listen to the students. Make sure the students have time to think about what they want to say and that you give the students multiple platforms to express their opinions, from anonymous written feedback, to small discussion groups, to larger forums. Document their issues, and with the students' participation. Compile them into a few clear categories and umbrella issues.
#2. Dig Deeper Into the Superficial Complaints
At times, the superficial concerns, such as dress codes and physical contact at dances, might seem like an inappropriate and superficial concern, but many of those issues are connected to students feeling like they have no control over their own bodies, let alone the key components of their education. Be willing to dig deeper with your students, and don't be afraid to provide your own insights on what you think the students are addressing beneath the surface.
#3. Create an Actionable Process
Once you have listened, students should be given a process to implement changes -- and they should know the process that the teachers and administrators will take in considering the request. They should also be clear from the beginning as to what type of requests are off limits and have a clear understanding of why they are restricted (as they might be against the school's mission, or have legal or liability constraints).
#4. Share Your Issues
A crucial part of a student's education is understanding how schools work (or don't work) and why. You might think your business as an adult is no concern of students and should be kept off their plate, but those same concerns are impacting students whether they are aware of it or not. Educate your students about the issues you as a teacher or administrator and the school might be facing, keeping mind their developmental stage and prior knowledge of the issues.
#5. Become Allies With Students
This is the key point. Student voice is the most empowering voice to be heard about issues that face them. For example, I believe what makes Malala Yousafzai and her words so powerful is that she is the embodiment of what she fighting for -- the education of girls and the right to education in general.
The most effective voice we can hear in the various struggles in education is the students themselves. Know that they are your allies, and by recognizing and honoring their voice, you will also be empowered as a teacher and an administrator.