Guest post by Ted Huff
Within our educational system, and at the heart of all that we do, exists the proverbial “student desk.” In that seat rests the most powerful, engaging, and often untapped school resource. By taking and making time to include student perspective and voice within the academic, social, and behavioral facets of the school day, you will witness increased student engagement, greater student buy-in, and decreased behavior concerns.
Building relationships with students is a nonnegotiable foundation to create authentic student-voice opportunities. Character.org is a national organization, based in Washington, D.C., that promotes, supports, and fosters the character education initiative. Their 11 Principles, resources, and local/state agencies can provide additional support in moving forward to foster teacher-student relationships via the character education initiative. By establishing a positive school climate and nurturing positive relationships with our students, we will see an improvement in how our students react, respond, and refer to school activities.
So, how do you begin? Why should you empower student voice? We know that our students arrive to school each day with two questions: (1) will I be accepted? and (2) can I do the work? In addressing these important questions, we can help our students feel both welcome and confident at school. We can also help them become better connected with their academic work.
How can you empower students by increasing student voice? Here are a few ways we have initiated this process:
- Principal sound-off: Each quarter, we provide students with the opportunity to share their thoughts, concerns, and ideas with their administrative leadership team. Counselors and administrators meet with students to discuss these topics. Many times our students will be able to help problem-solve different areas of concern within the school community. They are also able to generate “new ideas” and initiatives to incorporate into daily activities. This meeting allows our administrative leadership team to provide feedback to students explaining which suggestions can be implemented and why specific practices and procedures need to remain in place. By giving the students this important feedback, you are honoring their voice even when you cannot implement some of their suggestions or ideas.
- Student-led organizations: We allow students to take the lead in facilitating, planning, and leading our student organizations. This provides them with authentic leadership responsibilities and opportunities. Our three key student leader organizations each have a specific focus—National Junior Honor Society, service to others; Character Council, promoting student voice and character education; and W.E.B./Leader Link, student mentoring.
- Student-led committees: Serving as facilitators, school administrators, teachers, and counselors work alongside students with various committees. For example, two years ago, we transformed how we approached our annual Veterans Day celebration when two student leaders approached our administrative team with a new vision for the event. By allowing students to share their voice and vision for this annual event, we revitalized this celebration and gave it a personal and authentic voice with a breakfast, school assembly, and student speakers.
- Classroom leadership: Following the Leader in Me initiative and other research-based practices, we offer students real opportunities to lead class activities, responsibilities, and projects. These different types of leadership roles in the classroom help to provide students with authentic responsibilities outside of academic work that build confidence and self-esteem.
- BYOD school: As a Bring Your Own Device school, we demonstrate a desire to further engage students on a level that they are accustomed to. Please note that technology for technology’s sake is not the reason to introduce BYOD to your school. Instead, it can enhance and further embed learning practices with your students.
- Staff of the Year: We invite eighth graders to nominate and participate in the voting for Teacher of the Year and Support Staff of the Year. This truly gives students a voice in this honor.
- Content curriculum: Student voice and choice are other keys to increasing student “connectedness” in the classroom. We offer opportunities for students to have a choice within assignments, such as problem-based learning events. The Socratic seminar is another research-based strategy that has proven to be an effective student voice advocate.
With all ideas, initiatives, and programs, it is important to begin slowly. Assess your current reality and then begin with backwards design based on your school’s vision and mission to map out your plan. From here, empower teacher and student voice in designing, planning, and then implementing your student-voice initiative.
Let me know what you’re implementing to empower student voice within your school!
Ted Huff, EdD is the principal and “lead learner” of Francis Howell Middle School in St. Charles, MO. He is the 2016 Missouri Principal of the Year and an advocate of stakeholder voice within the school community. Follow him on Twitter @TedHiff