5 Ways Principals Can Promote Student Voice and Self-Advocacy

In my time as principal of Aztec High School in New Mexico, one of my main goals has been to promote a culture centered on student voice. I’m proud to say that our school values student voice and actively seeks out input from students to shape our academics, extracurricular programming, and building culture. And when a school shooting took the lives of two students in December 2017, our commitment to student voice became a vital component to our school community’s recovery.

How can school leaders create an environment that encourages students to express their ideas and proactively put their voices to work? Here are five ways that have helped me promote student voice and self-advocacy on our campus:

Be Visible on Campus and Open to Hearing Student Opinion.

A visible leader is an approachable leader to young people. Many students don’t often have the opportunity to engage adults in casual conversation about their ideas. Muhammad Khalifa, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University, shares in the Journal of School Leadership that time a principal spends being approachable to at-risk kids is well worth the investment to promote self-advocacy through “increased trust, participation, and student achievement in the communities they serve.”

In my experience, I’ve seen young people develop better-informed opinions when trusted adults listen to them and give constructive feedback. As a building leader, I have found that some of my best times in connecting with kids have been during lunch duty. Our administrative team splits up the task and assigns ourselves to lunch duty at least one day each week. These times are when I get to seek out friendly conversation with students.

Actively Encourage Participation in Student Government Organizations.

Over the last decade, the National Student Council has successfully reimaged high school student council to be a vehicle for developing student voice on campus, as well as encouraging young people to be engaged in local communities. The Raising Student Voice & Participation program (RSVP) is becoming a driving force on high school campuses to promote collective student voice and effect real change in school. The Student Council at Aztec High has risen to the challenge. They are building coalitions with the other clubs on campus, with talk of forming a council of clubs in order to broaden student participation in campus advocacy and decision making.

Organize and Attend Student Decision-Making Meetings on Campus Issues.

A 2016 report from the Quaglia Institute shows survey data that students who agree with statements related to student voice surveys are seven times more likely to say they are academically motivated than students who do not agree with the student voice statements. This reinforces the point that principals can do a great deal to encourage and develop responsible participation among our students. We can lead by taking an active role in building formal structures for student input on campus. I can say that many insightful and powerful ideas for campus recovery have come out of meetings with students at Aztec High. Over the past year, our student council and other campus clubs joined with me in holding several talking sessions after our tragic school shooting. District officials, some parents, and over 60 kids from various clubs sat together in brainstorming sessions as the school took input from the kids on how we wanted to mark the one-year anniversary of our collective tragedy and loss.

Open Your Calendar to Regular Meetings With Student Club Leaders.

Even for the energetic and driven student who steps into a leadership role, it can be tough to lead one’s peers. Student leaders should feel they have access to regular input on campus decision making. By taking an active mentor role with these young people, the principal can make a lasting impact on a promising future leader. It can also give your student body president and other club officers an insight into how an adult leader does time management in a demanding job.

Encourage New Clubs for Marginalized Student Groups.

That same 2016 Quaglia report also notes that students who agree with statements related to self-worth are six times more likely to say they are academically motivated than students who do not agree with the self-worth statements. When the study looks at engagement, it finds that students are 14 times more likely to say they are academically motivated under those same circumstances. Given the numerous barriers that marginalized student groups face, the school might not have any better tool for supporting academic achievement than establishing clubs to foster and nourish meaningful involvement for at-risk students on campus. In the past year, Aztec High has seen new clubs develop for students around interests such as competitive video gaming and Native American cultural awareness. These clubs become connecting points for students to get involved in school.

Dr. Hall listening to 2017 graduates at the AHS commencement that year.

As school principals we have a unique influence on society’s future leaders. How have you used your influence to develop your students into leaders with strong voice?

Warman Hall is the principal of Aztec High School in Aztec, NM, serving an average of 900 ninth- through 12-grade students each year. Warman has 21 years in education, the last 11 at AHS. Warman is the 2018 New Mexico Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @warman_hall.

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