6 Ways Principals Can Empower Student Voice and Choice

Student voice and choice is often talked about in schools but rarely implemented with a consistent focus on empowering students. For this to take place, principals need to intentionally find ways to place student voice and choice at the foundation of their school. My school’s Virtual Tour will focus on strategies to empower student voice and choice in your school. Here are six ways you can do so:

  1. Student-Led Professional Learning

Some of the best professional learning I have experienced is when students are leading educators. We make it a point to have our students lead our “staffulty” (faculty and staff) in professional learning. For example, our LGBTQ+ group of students shared with our staffulty what it’s like to be LGBTQ+ in our school. They shared their perspectives, how they are treated, and the biases that they see and experience. Student-led professional development is eye-opening, relevant, and inspiring. Students have led sessions on the use of technology, race relations, and more. Work with your students to identify ways they can provide meaningful, productive, and action-oriented professional learning for your faculty and staff.

  1. Student-Led Student Presentations

When we empower students to share their voice with the school, other students are inspired to promote their voice and choice in the school and their community. Sarah, a junior at the time, asked if she could share her struggles with students in an assembly that she would lead on the topic of mental health. We connected with Sarah’s mom about the request, and we began to strategize what this would look like.

We must admit we were afraid to host a student-led assembly—and especially an assembly on mental health led by a student. This terrified us as a school leadership team responsible for the message our students would receive. After much thought and reflection, we decided to partner with Sarah and her family to allow her to lead the assembly. At this time, she was recognized nationally for her efforts in bringing awareness to mental health for students.

Looking back, that was one of the best decisions we ever made as a school leadership team. That day, when we put our fears aside, we opened the door, no, we opened the floodgates to increase student voice in our school. Ever since then, our school has been changed by the inspiring story and voice of one student, Sarah Pennington. Our school has also held plays led, directed, written, and performed by students. We provided students the topic of No Place for Hate, and they came up with the play and then performed it in front of the entire school.

  1. Student Board Representatives

Our School Board of Directors has two Student Board Representatives who provide insight to the board on the voice of students. Although these students are from the high school, they represent the entire school district. They visit all of our schools and meet with students to hear what they are passionate about, how they would like to make their schools better, and what they can do personally to make our district a better place. Through the years, these Student Board Representatives have worked with our student body to bring about real and sustainable change to our school. They meet with students, do Instagram Live sessions to hear from students, and participate in our Falcon Feedback events (see below). These students are key leaders in our school and district.

  1. Student-Led Feedback

What do paper towels, hot sauce, a salad bar, and excused tardiness to school all share? You probably think they have nothing in common. But in our school, these are all items that our students have requested during our Falcon Feedback Friday sessions. Falcon Feedback Friday is a time where I meet with four random students from each grade, our student government president, and our student representatives to the School Board of Directors. Students are selected randomly, and a new set of students is selected each week. During this time, we ask the students four questions:

Falcon Feedback Friday Questions

  Falcon Feedback Friday
1. What does our school do great?
2. How can our school improve?
3. What do you dream our school can be?
4. What can you personally do to make our school a better place?

We take good notes and a picture of the group, and then share out each week with the students and faculty. During one session, students asked for hot sauce in the cafeteria, paper towels in the bathrooms (we had the high wind hand dryers), a salad bar, and a five-minute extension to school on days with inclement weather. One of my favorite tweets of the school year was when a student took a pic of the hot sauce in the cafe and thanked us for listening. It’s hard to believe how the little things make such a huge impact in our schools. This provides students choice in a way that provides real change in the school from the perspective of the student.

Our school also uses The Pulse survey from Jostens Renaissance to gauge student voice and choice in our school. We use this data to drive decision making, funding, and leadership. Our staffulty use this data to make adjustments, celebrate successes, and identify ways to improve as a school.

  1. Showcase Student Work/Talents

We recently had a senior complete a piece of artwork that we decided to enlarge and hang in our hallway. I’ll never forget the student’s face of joy when she heard that we selected her artwork. Now, I’m sure many principals hang student artwork throughout their building. But this is probably different. What we did was we took her piece of art and had it enlarged to four feet by four feet and hung it in a prominent area in our hallway.

We look for every way we can feature student work, from having students perform the national anthem at all sporting events to having students emcee school assemblies and perform in the cafeteria during our lunches. Here’s a question to ask when you want to consider showcasing student work/talents: “Could a student do what an adult is doing right now?” This question causes us to reflect in a way that challenges us to step aside and showcase the work of students in our school.

In addition, our librarian, Mrs. Dani Small, has students present one-minute Instagram videos on books that they read. This has twofold benefits—it provides an opportunity for students to showcase what they are reading, and it gives students a quick summary of potential books that they could be reading from the library. Mrs. Small often uses Instagram to showcase student work and voice, previews for students great reads in the library, and shares what students are making and creating in the library.

  1. Student Choice That Matters

When students have the ability to choose what they learn, how they learn, and even where they learn, they become vested in the learning process. Work to provide choice throughout the learning process by providing a variety of options on how to complete an assignment, where they can sit, who they can work with in groups, and so much more.

For example, in an effort to look for ways to provide students choice in our school, we decided to allow seniors to choose their lockers before school starts. We opened up the school, set up check-in stations in the lobby, and established a procedure for seniors to come in and select the locker of their choice. By doing this, students have buy-in and ownership in their school experience.

Providing a range of seating options and allowing students to choose the places they use for their learning is another way to honor student choice. Offer a variety of low desks, standard desks, stools, lounge chairs, folding chairs, web chairs, bean bag chairs, laptop desks—the options are plentiful and affordable. By allowing students to choose the way they would like to sit, stand, or recline while doing their reading, writing, reflecting, and collaborating, we are keeping on a focus on what matters most—the learning. We need to give away the power and stop striving for conformity and order above learning.

In my recent book, You Don’t Need Superpowers To Be A Kid’s Hero: Leading A Hero-Building School Culture, there are a number of activities, reflection tools, and surveys to see how your school is doing in regard to promoting student voice and choice.

Who is the loudest voice in your school? I hope it’s the students. If not, consider implementing some of the practical strategies you learned in this post. I’d love to hear from you how you are empowering student voice and choice in your school.

This blog is part of NASSP’s Virtual Tour Series. Be sure to visit NASSP’s Facebook page on November 19 at 9:00 a.m. (ET) to participate in the live tour, sponsored by Eduspire. Join Bill on Sunday evening, November 22 at 9:00 pm (ET) for Pau Hana, an informal virtual networking session to ask questions and keep the conversation going. 

Bill Ziegler, EdD, is the principal of Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, PA. He was a 2015 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year and the 2016 Pennsylvania Principal of the Year. Bill is the host of “Lead the Way, A Podcast for School Leaders” that works to encourage, equip, and empower school leaders. He is also the co-author of Future Focused Leaders: Relate, Innovate, and Invigorate for Real Educational Change and his latest book, You Don’t Need Superpowers to Be a Kid’s Hero: Leading A Hero-Building School Culture. Follow him on Twitter (@drbillziegler), visit his website at www.chaselearning.org, or email him at drbillziegler@gmail.com.

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