Student Voice…A Powerful Tool, Misunderstood Toxic Element or Both?

If you have read the title of this post and said to yourself, this guy is crazy. Please do not pass judgement on me until you read the entire piece. Like everything else I welcome all opinions and feedback.

I am an intermediate teacher who believes that student voice is a critical aspect of my learning, teaching, professional reflection and key to a successful classroom. When however it is implemented poorly or completely misunderstood by those who are forced to implement it without a plan , it can quickly become a poison which can cause conflict and dissension in any school setting.

The term ‘student voice’ has become the catchphrase at many school boards in Ontario and a pillar of many board improvement plans over the past few years. It is a term that is overused in education today and rarely honoured by those who espouse it most. It has become the catchphrase of many educators and administrative upcommers and wannabes who hope to make a lasting impression at meetings, interviews, camp fires etc.

The Capacity Building Series (published by the Student Achievement Division of the LNS) refers to student voice as a metaphor for student engagement. It is a means of bringing students into the role of co-learners with both teachers and parents in a positive collaborative framework.

student voice visual                                                                   student voice visual 2

While nearly all educators agree (in theory) this could be a powerful tool to encourage students become more engaged in the learning process, it has often been implemented with blinding speed by upper management with far too many negative unintended consequences.

Principals have been bullied into demonstrating how they are using student voice to improve learning in their schools. However it has been implemented in a forced homogenised manner which often leaves teachers feeling abandoned by their principals and at the mercy of their students.

First and foremost, challenges experienced in the education system over the past few years has placed a significant strain on parent-student and parent-teacher relationships. Traditional high level of respect for teachers has been replaced by anger, frustration and disrespect. These feelings are most often experienced by parents and communities who then pass this anger or distrust on to their kids. This has directly resulted in students having far less respect for teachers, schools and an ambivalence toward school work in general.  This negative cycle becomes perpetuated by students received negative message from parents about schools and their teachers and thus becoming increasing disrespectful toward teachers.

All of this has resulted in an abnormally high level of student entitlement (with little accountability being placed back onto the students).

In many places this misrepresentation of the spirit of student voice has resulted in student feeling empowered to actively pressure education professionals to do what they want without a sense of the responsibility that comes along with it. Additionally parents are being fed this false belief that they can use their negative voices (in the guise of student voice) to push personal agendas and force changes upon schools. The difficultly with this is that principals and teachers (who work on the front line) are caught in the middle of this. It has additionally become a new weapon to be used by parents, students and administration to push personal agendas in an attempt to stifle the teacher voice.

My reflection here is that student voice is a critical piece of the education model if and when it is introduced and monitored carefully. Unfortunately that is not likely to be the case.  Current evidence suggests it will be yet another new board initiative that will be poorly incorporated and quickly swept under the rug as a new catch phrase comes from a fire side chat to blow us in yet another direction.

Oh, what could be!

Student Voice is (1280x495)

In Praise of Middle Schools

Currently I am a grade 6/7/8 teacher in a K-8 elementary school. Our entire school has less than 100 students (we are a small rural school). While this affords us many benefits: such as a family atmosphere, whole staff collaboration and an ability to build a relationship with every student, it does also have several significant drawbacks. Classes are most often prescribed in advance offering little chance for students who may need a break from one another to get it. It also provides no opportunity for grade level collaboration between colleagues and students within our building as there is only one classroom with each grade (although technology such as Google Drive and Adobe Connect have allowed us to collaborate with students from other schools which has been great!!).

But perhaps the single greatest flaw in this K-8 system is the administration and expectations placed on students and staff in a school which has students ranging from 5 years of age to 14. With increasing work hours, broken families, increased curricular expectations and social responsibilities, schools have been left to pick up the slack as the modern family breaks down. It has become extremely difficulty for parents to keep their jobs, raise their kids, keep up with technology, provide extracurricular opportunities and learning opportunities on a consistent basis. 

While school (some with vigor and some begrudgingly) take on these extra responsibilities we are left with teachers and admin who are stretched to limit. Nowhere is this more apparent than the 25 committees and 5 new board initiatives each school must adhere to on a yearly basis, to ensure that every aspect of the child’s life is addresses (or at least covered) by the school. Safe and Caring, health and nutrition, QDPA, and on and on and on…

The challenge continues that in a K-8 schools the needs of the students at each end of the spectrum are drastically different. Schools are built on a hierarchy of antiquated rules which often defy logic and common sense. How can we move into the 21st Century by creating rules that are applied in the same way to kids who are 14 years old and 5 years old? This makes no sense! I have taught gr. 7/8 for nearly 10 years now and nothing frustrates me more than how grade 7/8 students are treated like little kids. They are not! They are at an extremely difficult point in their development…trying to figure our who they are and who they want to be. 

Too often they are treated little kids, and then adults and admin are perplexed when their actions emulate those younger students. If we treat them little kids they will act that way! Often I run into difficulty when I fundamentally disagree with a ridiculous rule and openly choose not to enforce it. When I show trust and confidence in them, they most often reward that trust. Unfortunately many administrators and teacher only focus on the negative or silly actions…Hey folks (read about brain development 101…this is what they are programmed to do!).

My hope is that boards of education will change this out dated model.Create middle schools where students in grade 6-8 can cast of the shackles of our past education system and micromanaging administrators, and allow them to live, learn, create, search and yes make mistakes with a little more freedom. Until we are willing to trust them, work with them, and give up our need for control, I fear our grade 6/7/8 students will continue to rebel against the insanity that is K-8 schools. 

We need to give them a place where they feel like they are welcome.

We need to build an environment where they are valued and surround them with their peers. 

They need us to build them a home.

Middle School.