Students Leading the Way

Author: Judy Walton, Chief Innovation Officer, Forest Hills Public Schools

Originally posted October 19, 2016.

Background: During a two week trip to Australia, Judy visited several schools as a part of her interest and study on the topic of student voice. This particular post is of interest because of how student voice influences the professional learning for the teachers.

Students Leading the Way

In the midst of a two-week trip to Melbourne, I had the great fortune to visit two state schools, both Years 9-12. My first visit was to Mt. Waverley Secondary College, a large co-ed school in a middle class suburb. The following day, I spent time at Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, somewhat smaller, and just a short tram ride from the Central Business District. Unlike Mt. Waverley, Mac.Rob is a magnet school with an application process.

I went to the schools through the generous invitation of Roger Holdsworth, a man of many talents and an educator who truly believes in the democratic agency of all students.I met Roger online in a group dedicated to student voice while researching my dissertation. Sight unseen, he set up the school visits and made the rounds with me. My conversations with him were thought-provoking and have helped me grow my thinking.

Both of the schools I visited participate with the Victorian Student Representative Council – “VicSRC” – a state-funded body representing students. Through support from that agency, both schools engage in their own versions of Teach the Teacher, where students lead professional learning for educators in an atmosphere of open, honest, and nonjudgmental communication. I had the privilege to meet with students from both schools who are working with teachers to improve the learning in their schools.

Like many in education, the students are anxious for change. They recognize that their time at the school is limited, and they desire systems for sustainable change. They recognize the external and internal pressures on teachers stemming from economics and accountability, and they are willing to work shoulder-to-shoulder with them to make positive change. They recognize that not every educator is welcoming student voice with open ears, and they continue to believe in what they are doing. They recognize that in some ways their input is still at the tokenism level, and they persist in advocating for equality.

At Mt. Waverley, the Teach the Teacher program is currently centered around a shared belief among teachers and students that strong relationships are important to creating a healthy learning environment.Students led learning for staff and students around the perception data gathered in the school and worked together to draft a survey for teachers to use to gain feedback from students in individual classrooms.The teachers used the feedback to improve relationships, and thereby improve learning. To read more in-depth on this project, click here and forward to page 8. Another project the students are interested in is re-purposing the first 15-20 minutes of school so that teachers and students become more of a community of learners.

At Mac.Rob, the students and staff are engaged in a four-year strategic plan that includes their version of Teach the Teacher, known as Creating Conversations. Students take part in four different areas of the school: curriculum, building and logistics, e-learning, and wellbeing. On the day I was there, the students were holding an open forum on the Year 10 English curriculum, which had been reconfigured within the last few years. The students are seeking to understand the impact the curriculum change has had on students as they move up into Years 11 and 12, and on the teachers who are implementing the new curriculum. Like many schools in the U.S., the Mac.Rob students sometimes have a day off while their teachers engage in professional learning. The students also have an interest in measuring the impact that professional learning has on classroom learning.

What might we achieve in our schools if we not only engage student voice, but welcome students as leaders of learning? We talk to students all the time; what might happen if we talk with them? More importantly, what is possible if we listen as well? Why not learn from those most impacted by policies and decisions? Why not let them lead the way?

Judy regularly blogs on a variety of topics related to teaching and learning.