This past Friday my school along with 16 others who belong to a partnership in the southern region of Adelaide, came together for a conference organised by school leaders. The conference was a great day of learning and connecting, kicked off with an entertaining opening keynote from Dan Haesler weaving stories throughout powerful messages of mindset and student voice. The day culminated with a student panel involving 8 students from four of the schools involved, 4 senior secondary students and 4 upper primary students.
— Wirreanda Secondary (@WirreandaSS) June 3, 2016
It was wonderful to have student voice shared, which is too often void in education conferences. It was also a challenging experience for these 8 young people to step out of their comfort zone in front of 540 adults, which I am sure many adults would be reticent to do themselves. (Mind you, I think Dominic (REC) was revelling in the opportunity to have an audience, quite the performer!)
Amongst many of the prompts and questions from both Dan and the audience, the student panel responded to, what their favourite day at school would be like and aspects they value in their teachers and how they feel about school.
Overwhelmingly, the message from our students endorsed that they were empowered when teachers fostered their passions, whether that be drama, music or leadership. That the best teachers saw something in them, that they didn’t necessarily see in themselves. That teachers who challenged them and respected their opinions and contributions are the ones they value, along with those who include them to design their own learning.
Additionally, these students used terms like “home”, “comfortable” and “belong” and phrases such as “where I can be me” when referring to their schools. Multiple warm fuzzies in the crowd.
feels like home
means family & history
is a comfortable place
is a place of motivation
is a place where I can be me#panapart
— Melissa Mulholland (@MelissaMulh) June 3, 2016
What a great job we have all done, patting ourselves on the back in the audience, warm hearts, big smiles, looking at proof that our efforts have resulted with young people on a stage, confirming how we impact their lives in incredibly positive ways. And what an amazing bunch of young people they are.
But let’s get real….these were 8 SELECTED students out of a possible 4000 in our schools.
Easy to be swept up with this wonderful student panel, but important to remember that not every student feels connected to school #panapart
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) June 3, 2016
This student panel is fantastic, but not all students can articulate what they need/want/feel. Important to ask those students too #Panapart
— rebecca hepworth (@bechep2) June 3, 2016
It is not like as school leaders we are going to put 8 disengaged kids on stage who could potentially say “school is shit for me and I wish I didn’t have to go”. Or could we? If we are going to “get real” about impacting on young people, if we are going to face what is truly NOT working in our systems, then shouldn’t we be hearing the voices of those who are the most disaffected?
So I throw a challenge to my colleagues, to my school, to myself. Let us give voice to those who do not get a chance to be heard. Let us hear from students who don’t feel like “home” at school, who cannot identify even one adult that they can confide in. Let us shake up the next student panel and take a risk. If we continuously hear the good stuff, then we are blindly moving forward without the feedback that can make the most significant difference.
Check out the Storify from the day.
Part of my leadership responsibilities this year has been to support the development of student voice. There have been multiple highlights throughout the year with students being involved in a range of key decisions, and instigating change at our school in the ways we approach making decisions and managing processes, some of which have been entrenched for a significant time. Developing these opportunities for students has been a natural fit with the way I work with students and an extension of the way my classroom teaching has evolved. Listening and acting upon student ideas and feedback has always been important to me as I imagine my own children in the young people I work alongside daily.
This past term though has seen a shift in Student Voice at my school with the opportunity to plan and organise a forum inviting a range of student leaders from other schools. This would be the second student forum for our school, the first one held last year.
I am well aware of my inclination to be particularly controlling over events/activities that I am responsible for. To say it was only a little unnerving to relinquish the control would be a significant understatement. Allowing students to be in control within your own community is very different to inviting the outside in and risking failure on a very public scale. Yet this is exactly what I did and, how they rose to the occasion (you can see a post about the forum here).
The difference with students being involved and heard versus students owning the project/event is tremendous. One allows the student to feel valued and the other empowers them to be invaluable. I look forward to making space for more authentic opportunities for students to own.
What people do quite naturally is, if it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less. And if it is art, we try to figure out how to do more. And when we put kids in the factory we call school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance, why are we surprised that the question is “Will this be on the test?” – Seth Godin
Comply, fit in, be quiet! – NO!
I work with students on the autism spectrum, students with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and multiple other physical and intellectual diagnoses. If I was after “normal”, I chose the wrong profession! At the same time, this is what I also protest should not be considered in any way abnormal or weird but I will get to that later.
I have a new team of teachers to work with this year and a new group of dynamic young people have come through our doors also.
One student in particular has a very unique way to look at and experience the world and because he doesn’t do this quietly like some of our other students, it can be quite confronting for some. I had a discussion with a peer who said it was embarrassing when he behaved so silly and when people laughed at him. I asked, who is embarrassed, you or him? I asked her to question when she went to change his behaviour, was it about him or was it about her? Obviously this is a simple way to look at things and behaviour and “fitting in” to society is a complex and valid aspect of being part of a community. My question is, to what extent and to what measure do we take to normalise children as opposed to educate for the development of a more just and fair society?
One of the best lessons I have learnt in my life so far, and the most useful strategy as a parent and and educator, is not to say no until you understand the reason why you are saying no.
There are so many reasons we say “no” as parents and educators, some of which are unreasonable:
- I am uncomfortable with what is being asked
- no one has ever asked that before
- saying yes would mean I have to actually do something
- at times it’s just an automatic response
We say that we want our kids to be individuals, not to resign to peer pressure, to be themselves, to be unique, but we do this only to the extent that it suits us. To a point where we don’t feel uncomfortable. To a point where we can feel safe.
Nothing ever improves or evolves by doing the same though does it. Do we think that over the history of culture that things that were deemed abnormal, unnatural, abhorrent or even deviant have been static over time. Of course not! I often refer the work of Michel Foucault, because I find his discourse of “power” and “abnormality” to be inherent in education, disability and equality. Social constructs have changed over time, including race, religion, sexuality, gender and law. Education has a major role to play in this social construction. Just as we were educating to build factory workers and complacent housewives in the 1920’s we need to be educating for the citizens of tomorrow today. Times have changed and so our schools must reflect that.
My vision is of a school where my students are part of a blur of what is normal. Where disability, sexuality, race and religion are invisible. When I say invisible, I don’t mean they do not exist, I mean they are no longer seen as an abnormality but as fundamental.
I want my school to be a place where care is at the centre, where students are given and create opportunities in a supportive environment to work in “real time” on things that matter.
Where students have a genuine voice in what they learn, how they learn it and a voice to whole school action and change.
I want a school where families are part of the learning journey and have opportunities to celebrate together the growth and development of their children.
Where relationships are core and where ideas and passions are valued. Where students teach/lead other students and staff and share their teaching/learning with a global audience.
I want a school where achievement is measured by personal growth not a one fits all test. Where hard work, grit and determination, reflection and community service is part of everyday learning and a highly valued part of achievement.
Where each student develops a personalised, unique path of learning and completes their school years when they have a tool kit for coping with the challenges of an unknown world not because they achieved a chronological milestone.
There are more things I would add, but these are the things I am most passionate about, it’s what I work towards every day. Thinking outside the square won’t be “weird”, a passion for the peculiar will be embraced and the attention will be on the possibilities, not the deficit of students abilities.