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Inspiring Leadership through Student Voice

Here’s a radical idea: What if students were in charge of hiring teachers?

Not that long ago, it would have been inconceivable to envision students wielding that kind of power, but as schools get serious about student voice, educators are getting serious about bringing students into conversations about how schools are run—and not just when it comes to hiring decisions.

At Harwood Union High School in Moreton, Vt., for example, students participate in curriculum decisions, conversations about individual teaching styles, the content of report cards, and other decisions once thought to be solely the province of top school leadership.

While many districts claim to embody student engagement, administrators at Harwood are walking the walk. For educators in the tiny New England hamlet, it’s about empowering students in the realest way possible.

Training future leaders
In an article in Education Week, Catherine Gewertz describes the “mini-democracy” that is the Harwood leadership team, a group of staff and students who receive leadership training via a local community group, Up for Learning.

Like any democracy, students and teachers propose bills which are then considered, debated, amended, and voted on by the team.

When findings from a school survey revealed that students wanted to give teachers feedback about classroom instruction, a bill was proposed and passed to formalize the process.

The leadership team not only allows students to have more influence over their own learning, it also equips them with vital communication and leadership skills they’ll need in the workforce, such as compromise.

When Anneka Williams’ proposal to add an extra period to the school schedule met with a lukewarm response from her fellow classmates, she didn’t harp on her proposal’s failure.  “It’s frustrating when you use your voice and you don’t get what you want,” she told Ed Week, “but we got a lot out of it and it’s been a big experience.” The most important benefit students get out of the democratic process at Harwood, Anneka says, is realizing how much influence they actually have.

Slow and messy, but valuable
Including students in critical leadership decisions takes time—and it isn’t always easy, say Co-Principals Amy Rex and Lisa Atwood. Decisions can sometimes take weeks to negotiate.

“We know it’s messy,” Atwood told Ed Week “There is hard work on each aspect of each thing, getting everyone in the same boat.”

This goes for teachers as well as students. Though most teachers have embraced the change, it represents a 180-degree turn from the traditional classroom culture many are used to.

Still, those who’ve embraced the change at Harwood say it’s created value and new ways of thinking about school leadership.

Catharine Biddle, an educational leadership scholar tells Ed Week, “Involving students as deeply as they have, in as many ways as they have, helps avoid a common mistake of seeing student voice as monolithic: that as long as we get a couple of kids giving us feedback, that’s student involvement.”

It starts with an invitation
Considering new ways to amplify student voice in your school community?

You don’t need to create an entirely new form of school governance—at least not right away.

One-on-one or group meetings, school surveys, and online feedback or suggestions boxes are just a few of the ways that you can bring students into critical conversations about their education.

No matter what approach you take, the key is to listen authentically, to respond to their concerns, and to actively demonstrate how that feedback informs your decisions.

What steps do you take to give students a louder voice? Tell us in the comments.

Want an easy way to bring students into critical conversations? Start an honest two-way conversation.