I spoke to a bunch of students over the summer at the University at Buffalo—students who just graduated from lots of different high schools and are freshman at the university in a few weeks. I wanted to know the areas that we can improve on in their schools, not only locally in Western New York, but across the nation if others catch wind of this blog.
Rebecca Coda and I are passionate about student voice and I thought I would continue to “walk the walk” and try to get the word out to others about what some of our students feel (and know) about what we sometimes do in our schools. This is the essence of the Let Them Speak! Movement that we are proud to lead across the nation. Each of the topics listed below are always debatable and they are always controversial in any school setting.
What I like the most about this list is how the students were honest about their responses and they didn’t hold back, either. The other thing that I want you to consider is if something strikes a chord in your body or sends a shrill up your spine, remember . . . it is an isolated list from an isolated group of students. We can either become upset about it and perceive it as damaging to our egos or we can take the information, wrestle with it, and think of new ways to help students to no longer have these perceptions about school--that schools are only exclusively led by the adults and all of the decisions for school improvement are being made by the adults.
Creating partnerships with our students where we work with them side by side to determine better ways to do things is always the best course of action to take. After all, don’t we want our students to have the best possible experience with us instead of us thinking that we know what the best possible experience is for our students (without ever asking them)?
So, here we go with the students' list starting at #10 . . .
#10: The courses students are “required” to take: Students take sequences in all sorts of courses and then electives in others and from an educator’s perspective, I can understand why we expose students to all sorts of courses--in case something jumps out at them and they learn a new skill or talent that changes their world forever. That is NOT what this category is about. I’ll use the example that the students gave me: Taking a second language. After the initial exposure of taking French, Spanish, or even German for 1 year, the students told me that they didn’t want to continue a sequence in a course just to obtain a different kind of diploma. They felt trapped in how course sequences are set up because they already invested at least 1 year taking something, so they felt pressured to just continue on with it even though they hate a particular course and certainly do not want more of something they hate.
#9: “Jekyll and Hyde” teachers: The students referred to moody teachers quite a bit in their discussions with me. One day, the teacher is in a really good mood. They next day, they are stressed and raising their voice. We all have problems in our lives and some terrible tragedies that we must work through. But, the students have problems too and do not need to shoulder ours, as well.
#8: The food students have to eat: This comes up time and time again. While food quality is often linked to cost savings or state mandates for portion sizes, the students told me that they would prefer fresh salads, not brown celery sticks and food that is tasty versus bland. They didn’t seem to care much about what was being offered on most days because they love having choices. This issue had more to do with unseasoned, bland food. Can we spice it up a bit?
#7: The school supplies students must purchase: If a long list of school supplies must be purchased so that students do not lose points for being unprepared, then why are some supplies never used during the school year? Composition books with only a few pages used? Binders that sit in student lockers? Tissues and disinfectant wipes that are for the classroom storage closet?
#6: The desire to have school uniforms: No, you are not seeing things. I was surprised too. The majority of the students whom I spoke with actually wanted school uniforms. I know, it is the opposite of what you might expect. Students spend lots of time trying to look their best and if they do not have the latest fashionable clothes or sneakers, bullying and labeling occurs more than we think because of the socioeconomic disparities that are apparent through clothing. School uniforms level the playing field and the kids know it too.
#5: The “invisible” principal: The students told me stories about principals whom they loved--you know, the ones who are always around, laughing with them, interested in them, and watching what was going on in their schools as much as possible. The students hated the principals who were office dwellers or who would only come around when the superintendent or board members visited.
#4: Unions: The students told me about poor quality teachers whom they knew were “protected” by the union and mostly in cases where teacher tenure made it costly to remove a poor quality teacher. Students also know about contract negotiations that might not be favorable for them because if the teachers do not get what they want, they pull back on the extra, things that they do for students (after hours help, coming in early to hang out with them) and then the students hear teachers talking about the negotiations in the hallways and this upsets them greatly. One school district wanted to increase the elementary school day by about 30 minutes and the union demanded $3.5 million dollars in raises for this to happen. Again, I’m just reporting what the students told me.
#3: School activities that are boring: The adults, often times, choose the assemblies, field trips, extra activities, and so much more. The students would love to partner with the adults on planning the school year activities.
#2: Teacher evaluations that appear to be “dog and pony shows”: One student told me a story about a teacher he had who taught the same material as the previous day so the teacher would look smart and highly effective when the principal came in to conduct her evaluation the next day. The students see this as a sham and didn't like how teachers could plan when they were observed. The students loved the "pop in," unannounced evaluations. They get "pop quizzes" as students so why not have this be the main method for teacher evaluations? "A good teacher will always be teaching well anyway," they said.
#1: The use of technology to replace teaching: Tons of students reported how teachers are using software (i.e. READ 180, Castle Learning, etc.) to replace teaching. We all know that these kinds of programs are meant to supplement our programming, but not if the teacher exclusively uses software to replace their responsibilities to the students. The students perceived this as lazy.
So, there you have it. This was an interesting discussion to have and the students really loved being able to express themselves. They do want to help and change the ways in which some of our schools are doing business and my promise to them was to share their voices with my community of connections. I hope you can spread the word about these issues and even have some of your own discussions with kids in order to add to this list. Anything that students "hate" can, sometimes, have very easy solutions.
I wish you all a beautiful start to your school year and hope that you will seek student voice as much as possible for all kinds of things that manage a school. If you need a list of topics as to where you can start your conversations, you can find over 122 ideas on the Let Them Speak! website.