Winning Heart & Minds

A student from Maryland wrote me earlier this month to ask about getting more rights for student representatives on their local school board. These are usually awkward requests for me, primarily because it feels like we’re looking for a “silver bullet” that will end this problem for all times. There isn’t one.

However, I think there is a crucial step that is missing in many student-led campaigns for student voice and school improvement. That crucial step leads to education decision-makers to take the “short view” of what students can actually do in schools. That’s too bad, because in general I have found that these perspectives are actually detrimental to the educational system as a whole because adults are denying the essential knowledge, experience, and insight of students.

That crucial step? Ironically, it is education. All adults, including teachers, policy-makers, para-professionals, counselors, administrators, lunch ladies, principals, curriculum writers, evaluators – all adults, really, need to learn about student voice.

That crucial step will allow students to consistenly win over adults. Remember that power is mostly about influence and the ability to drive people to make decisions in your favor. Why is educating adults so important?

I think that answer lies at the core of why most adults go back to the educational system in the first place. Michael Fullan and others call this the “moral imperative”. Appeal to that moral imperative and students can win any position of power throughout schools.

That happens by having real conversations with a variety of adults about what student voice and school improvement. In order to do that, students must be educated themselves, either through self-learning or other means. When students are able to hold substantial conversations about student voice and school improvement, they should engage adults in those conversations, both as the beneficiaries of change and as potential drivers. From that position students can appeal to the ethical side of adults and make a direct correlation between student voice and effective school improvement. But appeal first to the moral imperative.

If students can’t get their feet in the doors of enough doors at once, students should lead training for adults who work in schools. Advertise through simplicity: “Student Voice Makes Schools Work Better. Find Out How.” Hold the training at a local library or community center for two hours on a Saturday afternoon, and teach teachers about student voice, how it fits together with school improvement. Adults need to explore them how student voice can affect them positively, as well as their whole school, district and students, themselves, as well.

If students don’t feel enough leverage in training teachers, a simple public knowledge campaign might be the door to open. Start by submit an article to the local teacher union newsletter, and follow-up with local education associations. Then write one editorial in the local paper to appeal to popular belief that schools should “do the right thing”. The next step in that effort is to bombard this same paper with letters from dozens of students, all calling for student voice. Have adult allies, including supportive teachers, parents, and youth workers, do the same.

This type of guerrilla education campaign can be essential. Once students have the argument down-pat, the next step is to appeal to the “right” people in the right way. That’s where the above strategies can work.

I have started actively discouraging students from trying to appeal to adults from a “student rights” perspective, primarily because of the failures I and others I know have had with it. That’s primarily because of the loud minority of adults in schools who don’t believe students have any real right to pariticipate in “authoritative” educational decision-making of any kind. Instead, they think they are “doing the right thing” or being beneficent by engaging student voice.

With the current state of research supporting student voice, or the lack thereof, we don’t have a strong scientific basis to foot campaigns in. So it is essential to appeal to that beneficent perspective – also called noblese oblige – and encourage adults to extend their perspective of what the “right thing” is.

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