Picket signs held high into the glimmering sunshine shouted, “Fair pay, fewer hours!” and “Teachers work for YOUR kids!” Lined up in rows, the protesters chanted, “Our voice, our schools, teachers are no fools!” However, instead of seasoned older educators out walking the lines, these were middle and high school students working the rows.
One of the most popular ways I have heard teachers rebuke student voice is by saying they have no voice of their own, and that they cannot share with students what they don’t have themselves. Faced with deepening standardization throughout K-12 learning, they aren’t wrong, either. Much of the autonomy and innovation teachers had through the 1980s and 90s has been choked out of schools in the name of accountability, and teachers have routinely lost their abilities to make a difference in the curriculum they teach students everyday.
However, this does not mean that teachers have surrendered their ability and control within the average student’s learning experience. Instead, their locus of control has shifted from being in charge of learning and teaching to being classroom managers and teaching facilitators. Working from much more scripted curricula than any previous generation of educators, teachers today must focus on delivering those lesson plans. But they can do that through successful classroom management, effective teaching practices, and by establishing classroom cultures that are substantially different from their predecessors’ experiences.
Those cultures, that teaching, and that management is what can allow every classroom teacher the ability to foster Meaningful Student Involvement for every learner in their purview. While that might not equate to students being allowed to write curriculum or teach courses, that doesn’t mean that students should have to sit passively and simply receive the course of education without contributing to it themselves. It actually means the opposite: Since teachers must teach material they don’t feel responsible for, students themselves must have more opportunities to use their innate capacities to meet their own needs, the needs of their peers, and the needs of younger learners. That can happen through Meaningful Student Involvement.
Which brings me back to the teacher protest. I spoke with an educator recently who suggested that student voice is best heard on behalf of teachers, much like the protests where their teacher union had recently bused in students to picket. While a hundred teachers stood to the sides to watch, students overwhelmed the media with their chanting and flashy signs, and soon the union won new negotiations with the legislators who were threatening their livelihood.
This is an inherently tokenistic and belittling experience for all students, no matter who they are. This is because students:
- Participate in classes where their voices are not part of the curricula
- Experience “school improvement” that routinely neglects their capacity to contribute to change-making throughout education
- Get measured according to standards they had no role in selecting
- Attend buildings their taxes helped build without them having any role in choosing how to spend them
- Are subjected to decision-making by elected officials who they couldn’t vote for
- and so-forth
I fully support unions and advocate for their role in our democratic economy. I believe teacher unions serve a vital function within the education arena, and stand with them frequently.
However, that does not give unions or teachers (or anyone else for that matter) the right to tokenize students and call that tokenism meaningful involvement. That is plainly corrupt. This Machiavellian approach to student voice is demeaning and dehumanizing, and ultimately serves to reinforce the ideology of education administrators and politicians who would label teachers and unfair, inept, or unsuitable for their jobs in order to undercut the hard-earned stature of their profession. Worst still, there are teachers who routinely cull favor among students not because they actually like or support them, but simply for the possibility they’ll “need to use them given the occasion arises.” (An actual anonymous quote from a teacher evaluation of a recent workshop I facilitated.)
Ethical educators are bound to resist any attempt to demean, belittle, or betray students, much as they are to do the same when their positions are attacked. Upholding the tenets of Meaningful Student Involvement will do nothing but strengthen the roles of teachers throughout education as we radically re-envision the possibilities, functions, and operations of public schools in our democratic society. Anything less is giving into the hegemonic approach of authoritariansim, adultism, and corporatism that is destroying our schools today.