Leading with the Student Voice

Recently, in response to a group of middle school students who asked about my journey to becoming a school leader, I recalled my 23-year journey to being awarded my Ph.D. in 2004 and my mother’s sage advice.

I remember telling my mother that I just wanted to be done and did not want to participate in graduation ceremony. Her response was, “That would be fine if graduation was for you.” She went on to explain that graduation was for all those people who had supported me to that point, and for all those who came before me and made it possible for a young African American woman to obtain the highest academic degree. My participation was a way to honor them.

My mother beamed with pride as I was hooded at the Purdue graduation, where she knew my participation in that ceremony was inspiring others.

At the reception after the graduation ceremony, a young African American woman who had just received her undergraduate degree approached me in her graduation robe and said, “Seeing you get hooded today for your doctoral degree helps me see that it is possible for me, too.”

Since that day, I have been aware of the impact educators and leaders have on students and the community. Our actions can inspire or discourage. That is up to us.

The time is now for us to serve as inspiration through our own continuous learning and by our actions as leaders in our middle schools.

AMLE talks with author Nikki Woodson and Students about Student Leadership

Seeking the Student Voice

As a part of my educational journey, I learned about educational philosophy and theories. I practiced strategies, deployed initiatives, and taught curriculum. I followed mandates and met achievement goals for students. I adhered to assessments and testing requirements. I wrote and deployed school improvement plans and district strategic plans. I served on textbook adoption committees and department of education task forces. I have written individualized education plans and have participated in professional learning communities. I have seen technology become a tool for learning and a necessity for life.

A few years ago, however, I was forced to look at my leadership differently. I had mastered curriculum review, deployment of initiatives, and leadership oversight, and I knew how to “do school,” but I had not heard the student voice about the teaching and learning process in a long time. I don’t mean incorporating the student voice in the classroom during instruction—I mean truly trying to see teaching and learning through their eyes. I wondered what their student voice would say.

I realized that students did not serve on committees for curriculum planning and textbooks. They did not attend professional learning community meetings to share their voice. They did not serve on our initiative deployment committees. They were not in professional development with teachers to share their perspective.

The Time Is Now

It was at that moment that I decided the time was now that I hear the voice of students about the educational process. It is easy for educators to plan, deploy, implement, and assess without ever taking the time to hear students’ voices about the teaching and learning process. The time is now to listen to what they have to say.

I remember standing before my high school senior class as a candidate for class president and demanding our student voices be heard by teachers and administrators. I realized that we had a right to be heard regarding our own education. I am proud to say I won that class election and continued advocating as a high school student for our voices to be heard around the school. As a student I felt valued when staff listened to our ideas or concerns.

Now, decades later as an experienced educator, I am circling back to my class president speech to ensure that student voice is heard in efforts to improve teaching and learning in our schools. Students certainly have a voice if we as educators take time to listen.

I realize that school systems are busy places. Schools are responsible for providing trained and certified teachers, ensuring an optimal learning environment, feeding students, transporting them, offering enrichment opportunities, and ultimately making sure students are learning.

To do this, school districts are busy supporting the various divisions and departments that make schools work. We attend meetings and professional development activities, talk to other educators or experts in the field to learn and implement strategies in our schools and districts with the goal of improving student achievement. We create sub-committees to narrow the focus and we have school improvement committee work ongoing.

Stop and Listen

We send staff to trainings and conferences to learn how to improve our schools. We configure school calendars, school schedules and various support systems by conversing with fellow educators. Typically, we don’t hear the voice of students in our planning and implementation of programs.

I challenge you to think about the last time you listened to student voice when making decisions or generating ideas for your school or district. Ask your students directly. During informal times during their day such as at lunch, ask:

  • When was the last time a staff member asked about your experience in our school?
  • Do you feel like you have a voice in things that happen at school?
  • If you had an idea about how to make our school better, what would you do with that idea?
  • Do you think students could help staff improve our school with ideas and by giving feedback?
  • What ideas do you have for staff to hear more from students about what we could do to make school better?

I hope my own leadership journey reflections serve as an inspiration to you. Find ways to listen to student voice. Create authentic opportunities for students to have a voice in your school. Be courageous, lead with student voice. The time is now.