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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Finding Your Voice

By Peter DeWitt — June 03, 2012 4 min read
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“When you see what is right, have the courage to do it”. Chinese proverb

There are times that it seems we, as educators, want students to speak up on our behalf when it works for us. When budgets have the potential to be voted down or a program may be cut due to declining funds. We want students to stand up and defend what we feel is right. However, do we allow them the same courtesy when they are questioning the way we teach in the classroom or a new rule that we are enforcing in the school building?

Most times when students question their surroundings too much they get in trouble or get labeled as a troublemaker. Secretly there are teachers and administrators who wish that the students would just sit back and take information in without questioning that information too much. We send students mixed messages sometimes and we have to try better to not do that.

Too often as I read through blogs I find individuals who comment under the name “anonymous.” A few of us have experienced anonymous blogs that rant and rave about decisions made in our districts. I often wonder why some of these individuals lack the courage to speak out using their own names, and I feel it offers a lesson to us as educators. I believe we should spend more time making sure our students find their voices, regardless of whether those voices always agree with our decisions. Maybe if we do that there will be a little less anger out in cyberspace or our communities.

I Have a Voice!
For full disclosure, I did not have much of a voice during my formative years. I was the kid that sat in the back of the classroom, hated to be called on by the teacher, and typically had the wrong answer when my name was called. My opinion was usually the same opinion my best friends held and I stood up for very little. Perhaps all of my opinions stayed dormant until I became a writer, where clearly they are all coming out.

As a school leader I believe we need to set a tone in our schools where students feel free to offer their opinion. Even if they ultimately do not get what they want in the end, we should at least talk with them when they have questions and teach them how to question authority in a respectable manner. In the long run they may grow up to support their schools and perhaps even pay it forward by showing the same respect to the youth around them long after we are all gone.

I did an interview with Gregory MaGuire, bestselling author of Wicked and many other books. He told me a story about when he was in first grade. Although he was in a class of fifty-one students, his teacher allowed him to share his voice, which Gregory did through drawing and writing. He said that was the moment when he knew he wanted to become a professional writer. What would have happened if his teachers stifled his voice? What would have happened if the world had one less Gregory MaGuire?

I often find it odd that we will listen to someone like Gregory speak and we wonder what it must have been like to have someone of his magnitude in our class, while not realizing that we may have the next Gregory MaGuire sitting in front of us when we enter our own classrooms. It’s one of the reasons why helping our students find their voices is so important.

Respecting Student Voices
“When we do learn how to work things out “with” kids through dialogue, negotiation, and joint problem-solving, children thrive on our trusting relationships and learn many social skills they desperately need to learn today”. Nancy Carlsson-Paige

Recently, the Canadian government announced an amendment to their anti-bullying bill which would no longer allow schools the right to change the name of student clubs (The Star). The Accepting Schools Act allowed schools to prohibit the use of the word gay. In some schools where there were Gay-Straight Alliances, schools were allowed to change the name to the Open Arms Club or the Pride Club. Students felt stifled because their schools would not allow them to form a club with the word “gay” in the title.

In this progressive move by Education Minister Laurel Broten, students will once again be allowed to have a voice in their school system. This voice could change the role of students from passive bystanders to progressive change agents. This is something that is needed in school systems, because educators are often concerned that students lack initiative or engagement in their school community.

In the End
I wonder sometimes if schools are the progressive change agents who teach students to think differently, or if they are institutions that only want students to think differently when it benefits their cause. Most of the educators I know want their students to find their voices and feel it is their mission to help students do so.

If we are truly in the game of creating supportive learning environments for our students than we must allow them to be a part of the decision making. A community of learners is not a one sided community. Community means that everyone has a voice, and teaching students to find their voice is a part of our job.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.