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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

Post-Election Experience: Honoring the Voices of Those That Couldn’t Vote

By Diane Burbank — January 29, 2017 8 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Diane Burbank, Principal of Woodside High School, Sequoia Unified School District, California

I walk toward center quad, and it’s swirling like a hurricane. Usually, the center quad is more like a bee hive. Yes, with lots of energy and buzzing, but typically very organized, purposeful and familiar from day to day. But this morning, two days after the presidential election, students are swirling in different configurations; it’s unfamiliar, and as I get closer, it feels unsafe. Students are chanting, “Stop the violence. Increase the peace. Si su puede. We’re not leaving.”

The swirls are multiple, but not like gears working in unison. This is unrest. This is a direct result of the election results which were surprising not just to adults who voted but to teenagers who despite not being able to vote, are practicing how to exercise their voices. Like the rest of California, majority students were leaning Democrat, but not 100%. The conversation was well underway, significantly influenced by election night social media posts made by students that had raged through campus, and many of which were inflammatory (off school time, off school grounds, not on school equipment).

I’m not the first adult to arrive at the swirling quad, but I am the principal, so I wade in. There is no center or calm in this hurricane in the quad, yet. That’s what I have to create. I take the microphone that is usually reserved for introducing athletes or celebrating students of the week or announcing the big dance. There’s no stage, there’s just this swirling. I get to the center and, using my quad voice, address the students, “I understand, I understand. This is your principal, and I need you to listen to me.”

Staff members had already prompted students to return to morning class after the tardy bell rang, but students had politely refused or just looked through the adult making the request. I knew I had to ask students to do something that they would actually do for me. If I asked them to do something, and they didn’t do it, they would KNOW they didn’t have to do what the principal said, and I couldn’t afford that. I stated that everyone would get a chance to speak, but first, I needed them to listen to me.

Now, all eyes were on me.

It wasn’t quiet or calm at all, but I at least had their attention. I motioned for students to sit, waving my hand over the front of the crowd, and they began sitting. It was like a wave. “I know this about humans; we all listen better when we are seated.” The rowdier students were behind me, and this was the next challenge. I made direct eye contact with students with whom I had developed deep relationships over time. This was key. Using the two fingered “I see you, you see me” gesture followed by a hand motion imploring them to sit down, a connection was made with the rowdier kids in the back, and they too began to sit and wait for what would be said next.

I’d better have something good to say and make it quick.

Don’t Drop the Mic...Pass It
I acknowledged that students had something to say and that we value student voice at Woodside High. Everyone would get the chance to use their voice as we turned center quad into a big outside classroom; but we would have some rules. I said, “You know that we are a school who believes in student voice, so yes, you get to express that, but I’m going to ask you to use academic language -- use your big words -- and talk about your perspective. No name calling.” I think I even said no F-bombs, and students didn’t snicker, they nodded. I passed the mic to the first student. All of a sudden, we had a structure and parameters to embrace student voice. And it was natural.

That might have been a huge risk, passing the mic to an unscripted, highly emotional student. But really, it wasn’t because of the five-year commitment our campus has had to working on student voice. From focus groups, to Student Voice surveys, to students at decision-making tables, to students submitting issue/concern forms, we honor student voice. So, a peaceful protest was logical; adults on campus didn’t anticipate it just two days after the election, and we probably should have, but that’s the thing about student voice -- it’s organic, it can be emotional, and it shouldn’t be squelched or silenced.

One benefit of student voice in this post-election climate is that students stay safe on campus. Their first instinct was to grab a mic at school rather than to leave campus and try to express themselves in a less-safe mob where they may not be heard and where they may encounter adults who don’t have the educator tool belt for working with teenagers.

Another benefit of having practiced student voice for five years now is that school staff were open to this outside classroom. As a school wide team, we understand and collectively have the skills, to support student voice. We do that by:

  • Teachers worked the perimeter, encouraging students who had a viewpoint to go sit on the step and get in line to speak.
  • Teachers engaged with students in the speaker line reminding them to use their big words.
  • Trusted teachers and counselors sat next to students who were emotional.
  • Staff fetched poster paper and markers for students to make new posters to replace signs that didn’t follow the rules of using BIG words and avoiding name calling or F bombs. Certainly, I didn’t do all the work; I wasn’t alone in supporting student voice, it was a team effort.

The peaceful protest lasted an hour and a half, involved 1,500 students, and around 100 impromptu and unscripted student speakers who shared details of their lives and practiced their voice. They felt heard and that was important. They were safe, and that was paramount.

What Worked?
A few things helped protect this energizing, active outside classroom. Kids had posted videos to social media and that prompted media to show up on campus. We kept the reporters at bay because what was happening was important and unique to campus and cameras would have changed it. Students may have performed for the camera rather than authentically sharing their story with their peers. They might have acted out for the camera rather than truly listening and appreciating their peers’ perspectives. It could have become a reality show rather than a reality struggle with election results.

Sheriff officers were also on campus for support, but not in the center quad; there was no one to arrest, no one was unsafe. Instead, they helped to keep media off campus property. Finally, some frantic parents arrived on campus because their young teenager had texted “Mom, big protest at school. Cool.” And then had gone silent for over an hour. Parents were allowed on campus and as the protest entered into the second hour, I could see some hovering at the edges of the quad, watching. So, while media, sheriffs, and parents were present and interested (and had their own opinions!), they weren’t “the show.” The students were.

Student Voice: A Myriad of Emotions
Student voices reflected a myriad of emotions. Some were sad after seeing their mom cry for the first time. Others were appalled at the statement the election made about their rights as GLBQT youth and at the same time feeling threatened and angry that the glass ceiling clearly has not yet been shattered. Many student voices expressed fear that they or a family member will be deported to Mexico or forced to register as a Muslim.

While many voices were heard, this protest doesn’t mean we have checked the box of valuing student voice; we still have work to do. For true student voice to live on our campus, all students need to feel safe and empowered to continue expressing majority and minority view points as we move into this next era of life in America. As I framed for the students, it is easy to offer support when voices are in agreement. The question for schools and the country will be how we support one another when we are in disagreement.

The voices became repetitive, the cement became hot, and honestly, it was lunchtime. It was intense! With less than ten students left in the speaker line, students were encouraged to take a break -- go get water, eat lunch, use the bathroom, go find a quiet classroom and reflect because it had been an intense experience and we all needed a break. The students who had become restless now had permission to take a break with the promise that the remaining students in line would have their turn.

In the End
I was a 7th grade classroom teacher when the Challenger Shuttle blew up, an assistant high school principal on 911, and a principal when prop 38 was passed. I have watched students in schools process a number of significant historical events in a number of different ways, and it is my hope that these teenagers will remember their experience processing the election results of 2016 as one in which their school valued their voice.

It is my belief that Woodside High School students have a school memory of the power of their voice in defining this time in their nation’s history. They may not yet characterize the peaceful protest as special, but as they grow older and wiser, I think they will come to understand that not all students were prepared or encouraged to share their voices like they were at Woodside.

As educators, we all have instincts, but well trained and grounded in research instincts are better honed to face volatile student situations like a post-election protest. My instincts have benefitted from the Quaglia Institute, which provides excellent training, grounded in research, and whole-heartedly committed to honoring the voices of students. Woodside students didn’t have the opportunity to vote in the 2016 election, but they did experience a school system prepared to honor their voices, and engage them in a safe and meaningful conversation during a pivotal turning point in their nation’s history.

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.