After the most challenging three years in the history of public education, we’re all feeling the pinch. And there are new expectations coming from multiple sources every day—migrating your schools’ files from local drives to Google drives, say, or transitioning to the College Board’s new electronic tests.
Despite these hurdles, like many of you, I have chosen to be optimistic about our future. When there is a great need, we can be superheroes to those who need us. To do so, school leaders will need to be active listeners and action oriented as we hear the voices of students.
This past summer, I began a new stage in my career as the principal of South County High School in Fairfax County, Va. During my previous eight years as the principal of a middle school, I had paid attention to student voice as a vehicle for directing our school’s vision for success. My staff and I used a business mentality of listening to our “clients.”
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As I transitioned to a new school division and returned to the high school level, I anticipated that I would need to find new ways of soliciting student feedback. After all, students in high school have more experience with and confidence in expressing themselves. With older students, I knew my approach to discussing their experiences in school would need to be correspondingly more mature.
When I arrived at my new school, there were already existing structures in place to hear students and validate their feelings. My newest challenge was finding ways to build on that momentum while continuing to help students transition back to in-person learning full time.
As a new school leader, I knew I would need to be creative to build rapport with our students. I had previously worked in the same school zone for the better part of 25 years, where the community and I knew each other quite well. My transition to South County High School found me in a new circumstance I had not experienced in two decades. The students and I didn’t have any rapport established when school began, but I was determined to change that quickly.
Over the summer, I started by having individual and small group discussions with staff and parents about their views on the strengths of our school. Then in the first months of the new school year, I turned my attention to the students.
I attended various club and sports team meetings. I performed with our step team at the first pep rally. And I met with our student advisory council. In these and other settings, I was eager to introduce myself, share our school’s goals (of which hearing student voice was one), and listen to their ideas.
My new students were full of fantastic and creative ideas for how we could help them feel more engaged at school. They suggested fun details for our first home football game kick-off celebration, such as having an Italian ice truck, a live DJ, and games.
They also shared ideas for events to hold during the school year, like pep rallies after each sports season and interactive events between students and faculty. At their suggestion, we’ve implemented a popular way to raise money by selling chicken sandwiches after school.
The students even made suggestions for how to beautify and serve our school community, including updating our outdoor flowerbeds and reading to the students in our feeder elementary schools.
Based on student suggestions, we have created more hallway murals to display our school spirit, we’ve clarified the process for posting grades in our electronic grade books, and we’re working with one of our largest ethnic clubs, the Muslim Student Association, to bring more sensitivity to their religious traditions and customs.
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Now at the mid-point of the school year, I am reflecting on the previous months and setting my leadership goals for the rest of the calendar year. I’m proud of my students, who are continuing to confidently share new ideas for making school more engaging, including recent suggestions to establish new clubs, host more student vs. faculty basketball and volleyball games, and play music on the speakers as students are dismissed for the day.
I don’t know for certain what ideas students will generate in the future, but I can confidently say that my school’s staff is eager to listen. Together, we can create new memories for our students founded on their interests rather than our own past experiences. It’s time for educators to facilitate new activities and memories for today’s students.
By actively listening and acting upon their suggestions, we can give students not only fantastic memories of this year but, more importantly, we can teach them their voices have the power to enact change. As we often say at SCHS, if student voice isn’t at the center of our decision making, then who are we serving?