Teaching Profession Opinion

Disruptive Students Wanted: What Happens When Students Coach Teachers

By Contributing Blogger — August 27, 2017 5 min read
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This post is by Julie Ruble, seventh grade humanities teacher at High Tech Middle Chula Vista.

Ana is a quiet 8th grader at our school. Her application to become a Student Consultant was heartfelt and honest; it read in part: “I never have pictured myself being a leader or taking charge in a group project, but I would really like to build up these skills.” Ana, who I now know offers honest critiques and asks courageous questions to push teachers’ thinking, needed a space designed for her voice to fill. These spaces certainly arise within the classroom -- leading a discussion or directing a film, perhaps -- but without purposeful design, they do not challenge the existing classroom hierarchy where the teacher is the true boss. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire insists that “leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people -- they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.”

Freire defines one of the responsibilities of educators as facilitating the development of critical consciousness, an understanding of the world and ability to act against social and political oppression. Giving students opportunities and support to change their own educational experience prepares them to engage in our civic process and change their society. However, even in a progressive institution where student input is encoded into the DNA of a school, there may be pockets where students’ voices are shut down or never surfaced in the first place.

Melissa, a 7th grader, remembers a teacher who “could never quite explain math in the way any of her students could understand it. We all knew this, and we had easy solutions, but we thought that she would get angry at us if we disrespected her class.” Gina, an 11th grader, recalls a struggle that may not have been caused by the school environment, but was not interrupted (made apparent and addressed) by it either: “Basically, all of freshman and sophomore year I was afraid of raising my hand because I was never sure if what I was saying was 100 percent correct. I was so afraid of failure, I rarely spoke up.” If students aren’t speaking up, it’s not because they don’t have anything to say.

We can’t support students in developing critical consciousness without ceding our control over their educational environment in transparent ways and equipping them to take the reins. This past year, a team of 27 students at my middle school helped me to pilot a student consulting program to this end. Student Consulting, where students coach teachers, intentionally disrupts the traditional classroom power hierarchy. It is a formal structure inspired by the work of Alison Cook-Sather, who pioneered a program at Bryn Mawr College where high school students coached preservice teachers, and Chris Emdin, whose reality pedagogy relies in part on “cogenerative dialogues” between teachers and students to improve instruction.

The implementation of our Student Consulting program is a work in progress (see our implementation guide here). This past year, it began with a week-long seminar for interested students, where we surfaced and validated their experiences in the classroom: What projects struck them as meaningful and why? What classroom structures did or didn’t work for them? When did they feel like they had power to change their experience? Once we finished building our team and training together, the Student Consultants began their work observing classes and conducting debriefs, critiquing project and lesson plans using a tuning protocol, joining in the planning of curriculum, and co-creating their experience in many other ways. They also created outreach workshops to spread the Student Consulting program to educators at other schools.

What Happened When Students Coached Teachers?

When students coached teachers, teachers improved their practice. For instance, Elizabeth, an 8th grader, facilitated the tuning of a 6th grade teacher’s project about the environment. When the floor opened for questions to probe the teacher’s thinking, she asked, “How are the students going to be affected by the project? How are they going to actually go on to 7th grade, 8th grade, high school carrying this piece of knowledge with them and not just leave it behind in the artwork?” Elizabeth knows and cares whether she’s doing authentic work, and her input helped to ensure the project would have a meaningful, lasting impact on everyone involved. During her response, the presenting teacher remarked, “I love that question: ‘How does this passion live on?’ I’d love to think more about that accountability to myself, to each other, and to the people we’re serving.” Since then, the teacher has supported “a few spin-off groups [of students who] decided to take this project to a whole new level by recording the amount of food waste in trash cans after lunch,” realizing that this agency will ensure that “they will [maintain this] way of understanding as they progress in school.” Students have ideas to share if teachers create space to listen.

By making curriculum creation transparent and coaching reciprocal, Student Consulting also built empathy that could become the foundation for a more equitable partnership. Ivanna, an 11th grader, shared that her perspective of struggling teachers has changed since she’s been a Student Consultant: “Before I thought that teachers had no idea what was wrong with their classes and that they didn’t care as much about how we felt during the lessons. Ever since I went through these things with my teacher, I realized that when I see my teacher struggling with something I should talk to them directly rather than just complaining that they don’t understand.” Teachers also noticed how much they appreciated hearing an “honest perspective from the student in project work” telling them “what would be interesting and worthwhile.”

Finally, Student Consulting increased students’ agency and leadership. At the end of the school year, I was especially eager to read Ana’s reflection to see if she accomplished her goal of building leadership. She wrote, “Student Consulting has affected me a lot within the time I have been in the program. I have felt like I can tell a teacher my opinion on a project or I can propose a suggestion to a teacher about an assignment we are assigned. Other schools should consider Student Consulting since this program can be very beneficial to both teachers and students. It can benefit students who are really shy (which was me), and aren’t comfortable with speaking up.”

Equally significant were Ana’s actions after she finished reflecting and stood up to leave our culminating celebration. On her way out, she paused to write her name on a sign-up sheet I had taped to the wall before we began. Along with a few peers, she has decided to become a Program Manager next year at her new high school, with the goal of building their first Student Consulting program from scratch.

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