Student Allies: Building Relationships through Student Voice - By Martha Lang

In March, two Grade 8 boys came to see me. They weren’t the kind of students who typically wanted to meet with the Vice Principal, so I was intrigued. When we sat down together, they explained they wanted to show me a video called, “What is school for?” featuring American spoken word artist Prince EA talking about all the things that he learned in school that seemed to have no direct relevance to life afterward.

After we watched the video, I sat back and asked them a question I use regularly to invite students to dig deeper into a topic: “What’s the purpose of showing me this video?” They said things like, “Well, we want kids to know,” and “It’s an important question.” So I asked them, “How can you get other students involved in a discussion about this?” It was a natural question because the video really was a brilliant piece for a discussion.

That’s when their faces lit up with that, “OMG, she didn’t say no!” look. We talked about some options, and I eventually said, “How about showing the video at a PLC (Professional Learning Community) in April? You could introduce it and explain why it’s important and then lead a discussion. We can work on it together.” From there, we talked briefly about how to lead a positive conversation with their peers, and they left my office with a mix of apprehension and excitement.

The enthusiasm that the boys felt when they left my office was second only to my own. This is one of the elements of my job that makes me feel like a little kid. It’s so thrilling to see students getting involved and building relationships with them so that they feel they can come and ask you anything.

Over the years, I have seen the positive impact that empowering student voice can have on students, staff, families, administrators and the school climate. After 14 years working in the TDSB and three years as Vice Principal, I have come to see that student voice is one of the most important – and powerful – ways to build relationships, to the point where, more and more, students are my allies. They tell me about the good, bad and ugly of what’s happening in the school, which is good for all of us.

Empowering student voice takes deliberate effort and patience. It can be a genuine challenge to slow down in the middle of a hectic day and listen as students try to talk you through what’s on their minds. You want them to get to the point quickly. You want to jump in and correct them. But once you settle in and focus on the idea that having a voice matters, you can work with them and figure out how to help them develop a potential plan for what they have in mind rather than it becoming one more item on your list. 

It doesn’t have to be limited to student interactions with teachers or administrators. We have had enormous success having student voice represented at staff meetings and parent council meetings – spaces where they have not historically been welcome. It’s all part of creating a climate where students genuinely feel that their voice matters and are comfortable coming forward, whether popular and outgoing, or not.

Here are a few great reasons to strengthen relationships through student voice:

  • Builds trust – students feel that they can come to you with anything

  • Builds resilience – students learn that when they come forward with an idea, the action might look different than what they had in mind and that’s okay

  • Inspires and empowers – when students know you listened, reflected, considered and didn’t dismiss them, they are emboldened, which is a key part of them becoming allies

  • Builds confidence – the pressure of talking with adults about their passions, concerns and fears helps students learn to formulate clear thoughts and engage in discussion

Here are a few great ways to strengthen relationships through student voice:

  • Use student voice to determine what teams and clubs the school might provide. Invite students to start their own clubs, where the teacher is the supervisor and the students lead.

  • Invite students to share thoughts and ideas at staff meetings. That authentic audience prompts students to be prepared, share their thoughts and answer questions.

  • Invite students to share at SAC (Parent Council) Meetings.

  • Think of yourself as a guide, not the person who holds all the cards (sounds like an inquiry journey to me!).

  • Use community circles or check-in times that are a predictable part of the classroom culture. This provides time to listen and address issues.

  • Ensure all students have a trusted adult they feel comfortable going to about anything. This is also an adult who will advocate for that student so there is always someone in their corner.

  • Hold off decorating your classroom at the beginning of the year. Let your students fill the walls and halls.

  • Conduct focus groups, student surveys or questionnaires as jumping off points. Focus groups are also a great way to assess impact. By doing them in the fall and the spring, you learn a lot about students’ perspective on what you have done together.

  • Host some professional development around achievement and wellbeing, such as The Third Path.

  • Provide an authentic audience.

  • Don’t forget the simple stuff – smile at students in the hallways, call them by name and try to enter into a personal exchange with them whenever possible. Give high fives, fist bumps, thumbs up, anything to show you notice and care about them.

What is school for? Well, among other things, it’s for learning how to have a voice, how to build influence in a system, and how to have a discussion where you listen to different perspectives. School is also for learning how to have relationships with a variety of people – even with the VP!

I am so proud of my student allies. And I am thrilled that promoting student voice has untapped so much expertise, leadership, problem solving and creative thinking in our students. 

David Tranter