While I am a huge proponent of engagements and strongly believe that they are important to the work we do in schools, I continue to be amazed at how often we leave out a critical voice.
We often are so focused on what the adults in our system are saying that we end up missing a critical audience, the audience for whom we are all supposed to be working — our students.
Perhaps it is because I am the daughter of teachers, or because I am the youngest of four kids who just wanted to be heard by my older siblings. Regardless of where it came from, I have always been a proponent of giving our students — all students — the opportunity to be heard and to weigh in on “adult” decisions. As American author Alfie Kohn said, “Children, after all, are not just adults-in-the-making. They are people whose current needs and rights and experiences must be taken seriously.”
Too often the voices of students seem to get pushed aside by well-meaning adults who ironically try to speak on their behalf. Or we say we want to hear from students but then only let them share good news reports at school board meetings.
But what happens when you think of your students as people whose experiences should be taken seriously? Sure, sometimes their input can seem obscure or off-topic. But if you spend the time really listening to what they are trying to tell you, you may just be surprised at the genius they share.
The following strategies can help you plan authentic student engagements and ensure that district and school decisions are truly focused on their needs, rights and experiences.
- WHO? Take the time to frame the right question and develop age-appropriate engagements and you will get meaningful insights from students of all ages. Whether engaging high school, middle school or elementary students, you will find that students are usually the most honest and uncensored participants you will hear from, and many of them are downright adorable. Unsure of how to craft that developmentally appropriate engagement question? Talk with your teachers!
- WHAT? Be willing to move beyond the typical topics. Students can give you first hand examples about how decisions will impact them. Thus, before we make the majority of school decisions we should take the time to gather student input. I’ve seen students effectively share keen insights about complex budget discussions, curriculum and instruction conversations, strategic planning, discussions of school climate, and even potentially controversial topics about race, sexuality and politics.
- WHERE? As with any good engagement strategy, you need to be willing to go where they are. Go to the school and set up a space during lunch where they can share their responses to one or two questions on a sticky note and put them on a wall. Go to events where large groups of students gather. Use tech tools they are familiar with such as Google Jamboard, Instagram polls, etc. Involve student leaders at your school to help you come up with ideas and recruit peers to participate.
- WHEN? Engaging students while at school or school events is often best, because you already have their attention. But if you want to engage students outside the school day, be sure you are using the right platform (again, going where they already are), give them a reason to want to participate, and explain how their input will impact future decisions.
- HOW? Create safe spaces … and provide food! Logistically, it is most important that you create spaces where students feel safe to share their insights, whether their feedback is positive or negative. Students need to feel they can trust you and that you are not just another adult telling them what to do. This is not about them giving you the right answer. It is about authentically wanting to know what they think and allowing them to share their ideas. Listen to what they mean, not just what they say. And don’t underestimate the power of a $5 cheese pizza or a packaged snack. Food is always a great motivator, but you don’t have to spend a lot to get a lot in return.
- Finally, WHY? Getting the voices of students before key decisions are made, especially decisions that have a direct impact on their experience, allows them to take ownership of themselves and learn that their perspectives matter. By elevating the voices of our students we are ensuring that our collective future includes individuals who not only know how to speak up for themselves, but also know how to listen to and respect the perspectives of others. And couldn’t we all use a little more of that?
CESO Communications believes that schools and districts make better decisions when leaders are informed, and that strategic change is successful when stakeholders have a voice in the process. With every interaction, our goal is to design and facilitate activities to increase involvement, trust and confidence in your school district.
Interested in learning more about how we can help you engage your stakeholders, especially students? Click here or connect with us today.
Susan Brott, APR, is a senior strategist with CESO Communications with more than 20 years of experience working in school districts as a strategic communications professional. Prior to joining CESO Communications, Susan served as a communications director in four different Minneapolis-St. Paul (Minn.) area school districts. Susan enjoys all aspects of strategic communications and especially enjoys facilitating and engaging stakeholders to elevate their voice and help them feel valued and heard. Since joining CESO Communications in April 2020 she has helped districts advance their strategic plan work, utilizing both face-to-face and virtual engagements to ensure that a diverse set of perspectives were included.