Guest post by Jethro Jones

We often give lip service to the idea of empowering students.

Yes, we all agree it is important, but the adults in the building are the ones who really know best.

Yes, kids’ ideas matter, but they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

Yes, kids have good ideas, but the adults still take credit for those ideas. 

Too often as principals, we let our egos get in our way and limit our effectiveness as school leaders. Instead of believing in our own importance and needing to have all of the right answers, it’s time for us to practice humility and start listening and empowering those who we lead: our students.

A couple years ago, I had a really challenging student who was mostly interested in defying the adults in the building, just because she found that to be a fun pastime. While talking to her about disrespecting yet another teacher, I asked her why she was getting in these positions so much.

Her response was essentially that she was bored, and I asked her how I could help. 

After months of working with her, she had started to believe that I was sincere and opened up to me about her views of the school. She told me that our advisory program really stunk. I suggested that she help me figure out a solution. She suggested that we give kids who need extra help more time in a class and give kids who are doing well an opportunity to do what they want.

That’s exactly what we did. Listen to this podcast to find out more about the redesign of our advisory program that resulted from this young lady’s great idea.

And guess who took the credit for the idea among her peers? She did. She told everyone it was her idea. I’m fine with that!

In another situation, Amy Fast, an assistant principal in McMinnville, OR, truly listened to her students about all kinds of issues at her school. She asked them about how they felt at school, what they wanted, and then she and the rest of the administrative team followed up. You can learn more about her story here.

In both these situations, the leaders were able to get their egos out of the way and truly listen to students.

Here are three ways you can empower students in your building this week:

  1. Eat lunch with the kids and ask them what would make the school better. Ask for lots of ideas, and then implement one of them.
  2. Form a student voice council and include the “naughty kids” who always get in trouble. At first, their answers will be totally inappropriate and impossible, but dig deep and get the real answers from them.
  3. Do what Jimmy Casas does and ask every single student, “As your principal, what is one thing I can do to make your time here better?”

Want to know what happened to the student whose favorite pastime was disrespecting her teachers? When she was struggling in a course and actually had to go to an advisory class, she went, she learned, and she got better. She didn’t complain or cause problems. She was invested in the solution because she was part of it.

That’s pretty cool.

What are your experiences with empowering your students? 

Jethro Jones is the principal at Tanana Middle School in Fairbanks, AK. He is the host of “Transformative Principal,” a podcast featuring interviews with principals, leaders, and influencers who help improve K–12 education throughout the world. He is a 2017 Digital Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @jethrojones.

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