As a principal, you know that listening to student voice is an important component of the job. Students, after all, should have a say in what they do in school. But has the pandemic changed the way we look at student voice? Has it been harder to hear our students? To find out, we reached out to Allison Persad, principal of The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria in Astoria, NY, and one of NASSP’s 2019 Digital Principals of the year; Gillian Grimm, a senior at Las Vegas Academy of the Arts in Las Vegas; and Jason Markey, principal of Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, IL. Principal Leadership senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the conversation.
Savicky: What is student voice and choice, and has it changed at all during the pandemic?
Persad: Student voice is the student being able to feel seen, affirmed, and have access to share their thoughts and create initiatives around subjects that they feel passionate about. That subject may be equity and the latest of the national movements, or something related to wanting to start a new organization or club, but they need to have the space and freedom to do that.
Has it changed at all during the pandemic? At The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria [TYWLS], we have seen student voice evolve into new—and I would say powerful—spaces. We created opportunities for students to start clubs of their own—virtual clubs, because we obviously don’t have sports happening at the moment, and we are not in person. So, to build community, we told our students, if you want to start a club, here’s the process. And we had more than 50 students initiate and start organizations or clubs around passion projects. Recently, we also had seniors request to host their own town hall that was completely student led. They discussed ideas that they felt passionate about around equity. It was really a pinnacle moment for us, the idea that they wanted to lead, organize, create slides, norms, protocols, and take a student-led moment by the time they’re in their senior year.
Grimm: From a student perspective, I see student voice as an avenue for students—my peers—to express concerns and opinions about the situations and environments that we are in. Students have a perspective on a lot of topics because they experience them differently from an educator or administration. By hearing that student perspective, adults get a ground-level approach. It also gives students the space to talk about those things that they feel are important, and it allows them to develop their ideas. Being heard not only among their other peers, but also with adults, is really important for students—to be heard as they grow into adults.
During the pandemic, student voice has changed not necessarily in the principle itself, but perhaps the volume. The way it’s done has obviously had to adapt to our situation, which is what we do all the time—we adapt. I think it’s also given every type of student the opportunity to advocate for themselves and share what they feel, because not every student is the one who’s going to be the “involved” person. Just like cyberbullying, doing things behind a computer screen seems to open up more avenues for students to share their voice, but in this case, in a positive manner.
Markey: We need to think about student voice across all aspects. In a curricular sense within each classroom, does a student have that ability to really understand that their voice is important, and have that space and kind of affirmation within the classroom to share their voice, and have that curricular choice within whatever they’re doing? Obviously, the confines are a little bit different across different curricular areas. Then, through our extracurricular programming, do they have that ability? And then finally—as Gillian was alluding to—when you get to a policy or whole-school level, do students really feel as if their voice is valued? Is it heard? Is it represented, and is it actively sought out? Those are the things that are really important. You don’t necessarily empower other people or empower students, but we need to create an environment in which they recognize that they’re empowered to speak up and to have a true place in how our schools operate both at the classroom level and at a whole-school level.
When we look at how it’s changed during the pandemic, we’ve seen different students speak up, because things have become important to them that before weren’t issues. We may have students advocating for different techniques for remote learners or more in-person possibilities if they really feel strongly about that. We’ve seen different opportunities, and then we’ve certainly had to extend ourselves in ways through virtual town halls, virtual student advisory board meetings, question-and-answer sessions that I’ve hosted with the principal or different groups. We’ve done student focus groups through Zoom. We have had to expand on all of those. It’s created more participation in some of those events than we would have had if we were in-person and had to go to a specific room at a specific time. There certainly are some advantages that we’ve realized that we’ll hopefully carry forward post-pandemic.
Savicky: Why is student voice important in education?
Grimm: I am a student, but I also come from a long line of educators. Everybody in my family is an educator in some way. So, that has given me definitely a different perspective on education. As far as the importance of student voice in education, education in this aspect is student based. The teachers and staff are working toward providing the best education they can for the students and the best school culture. Since a school’s job is to provide the best education, hearing the different programs that the school’s implementing for the students and how that is actually affecting the students is very powerful. Producing something and seeing the result of what was produced, and getting that feedback, really helps to grow not only the school, but also those programs to better suit everybody involved.
Markey: Simply, student voice should be fundamental in everything that we do. I’m in a new school this year—so I’m still getting to know my students—and getting students’ opinions has been a little challenging for me. I’m getting to know students virtually, mainly; we haven’t been in person too much this year. The majority of our students have been remote all year long. But going back to my past experiences, when I think back to every real positive change that has been impactful, it’s been driven by student voice in some fashion. When we remember the whole purpose of school is to really honor our young people that are attending there and develop schools that really serve them, then we need to be driven by their voice in a variety of different ways.
Persad: It’s the continuum of being sure that students feel like they’re at the helm of changing everything within the arc of change. Specifically, I keep going back to this idea of diversity in voices and equity in approach, to Jason’s point, from everything from curriculum to structural changes within a school and even to hiring. I think it’s the role of the administration to make space for students to know that their voice matters. And that matters in the way we communicate to them that, “We want you to be at the table. Come sit with us. Come help us think about this. There are parts of it that we may be missing [and] maybe you have a better idea on how we can approach it.” That’s where our responsibility comes in.
Savicky: How do you go about getting each student’s voice?
Markey: Fundamentally, getting student voice is driven by creating an atmosphere where the students understand that the administration strongly believes in this. Every bit of messaging and communication that goes out—to students and parents—should affirm student voice and how important it is, because that opens the door. They really need to know that the administration constantly has an open door. It’s not only at the formal opportunities that are more structured, but that you’re truly available and open to listen at any point. It should be organic. It’s also really important to provide those structured opportunities, and it’s important to do that a number of ways. For example, we’ve done a lot of surveying this year, which is pretty traditional, to make sure that every student has the potential to answer.
We’ve also done some deeper focus groups in both the summer and then again right before winter break; we did some extensive focus group discussions with smaller groups of students, and we opened it to everyone. Everyone had the ability to opt in to those. I also meet with the student advisory board, which is completely open so any student can join the student advisory board that chooses to, and I meet with them on a monthly basis. They completely drive the agenda; they run the meeting, and I’m there as a resource and then to take those discussions back to the Board of Education, our district leadership team, or our school leadership team—whatever [is needed] out of those conversations. It’s important to have a variety of structured ways, but then it’s also really important to honor those informal and open-door policies that you have as a school leader.
Persad: Similarly, I find that the digital environment has presented—and encouraged, as matter of fact—more communication, because we’re not fighting against extracurricular activities. It’s allowed us to meet at-large more so and with easier strides. In terms of giving every student the opportunity to voice their opinion, I believe administration must make the space and be really intentional about revisiting topics. It’s not just a one-time, “OK, we’re going to meet,” and then we never hear about this again, but really creating structured and repeated efforts to include voice and make space for student-led conversations, town halls and, again, inviting students to each aspect of both the administrative lens of the work, as well as the specifics around student experiences in the school.
Savicky: Gillian, how does your school go about getting student voice, and do you think those things that they’re doing are effective?
Grimm: My school, in the physical [sense] when we used to actually go to school, did a really good job of making the administration seem open and friendly. It seemed like we were building a connection with them before coming to them with a concern. Creating that feeling is really important, which is harder to do virtually. Additionally, for newcomers, I believe it’s harder to know the output from administration. I’ve already built those relationships with those people, but for freshmen—or someone who is new to the school—who haven’t built that relationship, they don’t feel comfortable taking their concerns to administration. Many of the connections that I made were done so in the hallway or in the courtyard and being involved in different activities. During the pandemic, our student council has tried to be a vessel between administration and the students to share concerns. I don’t know of any time that there’s been a student-to-principal conversation like the other two principals have mentioned in my school situation; however, there’s definitely other ways that they’ve been getting student input that’s not necessarily direct.
Savicky: How do you go about letting students know that they are being heard?
Persad: Through communication. We have student newsletters co-designed by me and my student leadership team. We invite them to participate and lead everything from clubs, organizations, town halls, our hiring team. Students are always a part of our significant teams, including our equity team. We then make sure that we circle back to the things that matter to them. If a student has shared interest or concern around something that’s not happening in the school, we circle back and ensure that their intentions and their voice were heard, and we wait for them to ensure that they feel like we are moving in a direction that validates their wishes and concerns.
Grimm: Definitely communication. Obviously not every single request or concern expressed from students can be met, but having that conversation “feel” to the request and answer really gives students hope. We do understand that there isn’t always a concrete “why” to why a request was denied or can’t be fulfilled, but communicating—making sure that the students are taking the time to voice their concerns and giving them validation that you have heard them—is key. That’s nice to hear. Students don’t always have requests; sometimes students just want to feel heard and express concerns. Administration just needs to communicate and create a supportive environment for students.
Markey: There are two ways that you can do this, and certainly the communication that’s been discussed [is one]. For some of the hard conversations, where a student request has to be denied—like Gillian mentioned—we still need to articulate some reasons behind the decisions and provide further context. But it’s also really important to draw important themes from the student voice or recognize needs that have been brought to the surface, but not necessarily directly addressed.
Another avenue that we don’t always think about is something might not have been a direct result of student voice or a student coming forward, but a decision was made really because of things that you learn indirectly from students. We have seen things bubble to the surface that have happened with our students, and we seek out their voice. When we make changes or start to look into things along those lines, it’s really important that we draw attention to the fact that what led us down this path was our focus on students and realizing what their needs are. It’s not always them proactively coming to us; we need to seek out their voice sometimes; we really need to connect the dots when we communicate around those issues.
Savicky: Has the virtual format made listening or expressing student voice harder?
Grimm: Yes. I am a face-to face communicator. Because we haven’t had that, communication and establishing connections have been a bit harder. However, I know that other students have really thrived in this format because they are behind a screen and don’t have to stand in front of an administrator in the lunch room. They can get online and fill out a form instead. Virtual learning has been a great vehicle for introverted or shy students to express their opinions. I find the online format makes it harder, but it’s also giving more students the opportunity to share.
Markey: I believe we have incorporated more student voice in some ways, where they’ve been able to participate in some of the opportunities we set forward. But we are losing those organic, kind of happenstance opportunities to run into a student in the hallway when they see you, you see them and you strike up a conversation. It’s challenging to try to re-create that experience—you really can’t—in a remote sense, because they log in to one Zoom and log off another, and you’re not seeing those kind of exchanges in the hallway. So, that’s the greatest challenge, that you don’t have those kind of good, fortunate opportunities to just run into each other and strike up a conversation.
Persad: As I mentioned, it’s been a little bit easier because we are not fighting against scheduling. What we’ve found challenging has been the connectivity of students with cameras on. I’m not sure if anybody else has found this to be challenging, but there are times in classrooms where I go in and maybe five cameras are on. We’ve been working on a policy on that, just connectivity on that format, but I think it’s reinforced the concept and idea. We already knew how much verbal cues and in-person cues matter, just seeing where someone’s eyes are, their hands, their body language, and how much that helps us to understand their place in a conversation. Those are certainly gaps that I’ve noticed.
Savicky: Has the virtual format made incorporating student voice within a culturally diverse school harder?
Markey: This is challenging because some of the things that may create difficulties are some of those hidden factors that you’re not always aware of. What we’ve tried to do is definitely reach out through our student associations. For example, we have a Pan-Asian American student society. We have a Black student union, and try to make sure through those sponsors who may be more connected to specific students. We reach out through our [Gender-Sexuality Alliance], to make sure that we’re being really representative when we are reaching out for student voice.
We also aim to be inclusive. For example, when I look at the representation on the student advisory board, I wanted to make sure that we weren’t missing some really valuable voices and making sure it was as inclusive as possible. So, touching base with those sponsors who know some of those students best—again, with me being new here, that’s been particularly challenging—I really have to rely upon them. I think we need to be consciously focused on that to make sure we’re as inclusive as possible.
Persad: We have 63 languages and ethnicities at TYWLS, so it’s been significantly important for us to start organizations this year, more so than we ever have in the past, that students have brought forth. That’s important to them. So, for the first time we have a Latinx club and our LGBTQ society. But it really is about creating a platform where we say to students, “This school is yours. It belongs to you. Your voice matters. We want to make sure that you are seen, heard, and affirmed. What do you need from us?” and have them initiate the things that matter the most to them.
I feel like that’s what I found to be the most empowering thing a principal can do, and school leaders in general—including my leadership team—is to make space for it, then follow through on our word, and when we say that their thoughts matter and how can we support our students. What I’ve done in that case is assign and support teachers by asking teachers—and paying them—to be virtual club advisors. By respecting and honoring their own time and saying, “We have these 50 students who want clubs, so we need club advisors.” I then honor the fact that they are at home and going to work with these student leaders to launch new ideas and new clubs, staying in line with, of course, what’s considered appropriate, being led with integrity and honesty and, of course, the diversity of voices. My teachers were willing to do that and that’s where we found the most traction because the teachers are also feeling respected, and their time is being respected and honored.
Grimm: Fortunately, going into this virtual world, my school has already had very strong groups, as the two other principals had mentioned, to represent the different diverse experience of my school. My school is right in the middle of downtown. Because it’s a magnet school, we have people bused in from every area of town, and it’s great. It makes a really unique environment where everyone is different, everyone’s situation is different, and we’re really able to celebrate that. I think that our administration does a really good job of acknowledging that as well. Obviously, we’re an art school, so we have that going for us, too. I think just that recognition, as had been mentioned before, of accepting those things and kind of celebrating those things, makes that environment for students to share issues and voice the things that they need to. I agree with what was said before, those strong foundations help.
Savicky: What can principals do to encourage student voice and empower students in their schools?
Persad: Some of the things that I have found have been most helpful are to again create the space, and consider the structures that are needed so the spaces and places feel open to everyone. Some of the things that we’ve done are the things I’ve mentioned with the clubs. Other things have been to send out Google forms for the entire school to be part of the various committees so it’s not just limited to any one person or group or grade—I’m a 6–12 school—and that includes parents as well, to be part of hiring, and including students to be part of equity. These are the major areas we’re working on this year. Being sure that everybody receives the opportunity and can share why they think they would be a good fit for whatever tool, program, or initiative we’re focused on.
Grimm: Along with the welcoming and celebrating environment that the principal can have, I think that also utilizing what is in the school is very empowering for students, [and] using those students in a way to get that student voice and kind of feed the empowerment from the administration to different leadership groups to be able to reach more students, is incredibly important. In most situations, when you’re looking for student voice and giving feedback and 100 percent of the time—I guess it’s bold to say, but I would say 100 percent of the time—students are willing to work with the administration to improve whatever it is that they are speaking on, and that alone is very empowering and encouraging for students, to know that they can help. Not only are they heard, but they can help make that change in our school. We’re always happy to help.
Markey: To be responsive and intentional. Responsive certainly when students bring forward ideas and concerns, as we talked about earlier, having that feedback loop with communication and really discussing why something happens, and if a change happens, drawing attention to the fact that the student perspective either brought up that change or was considered or was sought out. Then, we must be very intentional about carving out those opportunities to have students at the table. If you’re going to have committees reviewing safety policies or curricular committees, we must make entry points for students to be at the table as opposed to just following up with them or waiting for them to show up. There are times where that can really happen, and we can be intentional about that, whether that’s having school board representatives of students, being on some of the building-wide committees I talked about, or having a student advisory board or a student government that really acts as that go-between for the student body and the administration. We need intentional spaces to do that, but then we also need to be responsive when it happens in more of an organic sense so students can realize that they are empowered within our school.
Savicky: Do you think that student voice will change because of the pandemic?
Grimm: Absolutely. I think the entire virtual world, at the most basic level, has changed how everybody communicates. Students are no different. The virtual world has given schools and students the opportunity to find new avenues to get student voice and to be involved with students. With virtual learning, I know at least here—and I’m sure that it’s everywhere—everybody has something to say about virtual learning and the current situation. But I think that the better the school culture and the better students feel about sharing, the more constructive and positive the feedback will be.
Markey: In a lot of ways, it’s going to bring additional validity to student voice, and students are going to realize that they had more opportunities, like we’ve all talked about, via Zoom and whatever online component they’re doing, to really have a voice. Hopefully, that will continue. Again, we need to be intentional about talking to them about what were the realizations that they had about their own learning. At times it was much more independent this year; what were some of the advantages of that? How can we incorporate those things into the future? What did we learn that we need to continue to work on in designing our schools to better serve them?
Persad: Challenge breeds innovation. This environment’s forced us all, including the students, to find ways for them to paint their own kind of canvases and—including ourselves as administrators—thinking about connectivity. There’s a lot I think, like Jason, that I want to keep. There are gaps that I filled in in terms of closing loops on communication, both on the staff end and the student end, that I didn’t have in the past. So, for some aspects of the way I’ve communicated, I believe I’ve certainly gotten better. I just miss being in the hallway and outside in the morning, the morning hugs, in the afternoon just reading the faces, but I do think that we are stronger and better in terms of communication than prior to this pandemic.