As schools continue to adapt teaching and learning during the pandemic, school leaders face many challenges—and immense opportunity. The crisis in childhood and adolescent mental health and the effects of interrupted instruction are likely to impact the education landscape for years to come. This moment of transition offers school leaders the chance to take stock of the underlying systems contributing to their schools’ challenges and to set themselves up for success by making one major change: inviting students into schoolwide decision processes.
In the wake of remote learning, many students are still struggling to regain a sense of connection to their academic lives and learning spaces. However, student agency in schools promotes engagement in academics and encourages active involvement in the school community. Now is the perfect time to reimagine your school’s systems in a way that empowers students to contribute to decisions that affect their school experiences. Giving students space to voice their opinions and exercise leadership ensures that their best interests are considered.
Based on our collective experiences in educational leadership, we’ve developed some best practices for making student identity and lived experience central to your school’s functioning.
Lay the Foundation
Prioritize relationships with students
The recent switches to and from virtual learning have potentially left students feeling more powerless than ever. Making time to learn about their experiences acknowledges and validates where they have been and supports them in reestablishing a sense of belonging within their school communities. Students may be unwilling to engage with adults in important decision-making without a solid foundation of positive relationships with them, so putting relationships first is critical.
Teachers should see themselves as both educators and student mentors. School leaders can provide coaching to teachers on how to take an asset-based approach to instruction and planning, focusing on student strengths to help them build the skills they need to achieve their personal goals. Planning lessons and activities around students’ skills and talents, rather than those deemed lacking, supports positive relationship-building by guiding teachers to appreciate and nurture what assets students bring to the classroom.
Teachers should also lead by example, and when relevant, share with students how topics discussed in class have shown up in their own lives. Helping students find authentic belonging in school means showing them how to interact and empathize with one another. When teachers share and listen in class, they model open communication and reciprocation, which are key to building genuine relationships. What’s more, they demonstrate to students how to make connections between academics and their own personal experiences, which supports engagement and learning.
It’s important to remember that many students’ relationships with adults and personal support networks have likely undergone radical transformation. Around 175,000 minors have lost primary or secondary caregivers as a result of the pandemic, and student responses to grief have, in some cases, manifested in the form of challenging, disruptive behaviors that can strain student-teacher relationships. However, research shows positive relationships and supportive interpersonal networks are critical for helping people adjust after traumatic experiences.
By focusing on the individual experiences and skills students bring to the classroom and making learning personal, educators can forge positive relationships with their students that will support them in their learning and engagement in the school community.
Help students see themselves as leaders
Empowering students with agency and influence at school can help them build self-esteem and reestablish a positive self-concept as learners and leaders. Before they’re ready to take on the responsibility of working alongside adults on decisions with schoolwide impacts, though, they will need some guidance to think through who they are and what matters to them.
One major way to provide this is to encourage teachers to give space for students to reflect on their lives and connect with others on similarities and differences. Students benefit from connecting with those who share their experiences, learning from those who are different from themselves, and developing purpose through belonging to and advocating for members of their communities.
As students reflect on who they are, teachers should also support them to think through what matters most to them. For example, educators can prompt students to name one person, place, or thing they care about deeply, reflect on why that is (and if it’s a person, how that person’s care affects their lives), and then share this information with their peers. By regularly practicing naming and discussing what matters most to them, students build the language and confidence they need to contribute meaningfully when called upon as leaders of the school.
It’s important for students to engage in work around self-understanding in order to build their communication and leadership skills. Teachers do not have to be experts in every aspect of their students’ lives. Rather, they simply need to have a space for students to explore their roots and articulate their values in order to feel supported and respected in developing belonging and purpose.
Prepare to Rebuild
Consult with students to envision change
Invite students into leadership spaces in small but meaningful ways. For example, enable them to participate on advisory boards or school site councils. Students can provide key insights to consider for making high-level budgetary decisions around course offerings, college and career readiness programming, and coordination with outside services and community partners. For input on curriculum and instruction, invite students to attend meetings with instructional coaches, department chairs, or grade-level team leaders.
Be sure to elicit student feedback by establishing and listening in on student-based groups. If you take this route, we recommend consulting both homogeneous and mixed groups of students. While identity-similar groups can work together to advocate for change in their communities, students from diverse groups within the school can work together across differences to construct solutions that are mutually beneficial.
When seeking student advice, it’s essential to involve students from a range of backgrounds and experiences at the school. While it can be easiest to recruit students already involved in leadership clubs, these students often represent the voices that hold social and institutional power at your school. To make meaningful change, you also want to seek out students who don’t receive frequent recognition or support on campus.
Evaluate and redesign systems to center student voices
As you take steps to transform your school’s culture and empower students, it’s critical to create opportunities not just for students to practice self-awareness but also for adults to consider how their lived experience shows up in the education space. Dedicate professional development sessions to helping teachers examine their curriculum and instructional practices. What stories are told through their curriculum? Which do they leave out? What modalities do their lessons require most often, and what opportunities are there for students with different strengths to showcase their learning and growth?
Once you’ve worked with students and teachers to begin making changes to instructional and institutional practices, start preparing for the long term. For example, if student advisory sessions with leadership bodies are productive, establish permanent seats for students, and plan to invite various students to fill those seats at strategic points throughout the year.
If your initial student advisory sessions were less than ideal, use what you learned from them to create new leadership structures or alter existing ones to include authentic, ongoing student involvement. For example, if it was difficult to name useful takeaways from student feedback, consider changing the content, flow, or participatory structures of your meetings. Ensure that students have the space and time to share openly. Remember to prepare targeted questions that elicit concrete feedback. Remain flexible and try different approaches until you find what works best.
With a solid foundation of relationships and student preparation, as well as an understanding of what works well for students and staff, you will be well-positioned to establish sustainable structures that continue to involve students in decision making. Though it may take time, placing students at the center of school leadership will empower students to thrive and support teachers to guide them through their educational journeys.
Katie Barr is the director of education and innovation of Project Wayfinder. Brandy Arnold is the chief customer officer of Project Wayfinder.