I don’t hide the fact that I thought I was a “just fine” teacher that was considering quitting her job barely two years into a teaching career. I don’t hide the fact that I, like so many others, have been on a quest to find a better way to reach all of my students, to make their education truly about them again. I don’t hide the fact that I don’t have all of the answers, that there doesn’t seem to be just one way to engage students, but rather many, and often more than one is needed on any particular day. In my earnestness to become better at the job I love, I owe so much to my students, for they have given me their advice, their wishes, and sometimes even their challenges in order to push my thinking. They have asked me to share their words with others so that perhaps other children will be afforded some of the same opportunities they have been given.
So when I was asked to write about student voice, it only made sense for me to include the words of the very students I get to teach. Of the very students who are in our classroom, working through the experiment that is teaching. They have so much to say and not just because of their age as 12 and 13 years olds. No, because they are the ones living what we do. They are the ones who are affected by every decision we make. Yet they are so often left out of our decision making process. Do not be fooled by the age of my students, although older, they are not the only age of students that can share their thoughts. My oldest daughter is 7 and she has a thing or two to say about her education if you only listen. She has had that since she started.
So what do students ask for in their education? It is frighteningly simple; to be heard. To be asked in the first place. To have choices. To make it matter. To change things up. To listen to their ideas and to make it fun. As one child told me, “Many students dislike school, so make it enjoyable to be in class. Help students like school by giving them freedom and choice.” Freedom to be who they are, freedom to explore, freedom to figure out how they learn best, even within the constraints of our curriculum. And choice! Choice not just in the process or the product, but in all of the small things we remove from them in the name of classroom management. Choice in where they sit, when they go to the bathroom, who they work with (even if only once in awhile), choice in how they work, how they are assessed, how the material is presented. We know that no child learns the same way, yet we continue to demand they follow the same process or create the same product. Why?
Yet, many of my students did not just want to affect the way they learned. They had so much more to say to teachers. “Never judge us on our bad days…” one child wrote, reminding me that we all have bad days and yet in our classrooms we expect all students to be happy, to be eager, to be invested. At all times. Yet as adults we go through a variety of emotions in a day and do not love all aspects of what we do; can we afford children the same luxury of not always being perfect? Can we give them a safe classroom where their emotions do play a part in how we teach rather than demand false perfection every day?
My students are vocal at times, they tell me when something does not work or is boring. Their body language often tells me entire stories of how they feel about what we are doing before their words do, and so it is up to me to make it more relevant, engaging, better. Yet, if there is one thing I have learned in my journey towards creating empowered, engaging, and even passionate learners it is that you should not be the only changemaker. That you, the teacher, does not have to have all of the answers. So while I ask my students how I can be a better teacher, I also ask them to give me ideas. To help me solve the problem we face. Because if they truly care about their education, or at the very least care about the day they have with me, then they must be a part of the solution as well.
While there are many obstacles out of our control that face us in education today, creating classrooms where student voices are heard is something that is within your control. It doesn’t take funding, it doesn’t take training, extra time, nor any kind of curriculum. It simply starts with asking students, “How can this be a better class for you?” and then listening and then doing. We may not always be able to meet the demands of our students. We may not always have all of the answers or even know where to find an answer, but we can listen. We can change. We can be better. Our students are waiting; what are we waiting for?