Thursday / April 25

3 Ways School Leaders Can Build Student Engagement

School leaders have a responsibility to ensure that all students are engaged in learning and the school’s culture. For this to take place, school leaders must be intentional in their approach and leadership. Student engagement doesn’t come naturally; it’s something that one must plan for and thoughtfully implement. As a school leader for twenty years, I have found these three ways for school leaders to build student engagement:

1. Student Voice

School leaders can stress the importance of embracing student voice into the classroom and learning. They can also do this by modeling the importance of student voice in the school. For example, at my school, we host a student-written and directed play each year to nurture student voice. The play focuses on the mission of our No Place for Hate program and is written, directed, and acted out by students.

In addition, we look for opportunities to have students lead a school-wide assembly each year. Last year, we had a senior who did extensive work on mental health in the community and region lead an assembly on her personal journey in overcoming her struggles with mental health and how to get help. Students shared how this was one of our best assemblies ever because it was from one of their peers, someone they knew and trusted.

We host a student forum every week called “Falcon Feedback.” During this forum, we meet with 16 random students (4 from each grade) and ask four questions:

a. What does our school do great?

b. How does our school need to improve?

c. What do you dream our school can be?

d. What can you personally do to make our school a better place?

Through listening to student feedback, we have added hot sauce to the condiments in the cafeteria, installed paper towel dispensers in the lavatories (they only had air dryers), added a salad bar in the cafeteria, started a program to allow late comers to be excused on inclement weather days, and led spirit days that had the largest participation ever. Student voice is making our school better everyday and working to improve the quality of learning and school life for all students.

2. Student Choice

Increasing Student Choice is the next step in developing student engagement in schools. Students need to have increased opportunities to choose and to contribute to the learning and culture of the school. When we give students choice, they are engaged to learn and grow.  Choice provides students an opportunity to make decisions, have ownership in their learning, and to contribute to the learning and school culture.

There are two arenas in particular where we can give students choice:

  • Learning Choice – Allow students the opportunities to select from a choice of assignments, choose completion dates on some assignments, and decide who they work with. Choice boards are great tools to increase student choice. Choice boards allow students to choose how they want to demonstrate their learning. For instance, allow students to create a video, create a website or blog, design a podcast, or interview someone in the field. By providing learning choice, students are empowered to build on their strengths and enjoy the learning experience at the same time.
  • School Life – Work to find ways to provide student choice in the daily activities of school.  For example, our school is planning on giving students choice on their locker location at the start of the school year. Seniors will have first choice and then each class after that.  By providing choice, students are more connected to the school, they value the independence, and they appreciate the opportunity to personalize their own learning.

3. Student Empowerment

True engagement comes when students are empowered to make decisions, lead, and take action to improve their own learning and life. School leaders need to challenge teachers to empower students in the classroom and beyond and to encourage them to find, identify, and solve real world problems right in their community. Several teachers in my school have been working on Challenge Based Learning. CBL is a framework intended to enhance learning through authentic learning experiences that inspire students to leverage technology to solve real world problems. Through CBL, students participated and led our community in a Hometown Heroes project, National Day of Peace activities, built a rain garden to solve drainage issues in a district parking lot, and several other things.

Here are some resources our school used to begin our work with CBL.

Student empowerment means that the teacher becomes a facilitator of knowledge rather than a deliverer of it. The teacher becomes the coach or guide through the learning process allowing students to try, fail, fail again, collaborate, grow and succeed. I believe that too often, we are creating students who can answer test questions with great success but not enough students who can solve complex problems they will face in the world.

Moving forward, school leaders need to lead with student voice, choice, and empowerment in if they want to prepare students for the complexities of the world. They need to model these practices in faculty meetings, in daily activities, and in regular communication with teachers. I believe what you focus on grows, so focus on increasing student engagement through these three areas: Student Voice, Student Choice, and Student Empowerment. Make a commitment to lead your faculty and staff in a way that listens to their voice, allows them choice, and empowers them to be leaders in the school. Your school, and most importantly, your students will thrive when this happens.

Written by

Dr. Bill Ziegler is a high school principal, the 2016-17 Pennsylvania Principal of the Year, and a 2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals Digital Principal Award Winner.  Bill is an author and educational consultant with Corwin on School Leadership.  He also served as the President of the PA Principals Association and is an adjunct professor in Temple University’s Department of Education. 

Twitter: @drbillzieglerWebsite:


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