By Theresa Andersen
How do we develop a thriving school community through student voice? We are all back together again in school and there are changes in our school community that need to be addressed. To have an effective student voice, we must truly listen to one another. Students need to be part of the solution. We have to think about what is the purpose of our school community. Some of us call this the mission statement of the school. Why are we doing what we do? We must remember that whatever grade you are teaching, the Covid pandemic had a tremendous impact on your students, and that they need emotional care and social adjustment. Students will only be successful in school if they feel safe, feel that they belong, feel respected and feel cared for. Sara referred to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Because of Covid, we are probably stuck at the bottom two levels, physiological (basic human needs) and safety.
The first need according to Maslow is breathing. One good way to start the day then is to give time for students to unwind with a 90 second breathing exercise and sit with their emotions. You can play songs that promote peace and happiness and have them name how they feel at this moment by journaling. This may not be an easy task for them. If we want them to answer what needs aren’t being met for their community, we start with what personal needs of theirs aren’t being met. We listen without judgement by creating a space where students can voice opinions and voice improvements. We don’t want them to just voice an endless list of complaints. What can be done to improve their community; improve their needs?
In Sara Steinweiss’ October’s webinar, she focused on celebrating student voice, student successes and strengths, rather than focusing on weaknesses. She introduced the term positive psychology. Based on research on 24-character strengths /virtues, positive psychology is defined as a realistic way to look at what we are doing well and how to improve on that and move forward. Each of us has a toolbox of character strengths that are inside us defining “what’s right with me.” These strengths help us to be the best person we can be. To that purpose, Sara Steinweiss explained that we must identify at least five of our strengths; know them well, show them, and grow them. Knowing our strengths helps to develop positive relationships with others and leads to a growth mindset that we can grow and change. She provided many resources to help teachers research the 24-character strengths, including VIA Institute.
Dr. Jamiylah Jones, a principal and expert in student voice, is also collaborating with the Fordham PDRC. In her webinar, she advocates for making space for student voice both inside and outside our classrooms. Student voice is just the beginning of engaging students, not the end. Students engage when they see themselves as active players in their school and become authors of their own learning. Meaningful student involvement yields the greatest outcomes for student voice. There can be courses, meetings, spaces, and blocks of time where students are free and encouraged to express the ways in which they want their school to serve them. Staff must be trained to ask the right questions that can unlock student voice. Staff can create open door policies and listening sessions where individuals or groups of students are free to voice concerns or issues, share creative ideas, and recommend solutions to problems.
Helping students understand their character strengths moves them to use their voice to be advocates for themselves and others. Once we can spot the strengths in our students, celebrate them, and then savor them; it makes them realize that they can be a voice to be heard and celebrated.
In my experience, children who were successful in their academics and social behaviors were those who connected with their teachers. Teachers who showed that they cared about their students and their success and listened to their needs, were those students who felt important. When there was clear communication between the teacher and the student, students felt inclusive and empowered. Isn’t this what we want for our children? Children need to be heard and helped so they can focus on their success. The school environment becomes a place of safety, respect, and deep learning takes place.
The Fordham PDRC is proud to collaborate with Dr. Jamiylah Jones, Principal of the Wellspring School and Sara Steinweiss, founder of the Conflict Resolutions Systems, who are providing educators from religious and independent schools the tools to empower students and create thriving school communities through their webinars. Keep in touch with us and explore our website to see what is in store for the winter and spring.