At a recent meeting of school administrators from across Wisconsin, we had the opportunity to reflect on and consider the opportunities and challenges related to involving students in their schools. We based this work on the Continuum of Youth Involvement (pdf). We considered the range of involvement from student participation to voice to leadership to engagement. We sought to understand the distinctions and to have candid conversations about where we had worked, where we were willing to work, and where we had the support to work along that continuum. One key clarification from the conversation is that where student voice has never been considered, we will struggle to dive into conversations and practices around youth engagement – at least systemically. We can always have the brave and creative outlier who manages to engage students deeply despite his/her broader school environment. But, this is not our goal. Our goal is the systemic inclusion and engagement of young people in their own lives and their own education.
Mirroring this discussion about students, we asked the group of administrators to consider the same Continuum of Involvement, but to do so with the teacher in mind – teacher participation, voice, leadership, and engagement. What does this look like in schools? What are the barriers and opportunities? Supports? What have their experiences been? The two conversations were very similar.
Involvement along the continuum for both teachers and students is about power and power sharing, both in the classroom and in the broader school community.
Reality Check: Teachers without power cannot share power with students.
And the logic continues that principals without power cannot share power with teachers and so on.
Those of us who advocate for student involvement at any level (whether in schools or elsewhere) would be well served to consider advocating similarly for the adults closest to and supporting our youth. Student/youth engagement is about a cultural shift in schools and communities, not about a program or the implementation of a distinct practice or new pedagogy. It is about a system of relationships.