Student Influence

The truth is, it’s not my classroom—it’s all of our classroom. There are some things I have control over because I’m paid. For other things, if I don’t need control I let students take charge. It’s hard to find the right balance but I think I’ve found the sweet spot. It’s my responsibility to make sure kids are safe, learning and feel comfortable in the classroom setting.

– High school teacher

The most direct indicator of youth empowerment is the manifestation of student influence on their school or classroom environment. As educators, remembering our experience walking about a school in which students feel empowered, we observed their presence everywhere and at all levels, including a visual, physical and aural presence.

The images in that open, empowering and inclusive school indicated a great deal about its tone and culture, and about the degree of empowerment experienced by diverse groups of students. As we passed by posters and artwork created by students and displayed in the hallway we noticed the images that were used. They spoke volumes simply by virtue of who was included and who was excluded, and through the symbols and images of diverse cultures, identities and social groups that were reflected in the school’s décor.

Observing posters that are visible around the school also provided information about what kinds of activities or events were taking place. Clubs with contemporary themes hinted at student-led initiatives. Message boards with communications from, by and between students indicated that they are actively shaping the environment. Students’ influence was heard as well, as we heard students’ voices announcing events and activities over the sound system.

Peaking into a classroom, we observed a wide range of activities that varied from student to student. We saw physical movement as well as other signs that students had control over their interaction with the space they occupied. Listening to the exchanges, we could hear language used by teachers and students that reflected students’ ownership.

These indicators of empowerment we have observed are just a few examples of a shift that can occur when students have as many opportunities as possible to have a meaningful role in directing their lives. While we may not directly perceive it, all these indicators of student empowerment derive from their systematic inclusion in developing school and classroom policies and practices.

Giving students opportunities to voice their thoughts, feelings, needs and concerns is critical. That said, if we stop there, the process is incomplete and will not have the intended impact. Centring student voice in our schools and classrooms leads to student action. Through action students can influence their school environment inspiring significant and observable change at all levels of school and classroom life.

A student had started a petition and he presented it to a teacher. We wanted to honour the student’s petition, so all classrooms in the school had meetings about the issues raised in the petition. During the meetings, people had roles: observer, recorder, timekeeper. Students could see there was a process and we hope they will eventually facilitate meetings. Following the classroom meetings, the whole school had an assembly and discussed the issues in the petition, then we talked it out to arrive at a resolution. We agreed to try out the strategies then check back in two weeks to see how it was going.

– Elementary teacher