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New Voices Rising: Students Demand Change After Parkland Shooting

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student walkout.jpg

Have you ever awoken one day and experienced a bigger voice than yours speaking out and sounding like you? It makes you want to close your eyes, exhale and say, finally, yes. It happened to us yesterday when we read David Brooks' NY Times column of March 12, 2018. In the column entitled 'Good leaders Make Good Schools', he concluded...

When you learn about successful principals, you keep coming back to the character traits they embody and spread: energy, trustworthiness, honesty, optimism, determination. We went through a period when we believed you could change institutions without first changing the character of the people in them. But we were wrong. Social transformation follows personal transformation.

Once again, YES. Those who read us regularly will hear themes common to ours in that conclusion. Brooks cites example from Chicago, from Cleveland, from Washington and New Orleans. He quotes the research which most of us have heard before. School leaders build culture and leaders make a difference. That difference arises from the personhood of the leader as much as it does from what he or she knows. It causes some leaders to lift others up and some to simply walk over the top. We all know our leader impacts us every day. And, often, the leader lifts our voices or silences them. So, we are thinking today about leadership and voice.

This is not a time to watch the news in shock only. In moments when we allow ourselves to become students of leadership, we realize we are living in a time rich in its lessons. Many were surprised at the outcome of the last national election but we must acknowledge all of those in our nation who felt overlooked and who were waiting to make their voices heard. They came out and voted and gave us the POTUS. He makes every day chaotic, and though we find it exhausting, others find it exciting. Some may feel as if we were living in a soap opera with no remote control to turn it off.  We are in the midst of a tidal wave of change. It may be strategic. Time will tell.

Unintended Consequences and Rising Voices

But, as leaders know, there can always be unintended consequences. So when the current POTUS was campaigning and releasing voices that went previously unheard, little did he imagine what else might happen. There were other voices in our land that were also waiting for the moment when silence could be tolerated no more. Here we are.

The time has come when women's voices are rising. Not just one woman's voice, but many. When the issue of sexual harassment and worse could be "handled" one woman at a time, secrets could be held and victims dismissed. But as more women stepped forward secrets were revealed and powerful men fell. The POTUS, himself, is realizing those voices can come from dark corners and seek their moment in the light. Many voices with similar accusations across so many fields from politics to entertainment to sports has called attention to the issues of sexual harassment like never before. We suspect that some of us may have those issues in our schools as well. Leaders will address them before it takes 10 women to speak up or 10 of our students. One girl or woman is enough for action. Believing them is all it takes and then, of course, an active conscience to guide our response.

How Many Students Does it Take?

So, how many student voices does it take to be heard in your school and cause action? How many on the state and national stage? Today, we see their voices rise. Young America is speaking out after the Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland. Another set of voices previously unheard is rising. Certainly, few would have anticipated that setting voices free would lead to a movement across the nation in our schools. But, here we are. Future leaders are on the streets expressing themselves, seeking change and demanding to be heard. The voices of those who have been affected by school shootings, those who refuse to be victims and who want others to be safe, rallying with purpose and conviction. What POTUS would have guessed that young voices were waiting to rise with the others? The victims in Sandy Hook were so young, others needed to speak for them. Our hearts broke with those whose lives were so tragically taken that day but the nation slid back to silence. Not so, in Parkland.

We commented previously about the voices of the students in Parkland, their maturity and clarity. We know how strong their voices have become when an unopposed, Republican candidate for a House seat in Maine calls a high school student from Parkland a "skinhead lesbian" on twitter. Oh, yes, these student voices are pricking in new places. And, oh yes, the adults are feeling it as we should be. They are asking for us to become our better selves. Don't we owe them that? As educators we know we do.

We Can Be Proud of Our Students' Courage and Voice

On March 14th, we heard the voices of students from beyond Parkland, however. Students are speaking out across the country on National Walk Out Day to mark the one-month anniversary of the Stoneman Douglas shootings. Reporters approach them randomly on the street and ask questions in front of cameras. They stop, poised and ready to answer. They know why they are there and the change that must begin. They are clear and possess intention with a fire in it. They are our students. And, whether we agree with them or not, we must be proud of them. They have learned that America's future is worth the risk of discipline or suspension. They believe in our democracy and in free speech. They are convinced that, regardless of their age, they can make a difference in this country. They speak in sentences and with an understanding of how government works. They know the relationships between localities and states and federal governments and talk about moving from one to another as they make the difference they seek. They, more than any test result anywhere, are the result of our work and we can be proud of them. Never could a person running for president anticipated that high school students would change the world if they found the power of their voice. But these are new days and the unleashing of unspoken voices is a force for change. This will be a challenge for many in school leadership but let it also be a moment when you learn from those who have found their voice.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by Lorie Shaull from Washington, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

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