Students as Consultants: Reframing Teacher-Student Relationships
This post is by Anna Chiles, a humanities teacher at High Tech High Media Arts (HTHMA), Ben Sanoff, a school leadership resident at HTHMA, Janie Griswold, director of new teacher development at High Tech High, and Julia Rosecrans, a student at HTHMA.
During lunch one day at High Tech High Media Arts (HTHMA), a team of two student consultants meets with a new High Tech High teacher to debrief a recent observation cycle. They start by giving the teacher encouraging feedback about his communication style with students and the way he seamlessly switched between slang and academic language. The conversation transitions to other strategies the teacher can use to open up and connect with his students.
We started the student consulting program in Fall 2015, with HTHMA juniors serving as consultants to teachers in their first year at the school, with the hope of fostering just this type of dialogue. We believed that providing new teachers with feedback from the student perspective would help them foster the type of positive, supportive classroom relationships that serve as the foundation for deeper learning, and challenge traditional power dynamics in the classroom. This didn't just happen. To prepare our team of student consultants, we engaged them in a six week course to help them develop the skills to have these sorts of conversations with teachers. For more information about this course consult our implementation guide.
Student Consultants Grow Their Voice
Julia Rosecrans, a student consultant, shares a play-by-play of the type of dialogue that occurred during one of her debrief meetings:
We started by offering the teacher warm feedback about the classroom environment, along with their general teaching practices during the period we observed. We expressed our appreciation for the way she engaged with the students during project work time by asking questions to the students that made them think more deeply about their topics. Later in the debrief, we transitioned to some cooler feedback. We observed a need for greater student engagement during the majority of project work time, and how the classroom culture changes when she steps out of the room. This led to an inclusive dialogue about why this was happening, and we brainstormed strategies she can implement in her classroom to reach her goals as a teacher. This reflects the value of the program where we as students build a mutually respectful relationship with our teacher and generate an honest conversation about the student experience in the service of improving teaching practices.
Increased Empathy for the Role of Teacher
This experience of shifting roles and imagining the teachers' experiences helped change the way that student consultants conceptualized school. As students gained a sense for teachers' perspectives and struggles, they expressed more appreciation for teachers' efforts. As one student explained, "It made me a better student through perspective. Being a student consultant you spend a lot of time with your teacher and you see education through their lens. It makes you change because you realize everything you are doing is for a reason." Students' recognition that teaching practices are not arbitrary helped them deepen their appreciation for the value of school. This might be the reason that several student consultants also reported becoming better students.
Cooperating Teachers Change Their Teaching Practices
Teachers also grew from the experience. In a survey, all five cooperating teachers reported that the program was beneficial for them and that they changed their practices based on the debrief conversations with student consultants. Through such conversations, cooperating teachers reported they developed deeper relationships with students, interacted with students in a more positive way during class, communicated information about projects and assignments to students more clearly, generated better questions to stimulate student dialogue during Socratic seminars, and created more collaborative learning environments for students.
For example, one cooperating teacher explained that his student consultants' feedback helped him form more productive student groups. His student consulting team told him: "I think you would have more effective conversations if you changed your seating. You know, you have a bunch of kids who are reluctant to speak here and you have kids that embody the same mentality all sitting at the same table and they're dominating conversations and you could break them up." After changing the seating, he reflected, "my student consultants really helped me generate a culture in my classroom that elicited and fostered growth, communication, and discussion." This type of specific suggestion from student consultants often helped cooperating teachers be more responsive to student needs.
In addition, this ongoing dialogue between student consultants and cooperating teachers motivated teachers to continuously reflect on and develop their teaching. One teacher described how his student consultants pushed him to improve: "It adds a level of accountability and authenticity that you don't get when you have an administrator or another teacher in your classroom because students can actually envision themselves in your room and in your lesson."
Increased Empathy for the Student Experience
Just as students felt increased empathy for teachers, cooperating teachers also reported greater empathy for the student experience. As teachers, we often forget about the experience that students are having in our classrooms, so refocusing attention on this critical perspective on teaching and learning can yield large dividends.
One of the teachers began to realize that, in fact, all of his students could be collaborating with him to improve the experience for both parties. He explained, "I realized that these two student consultants are helping what I'm doing with my tenth graders, and it just took a nudge for me to say I should ask my tenth graders what I need to do. And then it turned from having two student consultants to having 52. So that really impacted my teaching, because I just have much clearer pathways and means of communication with my students."
When teachers see themselves as collaborating with their students towards a common goal, it represents a powerful reframing of the teacher-student relationship. We see student consulting as mutually beneficial for participating students and teachers, helping each group transcend the divide inherent in their roles and recognize teaching and learning as a truly collaborative process.
Photo taken by Ben Sanoff: Student consultants presenting at the Deeper Learning Conference 2016