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Making Space: Placing Students and Families in the Conversation

"We can discuss this all day..." the teacher in a focus group I was running trailed off, "but the real question is: what do our students want?"

We all paused and looked at her. It was one of those moments where someone lifts the veil of your own ignorance. We'd been discussing the state DOE's strategic plan for nearly fifteen minutes, and she was the first to remind us who is at the true center of our conversation.

I don't hold that against the other teachers in the group. It's easy and necessary to get deep into the discussion about what new plans and legislation mean for those of us in the classroom. Recently, there have been a flurry of discussions and debates around ESSA. What does it mean for testing? What does it mean for teacher evaluation? How will this affect funding?

These are all essential questions and need to be asked. As educators, however, it's important for us to ensure that we stop and give space for others often not included in the decision-making process: families and students. Yes, we often feel that our voices aren't heard, and that's an understandable reaction. However, it is necessary to own that the voices of students and families are also often neglected. 

A few states, including Hawai'i, have begun gathering input around ESSA. From educationfirst

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In Hawai'i, we've seen this be especially effective. The state DOE and Hope Street Group have partnered together to conduct focus groups for not only teachers, but for students and parents as well.  From teacher Mathieu Williams in Civil Beat

As an educator, I've been inspired through this process to hear the voices of students, parents, teachers and community members on why education matters and their views on how best to create a system that supports students.

One parent stated that she defines student success by "having life skills, living pono and having a love for learning." A community member defined student success through "the ah ha moments that they feel and display with their peers and adults." One of my students said student success "looks like teachers going out of their way to make sure students have the fundamental learning material they need to be successful in life." It is the contributions of voices like these that will transform education here in Hawaii.

The definition of student success should not come from a small group of passionate people. Rather, real progress and effective change will only be realized through the collective voices and efforts of all of us.

What truly made my student successful wasn't just what I did individually as her teacher. Rather it was the collective effort of a caring community that believed in her and whose members worked together to provide vital academic and socio-emotional support for her needs. She has been elevated to a level of success that motivates her to keep striving and to stay focused on achieving her personal aspirations. Her community allowed her to experience success and encouraged her to believe that she can truly achieve anything.

Revelations like these are essential. Even see the #HIQualityEd hashtag has made me pause to recenter my practice where it matters.

I encourage all teachers and states to take measures that allow students and families to share their voice. We cannot allow success to be narrowly defined by only one small group. We have to accept that, even though we are in the front of the classroom each day, we are not the center of the room. We know who is.

And it's time we make sure we listen to them. 

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