Heartbreaking Conversations With Students: Student Voice and Value
Guest post by Jonathon Medeiros
"Mr. Medeiros, is my school a good school?"
A question from a soft-spoken but fierce and intense 8th-grade student on one of the student discussion panels, halfway through our week visiting the remote K-12 school. We, a WASC Visiting Team of classroom teachers and a former principal, were coming to the end of an enlightening and lively two-hour conversation with about 15 students, from 3rd to 8th grade. They were all so honest, sharp, and insightful as they responded to our questions.
Just under the surface, however, I sensed the same tension and worry that oozed out of the seams of every corner of this school since I'd arrived. We were there that week to try to verify the school's report about itself and to recommend a term of accreditation, along with some areas they could celebrate and some areas they should work to change. Instead, we uncovered the yawning chasm that is the answer to that girl's question.
As we wrapped up the discussion, I thanked the students and asked what else they wanted to talk about or ask us, these interlopers.
And she spoke up, "Mr. Medeiros, is my school a good school?" No trepidation or stuttering or nervousness blurred her voice but worry anchored her words and furrowed her brow and almost brought tears to my eyes. I looked at her and we both sighed.
What do you say? A simple "yes"? A "no, it's not"? A drawn out, complicated, qualified response (which I guess is this essay)? She deserves an answer. They all do.
But, what is a school?
This seems to be a simple, maybe even stupid question but schools are not buildings. Schools are not teachers. Schools are not children and adults. Schools are not CTE courses or college readiness rates or proficiency results or tardies or referrals or suspensions or school wear or sports teams or on time graduation rates. Schools are not rankable by anything other than distance from a given GPS coordinate.
Schools are our students: living, breathing, growing, hurting and hoping all at once.
I believe that too many teachers and administrators are blind to the distance between their day to day decisions and the students that fill their lives. This is not to impugn the character of any specific educator. We simply do not see what we haven't yet noticed. If my school life finds my mind always buried in the minutiae of an Academic Plan or a Financial Plan or a Personal Growth Plan or a Data Plan, I will necessarily start to believe that my school is made of buzzwords, catchphrases, and numbers instead of students with minds and hearts and fears and needs.
Jerry Muller, in his essay about "metric fixation," mentions that this kind of focus "impedes innovation" and leads to "goal displacement." We start to mistake the meeting of the metric itself for success instead of staying focused on the actual, big picture goal of our work. "Who suffers?" Muller asks. The students.
This metric fixation can make public schools seem like a version of Plato's allegory about life in a cave. We get caught up believing in the flickering shadows on the walls of our jobs and we don't understand the zealot who returns from the outside to tell us, "No, that is not life. Turn around. There are real people here!"
We don't question the importance of the shadows we stare at. We don't ask questions of the students blurred behind all that data. Why aren't those people, the students, at the center of our focus instead of behind a veil of shadows and numbers?
Walking around the tumbling campus that week, looking for things to celebrate, for the answer to that student's question, I watched adults staring at shadows while real students were ignored in every corner. "This school provides real-world opportunities for its high school students," and "We provide students with the 21st-century skills for success," championed some administrators. But "I'm sad and bored at school" and "I don't know what or why we are learning" and "There is nothing interesting, relevant, or challenging to do" floated out of the mouths of any student you bothered to ask.
Students are our schools.
How can we close the distance between our real students and our perceived jobs? Can we turn around to know our students, and ourselves?
I wonder what a school would look like if its administrators and teachers spent their Academic, Financial, Growth, and Data Plan time on asking students a version of that question that I couldn't answer.
What stops us from turning this question around and asking students instead? Why do we choose to stay buried in the various plans and data points? Do we assume the students can't offer us valid information? Or are we worried about what a student might say about us if we asked them to critique our classes, our schools? Or is it easier to find success by "mistaking" the metric for the goal?
Can we design, redesign, and run a school by asking our students, "What would make this school a good school for you?" Can we do this regularly and not just as members of WASC teams while visiting other people's schools?
And then --- can we listen?
I am still thinking about what I could have said to her and I can't quite remember what I did say. If time had stopped, I would not have had enough of it to figure out the best way to answer.
I think I know, however, why those children were so eager to talk to us, frankly, about their struggling school. We, the WASC visiting team from scattered corners of the state, were perhaps the first adults who had taken the time to talk to them, to assume they had legitimate views about their school, about their learning.
And they believed we were listening. I believe we should.
Photo via US Airforce
Jonathon Medeiros is a National Board certified teacher and has been teaching and learning about English Language Arts and rhetoric with Kauai High School students for 12 years. He is currently a lead on the Kauai Local Teacher Fellowship pilot program, now in its second year. Jonathon earned a BA in English from the University of Portland, an MA in English from Portland State University, and an M.Ed. from the University of Oregon. He strongly believes in teaching his students what Nick Offerman has stated, that if you change all of your mistakes and regrets, you'd erase yourself. Born and raised on Kauai, Jonathon enjoys surfing and spending time at the beach with his wife and daughters.