The Power of Inviting Students to the Meeting
Before the chaos of the global pandemic began, I had begun my own mission of incorporating more student voices, specifically students of color, into both our school-wide and district-wide decisions. Before I get into the best part of this piece, here’s a little background on myself.
I am currently a 7th and 8th grade Special Education teacher in Southeastern Wisconsin. We are a fairly small, but diverse community and school. Along with the regular duties of being a Special Education teacher, I am also on our school’s Restorative Practices Team, the District Leadership Team, and I am the middle school student council advisor (titled Student Advisory Council).
And thus begins my journey of inviting a student to a meeting.
A new district administrator position was introduced to our district this year, a Director of Equity. He began leading monthly District Strategic Framework meetings that were open to district staff, students, parents, and community members. In order to be a part of the group for the remainder of the school year, you had to attend 2 out of the first three meetings in order to complete initial training. But honestly, I didn’t care about the other details once I heard “students are invited”. I immediately invited and strongly encouraged each of my Student Advisory Council members to attend.
I ended up with three student members who made the commitment to come, all of them Black students. We met at Culver’s beforehand, ate dinner together, and headed over to the public library to attend the meeting. Fast forward to March 2020 and each of my students made it to at least four of the meetings, with one student attending ALL of them.
But honestly, I didn’t care about the other details once I heard “students are invited.” I immediately invited and strongly encouraged each of my Student Advisory Council members to attend.
Let me explain that last point.
A 14-year old Black male, voluntarily attended monthly meetings, on a school night, for 2 hours, to talk to adults he did and did not know, about equity in our district. I’m emotional just writing that sentence. These moments are important. Not just for our staff, our community, or for this student in particular, but for all students, all students of color, and especially all Black students, to know that they have a voice and it is valued and important. I learned more from him during these meetings on how to be a better teacher than I did during all of my years in college.
I want to share his experiences with you all.
I conducted an interview with this student on April 27th (we’ll call him Kobe, per his request and in honor of the late Lakers star), and asked him to reflect on the impact of attending these meetings on himself and on the community.
Me: “First off, can you describe what your school experience has been like so far (K-8)?”
Kobe: “It’s been pretty much the same. Each grade you get new friends, you meet new people, and there are different challenges you face. The challenges definitely get harder because I understand more things and the problem could become bigger than it is.”
Me: “How have things gone since the school was closed because of COVID-19?”
Kobe: “The good thing is that people are safe and there’s no risk to the students. But the bad thing is we’re far from other people and we can’t see our friends and talk to other people. Sometimes it can make it harder to learn because someone might be a face-to-face learner.”
Me: “Shifting gears a little bit, why did you join the Student Advisory Council?”
“The good thing (about our school shutting down because of COVID-19) is that people are safe and there’s no risk to the students. But the bad thing is we’re far from other people and we can’t see our friends and talk to other people. Sometimes it can make it harder to learn because someone might be a face-to-face learner.”
Kobe: “That’s an easy question for me. I joined the Student Advisory Council because this was the first time in all my years at school that I’ve been able to have a voice at the school and make it a better environment for everyone. What initially made me want to be a part of it was that my friends would always tell me things that were happening and Student Advisory Council is a place that I can share that and try to solve the problem they’re having or try to help them out.”
Me: “So those meetings you went to once a month, the District Strategic Framework meetings, what were they like from your perspective?”
Kobe: “It was kind of awkward at first because it’s a room of all grown-ups and a meeting that students don’t usually go to. Then as time went on, it got more comfortable. I felt like I could speak there and they would listen and they would care about what my ideas were because I was a student.”
Me: “What do you think made it easier as it went on?”
Kobe: “The activities that we did, we had to hold hands and talk to each other. That made it more comfortable because we got to know each other.”
Me: “What have you learned about the school system from attending those meetings?”
Kobe: “I’ve learned that they’re actually trying to make it a better place each day and they’re trying to help out as much as they can. And that the community is there too, not just staff from the school, but people who live nearby that are trying to make it better.”
Me: “What have you learned about your teachers from attending those meetings?”
Kobe: “Only a couple of teachers have gone but they are really trying to make it a better environment with their students and have better bonds with them. The teachers that went were really the only ones that wanted to change it and they care about their students.”
Me: What are other ways that teachers can show they care about them?
Kobe: “Bond with the students, do something that doesn’t involve schoolwork for a short time- means a lot, shows that they care”
I also want there to be more teachers or staff of color because the people who led those meetings were people of color and what they said was true and they were things I’ve felt before going from kindergarten to eighth grade. I realized that it’s something I need more of.
Me: “Why is it important for you and other students to attend those meetings?”
Kobe: “It’s important so we know what we’re going to have to experience as we get to higher grades and when we are older. And so we can help the community and staff members in what they want to fix from a student’s perspective.”
Me: “So thinking about the future, what action steps do you have after attending those meetings?”
Kobe: “I want to get more students involved so they can understand how to help out. I want more teachers to come so they understand how to make students feel welcome and make it a happy place for them. I also want there to be more teachers or staff of color because the people who led those meetings were people of color and what they said was true and they were things I’ve felt before going from kindergarten to eighth grade. I realized that it’s something I need more of.”
Me: “After all of this, what does student voice and leadership mean to you?”
Kobe: “It means speaking up for other students who can’t speak up for themselves. And just to be the best you can be to help out.”
Me: “How are you going to take what you have learned, as a member of those meetings, as a student leader, into high school?”
Kobe: “That I stay positive all of the time, even if it’s a bad outcome and show that people need to not give in and show other people to be better. I just want to make other people become leaders too.”
Me: “Before we end, I have to ask, how should schools change their practices when we go back to school after COVID-19?”
Kobe: “We want to do the work and we want to be there. School is important to us”.
I’m going to end this message by saying this, a Black male student using his voice, and people actually listening does not happen every day.
As one of my district mentors put it,
“This [opportunity] shouldn’t stand out, but it does, because as a youth and as a black male, he’s the least represented in our leadership and curriculum, and yet he’s the only one who put in the work to bring his voice to the table. What makes him extraordinary isn’t what he did, it’s what we hope all kids do, it’s that he did it upstream through a host of barriers and signals that tried to shut him out”.
His voice and the voices of all of our district’s Black students and their families need to be amplified, shared, spread, encouraged, and valued. I’ve learned more than I can fit on a page from listening to the experiences of one Black student. Imagine the knowledge, compassion, and care we would have if we listened to the experiences of all of our Black students. So, what will I do next? I will listen to you. I will support you. I will fight for you. I will stand with you. I will educate myself. I will love you. My fellow teachers, school social workers, and other school clinicians, what will you do?