Giving Students a Voice

by Mary B. Herrmann

As leaders of our communites’ school systems, we listen, seek to understand and support our internal and external constituencies as we consider the optimum decisions for the children we serve.

Yet amid all of this important dialogue, we seldom find ways to engage students in the conversation. We constantly talk about them, but rarely with them. We often see students as our work product rather than producers of their own learning.

As a superintendent often removed from the daily activities of students, I became concerned about my growing reliance on principals and teachers for information related to how to best serve our students. While their reports are certainly valuable, they are the perspectives of adults, shaped by years of school experience. They typically lack the freshness and honesty of the child who is personally experiencing this journey of schooling for the first time. I wanted to empathize with our children and get a glimpse of the world through their eyes.

Conversation Starter
To acquire firsthand knowledge about school from those experiencing it, I found ways to include students in these important conversations. I formed a superintendent’s advisory council at the high school, shadowed students at the middle schools and convened lunch groups with students at the elementary level.

My high school advisory groups met once a month and were facilitated by students. Initially, the group consisted of a few students who served as an advisory council to me, discussing topics of my choice. Four years later, the group had evolved into one that generated its own areas of focus and, depending on the group or topic, chose to engage in deep levels of dialogue, research and problem solving.

Through this process, I discovered that the more freedom I gave students to choose and facilitate the nature of the dialogue, the more authentic the discussion became. Topics generated by the students included competition, grades and class rank, stress, drug use, eating disorders, school pride, guidance services, athletics, and race, ethnicity and social status. The more I listened, the more I learned.

At the middle school level, I found it particularly helpful to shadow students. This was at a time when our classrooms and hallways were overcrowded and the experience of following a student through his or her schedule was invaluable. I experienced firsthand the discomfort of a large algebra classroom where many questions went unanswered. I witnessed the typical occurrence of someone tripping as a mass of 7th-grade bodies tried to navigate a heavily congested hallway. I struggled through a full morning with an 8th grader without time for a bathroom break.

The middle school students I shadowed helped me appreciate what it is like to have little control over your daily schedule, spend the whole day inside and spend more than half of the lunch period waiting in line for a hot lunch. The students also reminded me of the joy of simple things, like a special teacher, a friend in the next class and a favorite subject.

I also learned a great deal through my conversations with elementary students. As a former high school teacher, I was amazed at how thoughtful and articulate the 4th- and 5th-grade students could be. During lunch conversations across all eight elementary schools, similar themes emerged. These themes typically related to what I called “schooling conditions,” such as lunchroom practices, school rules and homework policies. I also heard some thoughtful commentary on students’ desire to do more problem/project-based learning and to grow more independent as learners.

Making Meaning
My conversations with students helped me reflect on my leadership and the nature of schooling. I believe schools should first and foremost be places where democratic principles are valued and practiced. It is therefore my responsibility as superintendent to model democratic behavior by including the student voice.

My efforts to learn from students and to understand their unique schooling experiences have helped shape my planning, priority setting and decision making. For example, in hearing high school students’ concerns about social segregation among ethnic groups, we devised a student-led cultural-sharing experience in classrooms. When our middle school students expressed concern about the nature and magnitude of homework assignments, we examined and refined our practices. At the elementary level, when students reported frustration with their shortened daily physical education classes, we revised our master schedule.

In many ways, the time spent listening to students grounded me as a superintendent. It helped me reflect on what I believe is most important — the child’s journey through school. It helped me strengthen my vision for creating democratic schools that work well for all children: Schools that include students in the conversations shape their learning and their lives.

Mary Herrmann is superintendent in Winnetka, Ill. E-mail: