How to stay connected with students (and stay young)

Listening and elevating student voice can help all of us succeed
By: | Issue: March 2020
February 7, 2020
(Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash)(Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash)

Longtime educator Michael Niehoff writes on transformational leadership and professional development.

Lazy, disrespectful, irresponsible, lacking a work ethic. It seems that every generation repeats these words about younger people.

Why? It could be that older folks just don’t understand them. They remember things one way, and anything that deviates from that is bad.

As a longtime educator and leader, I’m here to dispel the notion that our young people are anything less than their parents or grandparents. 

When I graduated from high school in the ’80s, I never knew one of my peers to volunteer for community service. Some 20 years later, I watched as hundreds of my students partnered with charitable organizations, raising money and community awareness. Now, I see them starting their own companies, establishing nonprofits, creating websites and blogs, and becoming activists who truly impact the world. 


Read: How civics inspires students to get involved


It’s our duty as educators to advocate for young people and always work to find the best in them. And we should not only find the best, but promote it, celebrate it and appreciate it. 

It’s our duty as educators to advocate for young people and always work to find the best in them.

Here are six tips for staying connected to your students—while keeping your administrative processes fresh and your outlook more youthful. 

  1. Talk to students regularly and ask questions. It seems simple right? We should be having conversations with our students anytime we can—about school or anything we normally discuss in public and professional situations. If you haven’t done this often, it may take a while for students to believe you actually care and are listening. But it’s worth the effort to understand them and their concerns. It matters.
  2. Involve students in governance and decision-making. Students have great ideas, so ask for their opinions. This can be done formally with surveys and feedback, or personally in focus groups and more. When I was a high school site leader, I included students in all interview panels. Indeed, when we had close and competitive interviews for teachers, finalists competed by leading a class and getting student feedback. 
  3. Give students more leadership roles. How can we elevate the student voice in our school settings and beyond? When I was a student activities director and leadership teacher, I didn’t emcee many events. The students did. I didn’t run event planning meetings. They did. As a principal, I had students come to professional development gatherings to inform us about their learning experiences and environment. Think about inviting students to professional learning communities and staff meetings.


    Read: Tips for increasing student voice


  4. Be a mentor. Young people are always seeking mentors beyond their families and immediate circles. Your influence will have more long-term impact than any curriculum. Being a mentor is not about telling young people what to do, but rather getting to know and supporting them.

  5. Spend time with students inside and outside school. Yes, we have class time, project work, practices and rehearsals. But what about unstructured time? Open up your room or space at lunch, and they will come. I always loved taking students to competitions or other events. That’s when you learn a lot about who they are. Good educators, especially leaders, will find ways to connect with young people where they work, socialize, serve, gather and live.
  6. Listen to their music. One of my best personal memories is when my late grandfather took an interest in my music. I was a 14-year-old aspiring hard rocker, and he made an effort to listen and ask questions. I’m sure he didn’t appreciate the music, but he tried, and that mattered. If we dismiss students’ music, we dismiss them. Talking with students about music, I learned there was always something creative and relevant in it, and it was another way to connect. 

Our young people deserve our respect. Demonstrating our faith in them is fundamental to their development. Let’s forget about antioxidants and vitamin supplements to stay young. Rather, let’s get to know our students and stay connected to them.


Longtime educator Michael Niehoff writes about transformational leadership and PD.