Why educators must build trust to encourage student voice

'Kids have phenomenal ideas but no one’s listening'
By: | July 1, 2020
Ideas for student voice in schools include creating "social contracts" ion classrooms and writing narratives of difficult conversations. (GettyImages/ Klaus Vedfelt)Ideas for student voice in schools include creating "social contracts" ion classrooms and writing narratives of difficult conversations. (GettyImages/ Klaus Vedfelt)

When a student is willing to express concerns or difficult emotions, educational consultant and former administrator Rebecca Coda recommends that educators capture the conversation in a written narrative.

Then, the teacher should ask the students’ permission to read it at a faculty meeting, in class or at a similar school similar gathering., says Coda, author of Let Them Speak.

“Students actual words are what create change,” says Coda, who also co-founded Pushing Boundaries, a school consulting firm. “Kids have phenomenal ideas but no one’s listening.”

Schools can begin making more space for feedback by creating student voice teams. Individual teachers can also make “social contracts” with their students that spell out, for example, how the class will resolve conflict, says Coda.

More from DA: How to embed student voice throughout a district

When working with educators, some have expressed concerns that student voice equates to giving up control over the students. “You’re not giving up authority—you’re saying ‘I’m willing to listen, and if what you share is going to make us better at learning, then we’re all in.”

Student voice when schools reopen

Allowing students to have voice, and express their emotions, will be one way to make the transition back to school easier when buildings reopen for the new school year.

Students may have some have strong feelings to share about the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and the presidential election, she says.

However, teachers need to build up some trust with students before these difficult conversations can take place—in-person or online. Coda recommends teachers ask students about the history of their names and their hobbies and passions.

“They will begin to trust you and know the process won’t backfire on them so you can get to the really sensitive topics such as anti-racism,” Coda says.

More from DAHow student voice creates a diverse curriculum

Giving students voice in school and classroom decisions also helps them develop skills that should lead to more satisfying lives and careers.

“One thing that can unite us is student voice,” she says. “The goal is not to have kids pass standardized tests, the goal is that when they leave school, they’re going to lead a happy life and live it their way.”

But student voice must be acted on, she says,.