I am sure I speak for most educators, or perhaps most of society, when I say our hearts are heavy this weekend. We don’t have to search far to find a friend or colleague influenced by Trump’s US policy discriminating against people based on their ethnicity. I have read about friends whose vacation plans or business trips have been cancelled. I have watched in dismay as the news covers heart breaking stories of innocent people being detained for no reason other than their race. It seems like a bad movie: one we don’t want to watch but cannot escape.
How did this happen? How did a nation so strong and talented find itself with a leader motivated by hate? It happened because people stopped listening. It happened because it was no longer ok for the voices of the leaders, the voices of the successful and the voices of elite to speak for an entire nation. It happened because those whose voices were not heard had equal opportunity to vote, and voted for change.
While we stand back and watch, thankful that our own country welcomes and celebrates inclusion and diversity, we should also look at our systems and ask ourself: Do all voices matter? Perhaps we do not discriminate on race, but do we truly value all?
I had an interesting conversation this week with an amazing new teacher, Stephanie Charboneau. She is passionate about her grade seven students and articulated schools well when she said: “Every student deserves to have their voice heard. The leaders already have a voice – it’s the others that don’t, that’s where we need to listen”. How incredibly astute of a brand new teacher. I have re-played her comment in my head and it rings so true.
As a school principal, I am often asked to have students speak: students to welcome guests to our school, students to speak to trustees, students to represent our school on district committees. And like most principals and teachers, I have often chosen the leaders: students who succeed in school, speak eloquently and often maintain the status quo. But perhaps there is a fundamental error here. Perhaps, if we dig a little bit deeper into our schools, we will learn more from those who approach school with a critical eye.
Melissa Fuller, also a wonderful grade 7 teacher, brought a student to my office last week so we could brainstorm solutions. This particular student was avoiding music class because of his anxiety. I asked him to imagine his perfect day at school and describe it to me. A bit surprised, he told me he likes three things: video games, youtube and Netflix. I asked if he also liked making videos, to which he replied yes. I suggested he watch music videos and prepare a presentation about music. He told me that was stupid. He replied and said “There is only one video I will make about school: and that’s a video about why this school sucks.” He was a bit shocked when I told him that is fabulous and I can’t wait to see it. While I am sure some people are reading this thinking that this child is getting away with not going to music, you are right. That is happening. But in the bigger scheme of things, this child is getting a voice. He is getting an opportunity to do something he likes, an opportunity to have a voice, and an opportunity to share a perspective we don’t often hear from. I let him know that I may show his video at a staff meting as I am genuinely interested in finding ways for our staff to connect with every learner. His insight may bring attention to things we should address.
What can we learn from the parent who has negative associations with school? What can we learn from the child who fails to thrive? What can we learn from the quiet student who sits back and observes? Perhaps these are not the ones who desire the opportunity to stand up and speak, but they deserve the right to feel heard, accepted and valued. Our school district, SD42 Maple Ridge / Pitt Meadows, prides itself on inclusion of all learners. Our district wide vision is for all individuals to feel valued and for every learner to reach their full potential. I am proud of this vision, but this weekend in particular, I recognize that this means we need to make sure every voice matters.
High schools, by nature of their structure, often have channels for student voice: student council, leadership, class discussions, etc. Teenagers certainly have a way of expressing how they really feel, regardless of whether you ask them or not. Elementary schools, also by nature of their structure do not invite student voice as often. The younger the children, the more likely the adults make the rules. However, I have yet to meet a school aged child who can’t articulate what they like and don’t like. It’s time we start listening. Young or old, successful or failing to thrive, every one of us deserves to be treated with dignity, simply because we are all equal. For schools and society to flourish, we need to recognize that all voices matter.