Student Voice

Know better … Do Better … Listening to Student Voice

Want to build back better? Listen to student voice. Students are in class all day every day.  Their wisdom will astound you.  And hopefully change you for the better.  

Those are some of the take-aways from this interview with Jenn McDermott, Director of Innovative Initiatives for University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership.  

Learning from Students

Larry:  I have long been a fan of listening to students.  How do you get past the logistics and privacy issues?

Jenn:  Students are the experts in regard to their own experience.  Our goal was to work with students to create a student experience guide.  And we decided kids should write it.  We did not start with a survey … we wanted to listen … really listen to students.  Principals nominated a diverse group of students for focus groups.  And we asked them about their experience in schools.  

One young elementary immigrant student told us that “My favorite day of school was my birthday when everybody said Happy Birthday to me.  I wish that happened every day. No one said hello to me, before.”

We heard 50-60 stories and then did a word search to find the big ideas. Those ideas help us create a composite story based.  Then another groups of students – grades 2 to 12 – read the story and told us what matched their experience.  

Happy and Proud

It came down to two words … Happy and Proud.  That is what the students wanted from school.

Adults thought students would say achievement and safety.  That is a really different connotation than what the students told us.  We realized, Oh, this is a barrier, if we create student experience based on what we think.  

None of the kids talked about safety. They talked about belonging. Safety from adults had that sense of monitoring.

Larry:  So what do we do to help students be happy and proud?

Jenn:  Students described being happy and proud as feeling a sense of accomplishment, belonging, excitement, respect, and confidence.  We wanted to know more from the students about the supports and barriers.  

Heroes and Villains

A colleague suggested that heroes and villains is a structure easily understood by students of all ages.  So we asked students, Who helps you become accomplished and belonging?  Who are your heroes?  Who are your villains?  And they told more stories

They told us that Heroes were often: positive feedback, friends, communications, stretch breaks, resources, recess, books, art, custodians. I love that custodians are some of their heroes.

Who were their Villains? Procrastination, bus rides, misunderstanding, bathrooms, bullies, burnout.  These were examples of what kept them from being happy and proud.

Happy and Proud were universal across all the stories.  But Heroes and villains varied … they were more individual.  If I get bulled at recess, recess is not a hero for me.  But if I get to be with my friends, recess is a hero for me.  Lunchrooms were heroes for some, villains for others.  Students wanted adults to know it depends on each student’s experience in school. 

A Guide to Unpacking the Student Experience

Larry:  You said earlier that you wanted students to write the guide.  How did that come about?

Jenn:  We could have written a logical, linear report but we wanted this to come from kids.  We asked kids about colors and shapes that represent their experiences.  Students reviewed their stories.  Then they described their hopes and dreams and what helped … and hurt.  We asked what colors and shapes represent what they wanted to share.  Finally, we asked them to draw a picture of the school experiences that make them happy and proud.  

What emerged was: 

  • A circle to represent their experience 
  • A ladder or a triangle indicating what they were reaching for 
  • At the top of the triangle … a star with a heart inside.  Students said the heart and the star had to go together.  They couldn’t be separated.  We don’t want to go for happy OR proud.  We want to go for happy AND proud.
  • A student running … a kid with a cape … like a super-hero.  
  • And sometimes, they said, there’s a line that separates me from the Heart and Star.
  • Sometimes clouds come through and rain on me.  

They wanted the image to show both the hope and the things that might keep them from being happy and proud.

Student’s Advice for Adults

Larry:  Students seemed to like this idea of giving advice to the adults.

Jenn:  Yes, they had specific advice for us as adults.  They wanted adults to know (In large font) that, This is NOT an assignment. Don’t turn this into a student survey.  Don’t turn this into norms in the classroom.  This is about listening to us and our experience in schools.  

This is great advice about what it means to really be a listener versus a teacher.  Being a listener not just the principal.  Hear us.  Keep listening.  

Kids shared questions that we might ask students in our classrooms:  

  • Who are your heroes who help you have the best experience?
  • Who are your villains?

Use the guide and invite us to tell our story: 

  • What does the blue circle mean to you and what is inside the circle?  
  • I feel like I can’t get above the line.

Using the Guide to Engage Educators

Larry:  This seems like a blinding glimpse of the obvious.  And this approach is so doable. It takes away some of the barriers like recording and student privacy. And it is such a great inquiry approach. 

Jenn:  As we worked with districts in the Yakima superintendent’s network, we asked educators how they could engage students in talking about the student experience in school.  

That opened the door to a lot of questions.  Who do we talk to … and WHY?   How do you talk to students of color?  How do we talk to our students who are invisible to us?  Kids who fall under the radar?  We don’t know them.  How do we talk to them?

Teachers could totally do it now.  Principals wondered, do I call a student to my office, or go search them out?  District administrators wanted to know if they should bring students to the central office?  

One school decided to talk to current 9th graders who had not yet even been to the high school due to the pandemic.  We were just trying to find out what kids were saying and learn more about their experience in school.  

Eye Opening

One school leader said, I’ve been here for years, I know the kids the families. Now I see that I “know of them.” I don’t really know the students from their perspective.  That is a big learning.  

Another teacher said, This makes students the experts for their own experience

One middle school female told us that her villain was embarrassment, and her hero was recognition.  What a powerful thing to know about a student.

These quotes stick with me … the profundity of the students and how nuanced it is.

Do I really understand my kids?

Larry:  What have learned in the process?

Jenn:  We learning new ways of understanding students … how to talk, ask, listen. 

This process of talking to students interrupts our adult behaviors, our assumptions, our desire to be the fixer.  None of the kids said, We want you to fix this.  We want you to listen, just ask.

One of the barriers we discovered for adults was, Okay, I listened to kids now what do I do?  

As adults work through this process, they move from, I think I understand my kids to, I wonder if I really do understand my kids?

If we LISTEN to kids … it will change US

Our Theory of Action is … If we LISTEN to kids truly … it will change us.  And therefore we will work differently to change the kids experience.  

It will change our perceptions and the way we work and do things.  We will “see” students and (maybe) the obstacles we put in the way with our own teaching.  “I’m going to stop doing that.  I am going to do this differently.”

This is not about fixing the problem

Which is different from the solutions that we put in place.  It is hard to break the tendency to … create a cultural club … or just try to fix the problem.  We want to pause and ask, What are students telling us about what we are doing?  

We need more examples of how teachers are making this shift.  

People understand it intellectually.  But we are so trained as educators to engineer kids toward outcomes.  NCLB, Common Core Standards, Accountability are all geared toward knowing and engineering.  Now we are told there is a new way of knowing, that students hold the answers.  We are learning new ways of knowing.

Figuring out what students need

It is really hard to step back and ask what student want.  And why. To ask, How am I the barrier?  That’s really different than how we typically work as educators.

We are figuring that out.  We think this cyclical power of listening will change us as educators … which will then change our experience … because I will have been changed.  

That is what is we did to help people get started.  Figure out the logistics.  And then PAUSE. Don’t DO anything.  Just listen.  Ask, What does it say about us … not the kids … but what does it say about us …and then what are each going to do differently?

We have been taught not to listen to kids.  Or to do so only in this limited way. To do a survey.  But when we do that, we put our biases into the survey.  Now we are trying to find out what we do that creates the barriers.  

Recovering Knower

Larry:  I like to think of myself as a learner.  But I have to admit I want to find the right answer so I can share it with everyone.  This is exciting, what you are learning.  It is about a new way of learning and knowing that is centered on our students. 

Jenn:  This his humbling work.  The big learning for me is about the adult agenda for kids.  When we do research, survey kids or do focus groups it is still an adult agenda.  We come up with the questions.  Yes, we have to ask Qs to start the conversation.  How do we do that without shaping the agenda? 

This is really different. Being present and ready.  Letting students describe the way they want to be in school.  It is humbling in its simplicity.  The people we need to ask are right here in our classrooms.  We have learned to confer. But even that is engineered.

A new way of being

We have to leave our adult agenda at the door.  Be fully present.  Give agency to students.  This is what Maxine Green was trying to teach us all those years ago at Teacher’s College.  The answers are right here in our classrooms.

Larry:  Thank you, Jenn, for sharing your great inquiry work.  This is about agency and voice. Giving power back to teachers and students.  Building back better based on what our student experts are telling us.  People like you keep pointing the way to new learning.  If we can get over our quick fix mentality, it is amazing what we can do with good inquiry, listening to students, and letting them lead the way.

UW/CEL works to transform schools empowering all students regardless of background to create Limitless Futures for themselves, their families, their communities and the world. 

For the last year Jenn McDermott has headed this inquiry project around student voice, student learning and “The Student Experience.”  To learn more about the Student Experience Story Guide see this blog on the University of Washington Center for Education Leadership web site.

Posted in
Larry Nyland speaking

Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: | 425-418-4398 |