Equity in Education Starts with Student Voice
By David Edelman
Proactive teachers can always find ways to mobilize students and fellow colleagues towards a commitment to change. But one of the greatest challenges facing teachers is that we are often working in isolation and don’t have the time or support to collaborate effectively across classrooms to best support students.
As a teacher leader staffed as a Peer Collaborative Teacher (PCT), I use my own classroom as a lab to support teachers by developing and demonstrating new instructional strategies for my colleagues. I focus my coaching schedule to support teachers learning goals, improve collaboration and raise student achievement. During my time as an educator, I have learned a great deal about how to work with students thanks to strong partnerships with other educators and school leaders.
Without knowing it, one specific student taught me how to encourage teacher collaboration and foster buy-in around learning from each other. Kira, an 11th grader at my school with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), is skilled in listening and can write but struggles with verbal communication. She is kind and a hard worker. Everyone wants to see Kira succeed. So when I approached other teachers in my grade team about how Kira could read out loud and demonstrate active listening, but when it came time to respond, verbally or in writing, she faltered, other teachers corroborated this and wanted to do more to support her. In collaboration with my colleagues, my teaching assistant and her speech therapist, we decided to focus on his notetaking and comprehension skills as a way to help her communicate his ideas and the ideas of others.
By the end of the meeting, all her teachers agreed to push this in their classrooms, to continue to check in about her progress, and were also interested in visiting each others’ classrooms to look at her classwork to identify what worked well and what didn’t work as well. As a result, teachers that often isolate themselves collectively developed expertise in several strategies and tools that allowed her to contribute more to classroom discussion and allowed us to better assess her understanding in class.
From this experience, I learned that by grounding teacher talk around an individual student and her specific learning needs, teachers often become proactive, willing to invest their time and energy into conversation and are more eager to engage in learning opportunities like intervisitations that build teachers’ capacity to serve students. Ideally, perhaps in high school, the students themselves should be the ones developing solutions to the difficult issues that arise in their schooling. If we want equity in schools, we need to tap the abilities and wisdom of students.
An unfortunate side effect of multiple stakeholders being involved in a student’s IEP process is that student’s voice is often diminished or lost. Several students frustrated by our school’s culture around IEP development helped us design an action plan that tapped the success of our PGC (Peer Group Connections) program, which teaches juniors how to lead once a week classes for freshman about being more successful in High School. Our PCT facilitators worked to develop and lead workshops for all students about best practices to advocate for your educational needs relating to various scenarios students encounter within high school. The workshops also allow all participants to role play, reflect on the needs of others and strategize how to beat serve as allies and advocates. We were fortunate to have several seniors with IEPs who served as PGC facilitators the prior year speak to students specifically about how to advocate for their educational needs and lead an IEP meeting.
Staff members, including myself, are now working with these facilitators to refine planning documents and tools that would support students in our school in leading meetings and how to best communicate with our staff. We have also identified another school in the city we would like to visit to learn more about how students take ownership over the IEP process and their learning needs.
In every school system, myriad adults are working tirelessly on behalf of students, but the students themselves should never be left out of conversations about their own academic achievement. When teachers facilitate student voice, it empowers all of the individuals involved, and in my experience also strengthens teacher teams in the pursuit of more equitable and successful teaching and learning.
David Edelman is a Peer Collaborative Teacher at Union Square Academy for Health Sciences in New York City, where he provides instructional coaching, facilitates professional learning opportunities for staff and teaches high school classes in Social Studies, Economics, Participation in Government and AP U.S. History. A 2015–2017 National Teacher Fellow with Hope Street Group, he has been serving with the organization’s first Teacher Advisory Council since June 2017. Follow him on Twitter via @DaveEdelman.