Learning from Learners

Elevating Student Leadership

What a privilege it is to be a teacher and school leader. For me, at the heart of this is empowering and enabling students to see themselves as leaders. When I started out teaching I realised pretty quickly that I found my happy place in those moments when you observe others finding their groove, grasping a new concept, ecstatic with a new idea, empowered to act, whatever you envisage when you think of that ‘aha’ moment of joy that leads to something more. So, naturally as I moved into different roles in teaching and learning and into the role of School Principal I continued to find ways in which to be fully engaged with others in helping them grow as leaders. What I had not anticipated was just how impactful the experience of working with student leaders would be.

I have observed so much about leadership, collaboration, motivation and being a team from working with various groups of students over the years. Here are just five of those memorable student leadership moments and what they taught me.

That time we had assembly scheduled for 08.35 the next morning and no plan in place at 15.45 the day before….

Picture the scene a slightly dehydrated, tired, distracted school principal meeting with an energy super-charged group of second graders after school for their regular Student Council meeting. The thinking had been that a plan would be in place for the assembly outline, students would write some ideas and script so they had an idea about what to say. We would rehearse and prepare ready for the morning. In reality – the plan was not sketched out at all, the idea had not really been thought through and the group were not yet clear about their purpose.

My learning – sometimes we need to lean into our team-mates, our colleagues, our group members to lead and take charge and really let go of the belief that only we can figure it out or pull it together.

The time when a student voice sets forth a vision and mission……

I used to stand on the school gate welcoming families each day and a new student in Grade 2 had just joined the community. We would chat in the mornings as he arrived and then one day he announced that we needed an environmental group to get everyone to clean up and ‘behave better’ towards the environment. He reminded me every day about this need and mission and how he would like to be a founding member. He persisted and spoke with passion and enthusiasm. He kept me on my toes to help him take some action. This all happened just as the pandemic hit so our physical bringing together the Eco School Leaders took some time but we got there in the end and what an amazing group of students and actions they engaged in!

My Learning – know your why, speak with conviction and seek out allies to enable action to be taken. It matters.

The moment when you are all planned for a whole school online assembly and then realise the students have other ideas….

Meeting agenda ready, slide-show outline prepped, planning for the morning mapped out – it was all sounding good for our Monday after school meeting. Students arrived, we began to delve into our agenda. Dissent amongst the members! “I thought about – I don’t like this.”, “I don’t want to do it this way.”, “I know we agreed last time but I changed my mind, how about this….” I observed as my vision for how the meeting was going to unfold unraveled, the planning became a giant jumble again and the slide show outline might as well be discarded. A sense of dismay and discomfort settled in as I realised these students wanted to rip all our previous planning apart and start over. In a moment of dejection I sat back, regrouped my thoughts and restrained myself from stepping in. I observed as they hashed out some big ideas. Initiated teams to work on different elements and ultimately created a much better plan and message than the slide show outline that had been prepped.

My Learning – Be willing to let go of your ideas, way of doing things and believe that others can elevate the collective vision and ideas.

The group of students who came to me believing that I had the power to enact their wishes…..

My desk and office where often a buzz with students dropping by with ‘to do lists’, ideas about how to improve, solutions to problems they observed and wishes for our school and community. In Grade 6, the students engage in the PYP Exhibition a culminating learning process where students work collaboratively to explore big ideas and concepts, and develop questions to delve into, that result in their taking action. A group of students arrived with a big idea and plan that involved physical changes to the school grounds – I attempted to ask probing questions, on reflection perhaps subconsciously hoping that they might lower their expectations about what was possible. It did not deter them. This group achieved what they set out to do, they were not put off by the many barriers and hurdles in their way and when they needed help they sought it out, independently and respectfully.

My Learning – Aim high, dream big and ask the questions everyone is afraid to ask.

That time when Student Council meetings became really rather boring……

Student Council meetings were a regular meeting routine in my diary, around 20 dedicated students meeting every week after school. We had a routine, we had an agenda, we had essential agreements, we were all really eager to contribute and take action. However we were all honestly a bit bored. Meetings had become mundane – our feelings, as vocalized by a 3rd grader, “I’m bored. This is boring.” We all felt it, and knew it. So what next? We dove into an inquiry to ask questions to generate some ideas and ‘what if’s’ to see how we could adapt and change. In the short term this led to changes in our meeting habits, in the long term it led to structural changes in our Student Council and the set up and timing of meetings.

My Learning – Be adaptable. Tune into the feelings of a group and rather than try to ‘fix’ things, ask questions to gather input to solve any issues together.

Finally, my biggest learning over the years is that peer to peer voice is truly powerful.

Students listen to other students. Engagement is higher when students have opportunities to be leaders in the room.

So, why not prioritize it more? What if we (schools) looked inwardly to not only seek out, but actively carve out opportunities for students to lead more often, more authentically and with more agency?

Multilingual Voices

We often hear and use phrases like ‘student agency’, ‘student voice’, ‘student action’ in our daily conversations about learning. I continue to be fascinated about language acquisition and growth; the factors that accelerate and foster this, and those that inhibit language development. In an international school community, in fact I would argue in the majority of school communities world-wide, our students are no longer from a single language experience or, in many cases, a single cultural experience. The reality is our students are more language rich than ever and exposed to a myriad opportunities to develop and grow lingustically as well as deepen their understanding of other languages and cultures. I am wondering how we leverage this rich language experience to enable students to really be able to fully express themselves. How do we ensure that language rich is not translated to ‘English Language rich’ in our international schools? How do we foster value in all languages as adding to learning rather than detracting from it?

Attending the ECIS (Educational Collaborative for International Schools) Multilingual Learners Week #ECISMLIE online provided a huge amount of insights, expertise and food for thought about best practices in bilingual multilingual language learning. It was such a valuable collection of voices sharing a range of experiences and best practices as we learn more and more about bilingual multilingual learners.

What are the conscious and subconscious messages we send as organisations and as individuals? When considering our learning environments and the language acquisition journey I wonder how we can make our beliefs visible in a more intentional way?

For example, I believe:

  • Language learning is a lifelong learning process, not a a finite destination we need to propel learners through.
  • Linguistic acquisition ability is not connected to nationality, nor is it all good or all bad, all easy or challenging, it just looks different for everyone.
  • Language learners should be encouraged to use all their languages, not be limited through negating their home language use in the classroom.
  • Learning environments should reflect the language experiences of the learners rather than the curriculum.

Four Action Ideas

  1. Stay current with research and support others in doing so, our student, teacher and parent community must know about language acquisition.
  2. Encourage a positive mindset towards language learning, role model, be honest and empathetic, celebrate successes and acknowledge when it is hard – most of all help each individual learner find their purpose.
  3. Embed translanguaging practices into learning and planning. Question and challenge teachers to think about learning purpose and design the practices needed to guide students to reach a specific learning outcome.
  4. Promote visible linguistic diversity in classrooms and throughout the school, value the use of many languages, for many purposes.

I hope to look back 12 months from now and be able to reflect on how I have taken further action to better foster multilingual voices. What action might you take in your context?

Openhouse – Online Learning

I had the pleasure of speaking with the Openhouse Team as part of a Webinar recently, connecting a range of global voices – we discussed the challenges and changes over the past year in regards to online/distance learning. Also on the panel were Allan Shaw, Principal of The Knox School in Melbourne, Saloni Todi, a first year Hong Kong University student, and Yashovardhan Poddar, co founder of Openhouse,

Openhouse is a learning community based in India with a bold mission centred around nurturing a better society for all.

“Our mission is to build a better society by creating powerful communities. We believe visionaries are not born but nurtured. So by redefining how the world learns, we empower students to become thinkers and leaders. Changing society, one child at a time…..”

Openhouse https://www.blog.openhouse.study/our-story

I was delighted to be part of this conversation, listen and learn from other perspectives, and explore how fostering a sense of community has helped support continued learning during this time. Grounding ourselves, and our students, in a shared learning community; one of acceptance, vulnerability and with a growth mindset have all been key. I loved learning about how this looked in different contexts and being inspired by these different voices. You can read more on the Openhouse blog – thanks Openhouse team!