Great leadership is inclusive leadership, yet the largest stakeholder group in schools is often forgotten: students. Students are 92% of the population at most every school site. To be a leader, you have to lead 100% of the population, not just the 8% who look like you.
Wonder where the future leaders of education will come from? They sit in front of us everyday. Thinking that “school” doesn’t understand who they are. Wondering what their role will be in changing the world. Wishing that someone would give them the opportunity to make a difference.
Students can be leaders of the future by being leaders today. Leadership lessons cannot be learned in a vacuum. Including students in every aspect of school can be done if caring adults make it a priority. Students can learn to teach others, be on real decision-making committees, provide services like tech support, or run for the school board. Students who take on real and important responsibility learn to trust themselves as they show they can be trusted. Empowerment isn’t something you “do” to people; it’s an outcome of being valued, respected, and listened to. Adults can learn to see young people in a new light as essential partners in creating better learning opportunities for all.
Enabling youth voice in K-12 schools isn’t simple. Once empowered, young people might not say or do what you expect. It takes time to teach them how to speak their minds effectively and to work collaboratively. And they keep growing up and leaving, so the effort never ends. Youth voice is about much more than listening to young people, although that’s a start. It’s about long-term commitment to action, because in action, young people find their voice.
I’m not talking about the kind of token youth panel you see at educational conferences, where students who can be counted on to say acceptable things are trotted out for an hour. Everyone nods and feels good about listening to youth voice, and then lunch is served while the kids are conveniently bused back from whence they came.
Ignoring youth leadership potential is a lose-lose situation. We lose their input, convince them we don’t care, and miss the teachable moment. We enable dependence in youth by not allowing them to participate in the process of school decision making. We create alienation and then blame young people for not caring. The curtailing of student press freedom and the blocking of online discussion creates fewer opportunities for young voices to be heard in every avenue and fewer opportunities to practice these skills.
Leaders of today should be worried about where the leaders of tomorrow will learn how to be informed, involved citizens of the world. Those of us who believe that modern technology is a key to changing schools also know that this digital generation has more direct experience with technology than any other group. They could be powerful allies and advocates–if adults make the choice to listen and provide expertise as needed. When students aren’t included in the effort to improve education, we lose more than their technical know-how; we lose the opportunity to shape the leaders of tomorrow.