The State of Student Voice. My Thank You Letter

Students. Kids. Young Adults.

Yes, they are words used to describe the people we teach every single day, but these words do not do justice to who or what they are.

Leader. Energy. Passion. Curiousity. Entrepreneur. New Frontier.

These words come to mind when I think about the people that enter our schools five days a week and sometimes six.

I had the luxury and privilege to meet up with six students(seven when we all arrived as the Maurer Mobile could not hold seven) early on Saturday morning to depart on a three hour drive to Waukee High School for RISE.

Yes, it was early on a Saturday morning, but their shoulders were not slumped. They were not complaining(we did stop right away for coffee). Instead as they wiped the sleep from their eyes they were already permeating an energy that only youth can exude.

For three hours they talked. We talked. We laughed. We questioned. We challenged. We just were………. well, human beings.

People.

We did not have to adhere to school roles, rules, and a false sense of a leveled power struggle. We could just talk and be ourselves. We were in a fluid environment where we were talking issues together and cohesively.

When we arrived in Waukee for the RISE conference we were joined by 150 other students who were ready to share, connect, collaborate, and confirm that indeed they could have their voices heard and actions implemented.

The conference as always was a success due to the hard work of the ISLI team and amazing students like Ian Coon. You can check out all the details of the conference in the link, but I want to shift the focus to what matters most – the power of voice to change the world.

I don’t know how to convey the ideas in my mind right now. This is going to be a spew of my ideas, emotions, and concepts I am trying to process.

Education is a rollercoaster ride as an educator. There are ups and downs. Days when you see the breakthrough in learners that keep you coming back. Days when you feel like all your work is for naught and you question whether or not this is really the lifestyle for you. You question the sacrifices made to your own family and kids. You question is it worth it? You question many things.

As I walked, talked, listened, tweeted, and simply observed the magic of learners at work I was challenged in my own thoughts and reminded why I am an educator.

There was a small moment in the day. It was the last session and in my session where I laid the groundwork for learners to rethink high school. At this point in the day many were done. They were tired. Their brains hurt. They had been thinking about what matters to them all day. Yet, here were learners from elementary through seniors rethinking education and what it means for their schools and their life.

My group of students were there working and at one point in their conversation they asked me half jokingly and probably just to rest their own brains:

“What do you want to do when you grow up? What do you want to do with your life?”

This very question we ask learners, our own children, and others came back and hit me like a ton of bricks. My first quick response is that I am doing what I want to do. I love my job. I am right where I want to be.

And yet when I said that I felt like that was not the right answer. It did not feel right. It did not taste right like orange juice after brushing your teeth. Even more, the looks on their faces told me that this was perhaps a disappointing answer. It was not intentional. I don’t think they even realized this small sense of panic I instantly felt. I felt like I shattered some hope in their own dreams by not giving them a mind blowing answer. But, perhaps in that simple answer I did.

They asked if I was going to be an administrator. I said no, that is not in my life plan. I just don’t have that calling in my soul. As I thought about the question when I walked away to let them get back to their work, I had to stop. What do I want to do with my life?

Is this it? There is that moment when you just don’t know how to process the world. On one end what I am doing is what I love. I love getting up at 4 am and doing work until 6 before heading to school all day to only come home and do more work at night when the kids are off to bed(this is serious and not sarcastic). I often think many people including people in the profession forget how much learning and growing occurs as an educator. We don’t flatline, but we constantly should be challenging our approaches, our thoughts, ideas, and connections to the world of education. On the other end, I started thinking, “Is this it?” Is this where I am going to be for the next 30-40 years? Should I be satisfied?

I don’t know. I feel like I am back to my youth where I have no idea about life and the future and what it holds.

Another breakthrough for me came when a student had a revelation. I have worked with this amazing student for a few years now through various projects, clubs, and activities. Today I witnessed a transformational moment. For reasons that I don’t know this student connected. The student found a moment where things clicked. This student approached me inspired, HYPED(student word of the day), and ready to move from voice to agency and action. We are going to connect next week to develop the plan of action to help make it happen.

This moment filled my heart with joy. In an instant I was reminded about the power of human connection. I was reminded about the importance of the human soul and being able to grow organically with one another to reach our goals and find our purpose in life. This student had this moment. As an educator, I can be a platform to help the student reach their goal in a positive manner. This made the entire trip worth it.

As I drove home late at night after a day of collaborating and connecting and viewing the film Most Likely To Succeed my head was filled with so many thoughts, questions, rethinking of my own beliefs, and the state of student voice and education.

As I listened to six students from middle school and high school blare a massive mixtape of songs, belting out their voices in unison, holding conversations between the drum solos while also texting, I was reminded that there is a generation of hope. There is a generation of doers. Students who are not waiting for the “real world” as they are already in it. Students who don’t only want to change the system, but actually are changing the system.

They view themselves as normal. They don’t realize that the things they are doing are above the bar. They are different. They are powerful. They are the movers and shakers not waiting to be an adult as often is the message given to them because they have so much to learn(well the message is given, but the culture stops them). Well, darn-it, even adults have “so much to learn” and perhaps we should flip the school model like RISE does. Instead of adults running the show, creating the parameters, and telling others what to do, flip it. Today I sat aside and watched students create a schedule, make food, speak the keynotes, invite new thoughts to adults, create new ideas on the spot, question the system, come up with new plans while adults sat and listened.

And it was amazing. Not amazing, but transformational.

I am moved not only as an educator, but as a human being who is part of this society. I am inspired by the passion of our youth. Whether it is passion for the greatest drummers, video games, lyrics, coffee, school, voice, college, or whatever is the pressing issues of the moment. When you can bring this passion together and fuse it with education and their future I see hope. I see change for the better. I see things happening before my time is over.

This is a thank you letter to the students who changed me today. This is a thank you to the parents who have helped raise a generation of youth who are not afraid to think, to take action, and have the belief in themselves to attack their fears and questions. This is a thank you to the schools who are willing to listen. This is a thank you to the schools who are not willing to listen as you will soon see why you made a mistake. This is a thank you to the students once again for being yourself and not being afraid to embrace the most important element of being alive – your soul!

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Now, I am off to walk my dog, play babies with my four year old, and smile and laugh with my 8 and 10 year as we play apps, shoot hoops, and talk about whatever is important to them in the moment with hopes that one day they turn out to be like the six amazing examples in the Maurer Mobile and the hundred of others who gave me hope for life, education, and sticking to the course of being an educator.

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