My first teaching job out of college was in an early childhood classroom for toddlers with multiple disabilities. What really hooked me on teaching, made me certain that this job was for me, even that this job was me, was watching (no, not just watching…being a part of…can I presume that I was actually helping?) those little ones communicate their first words. Whether that first utterance was through speech, sign language, or augmentative communication didn’t matter. It was the power of that first foray into student voice that inspired me. When I reflect over the 25 years since I walked into that toddler classroom, student voice has always been what’s kept me here.
The student voice I’ve supported has taken many different forms in the various classrooms I’ve taught. In that first class, it was the thrill of power that I saw in the eyes of the child who got to choose her own snack instead of having to take whatever was put in front of her. Even better was the power that came from that first defiant “NO!” that actually worked to stop some other kid, or possibly even adult, from bothering her. That’s what our voice is – power. Who are we without power? Personally, I know that I’m no one without it.
A few years later, I took a job in an inner city middle school as a special education teacher in a newly mainstreamed classroom during the years that Tennessee was closing almost all of its segregated special education schools and integrating the classrooms into neighborhood schools. As was the custom of the time, our room was put in a basement space with a separate entrance, bathroom, and even lunch schedule, so that our integration was in name only, except that, under the radar, some really incredible fifth grade teachers were willing to partner with us and include our kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities into their regular fifth grade classes.
One day, Marcus, one of my students, returned from his fifth grade class fired up from a lesson on the civil rights movement, fuming as he pointed out parallels between our situation there in the basement and what he had learned in class. I saw I wasn’t even going to get started on the lesson I’d planned for the day, so I encouraged him to use his indignation to write a letter to the school principal. His writing skills were limited and slow, and I had to help him with some spelling, but he was determined, and eventually finished the letter. I put it in the principal’s box in the mailroom, hoping the man would be able to decipher at least part of the message. The next day, Marcus was called to the principal’s office. I don’t know what was discussed, but within a week, our classroom was relocated to the regular fifth grade hall and our lunch schedule was changed to coincide with that of the other fifth graders. Literacy, I realized, was another powerful form of student voice, and I was privileged to get to teach it.
For the past few years, I’ve taught high schoolers who are identified as most at-risk for dropping out of school. In our intake meetings, these young people say that school just isn’t for them. They don’t feel part of our school culture. If it weren’t for strictly enforced truancy laws, they say they wouldn’t stay a single day. When questioned, they tell me they don’t really feel like anyone wants them at school in the first place, and no one cares what they think or feel about school, so they can’t figure out why everyone is so bent to make them show up every day.
Tomorrow, I’m taking a group of my students to participate in a student advisory council with our state Department of Education’s Office of Healthy, Safe and Supportive Schools. The Office asked to hear from “unheard voices” in our school, so we picked a group that represented a variety of those voices, including a young parent, an English Language Learner, a student with a strong vocational pathway, and even a couple of kids who just don’t want to be in school. The team of young people we selected said they couldn’t believe it when they were chosen. They said they had never had anyone ask their opinion before and have never been chosen for a council or team of any kind at school. Although they agreed to participate a few weeks ago when the opportunity was offered, a couple of them told me today that they might even chicken out and not show up tomorrow. It seems overwhelming. I hope that doesn’t happen. I’m just too curious to see what a little power might do.