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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ericka Johnson-Allen

Clear and Present Displacement of Student Voice

Before the pandemic I found myself traveling more than ever. But most importantly due to my frequent flying, I had the opportunity to meet new people and learn from others. On one flight in particular, I sat beside a young man who appeared to be in his mid 30’s. He struck up a conversation which led to the typical, “So what do you do?” Of course, I shared my role and my passion for education. He explained that he has a very lucrative company and business was good. He went on to describe his school experience. He owns a company that specializes in building mechanical parts for large machinery. After giving me the rundown of his success, he further delineated that he was held back in grade school and was not expected to graduate from high school. He was “at-risk” and did not see how school benefited him. However, he always loved to work with his hands, building and creating things, but this option was never afforded to him in school. He shared how it was very difficult for him to “sit and get”. He did not get to use his hands much, so he saw school as boring and irrelevant in his life.

As an educator my heart was shook! How disheartening to hear that schools had failed this child who grew up to be a respectable successful adult. That’s when I realized that the greatest danger in our schools is children without a voice. Your voice is your essence. It is your verbal identity; it sets you apart. I began to consider the link between a child’s voice and innovation. I’m sure that if an adult at the school would have taken the time to build a relationship with this young man, then he would have shared what he needed to be successful. We have a clear and present displacement of innovation. When we look at schools today, they are very similar to schools of yesteryear. The voice of our students has been displaced.

Innovation can be accomplished simply by creating a non-threatening learning environment. Students need to be free to be free. Free to be able to create their own world, the world where they are comfortable. Let’s face it, the achievement gap has consistently remained for the last 50 plus years, yet not much has changed in education. Is it really necessary for every student to sit at a desk during a lecture? Do we even need “lectures” as we know them? Insanity is when you keep doing what you have been doing but expect a different outcome. Innovation is transformative. The implementation of ideas to introduce something new. Education and innovation do not seem to be related, at best distant cousins. The optics for most learning spaces is dull and dated? This does not prepare our students for careers. Have you checked out high-performing corporate work environments? If you haven’t, please explore. At least 30 % of the staff in my district have standing desks because it is what works for them. Educators, let go and let students be free. Freedom breeds innovation.

Allow students to use their voices. Reflect on engagement rates during COVID. Only 15 percent of high school students never logged in. Nationwide, just 9 percent of teachers reported that “nearly all” of their students regularly completed distance learning activities, and most teachers reported that no more than half of students did so. Students used their voices to let us know that they were choosing not to participate. While you had many circumstances and considerations in each family. Many students decided not to participate in virtual learning, even though their parents chose a virtual option. Why is that? I believe students were finally allowed to express themselves. They were free to be free and they shouted from the mountaintops, “Your classes are not interesting, and I have decided to spend my time doing something more meaningful to me.” Rather students chose to play video games, socialize in chat rooms, sleep, and anything else they deemed engaging. If you did not hear them, please understand. Our children want more. They want us to engage in their world, they

want to be innovative and share new things with us. I have discovered that we have the most innovative people in the world in our school buildings, our students and young teachers. Lean on them. So, to every educator reading this: Shut up and listen to your children, you just might learn what true innovation looks like. I challenge you to give students a voice. If you can build relationships with students and they begin to allow you inside of their world, a free flow of innovation can occur. Yes, students need teachers, but teachers need students too.

Innovativeness involves risk-taking, the will to try something new. If you want to know more about being innovative in schools ask the kids, take the opportunity to learn something from them.

Dr. Ericka Johnson-Allen is renowned for her unparalleled work in leadership and school transformation. Known for her Imagine That School Transformation Model she consistently produces double-digit student growth in 1 year. Dr. EJA currently serves as a superintendent for ResponsiveEd where she oversees nearly 20 schools throughout Texas, and CEO and Founder of Imagine That Consulting. She is co-host of Vulnerable Voices, a weekly podcast where she has real conversations with real leaders, about issues in the Black community.

Comments or Questions? Want to share your educational experience with COVID? I cordially invited you to reach out! All respectful, on-topic comments are welcome.

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