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Agency among teachers and students

STRATEGY: Provide opportunities for teachers and students to show agency by leading activities, sharing needs, and providing input into school modernization practices.

To transform schools, input from teachers and students about the school modernization process is critical. Administrators and teachers must be aligned to successfully influence school culture and policies that positively influence student learning. Additionally, for changes to effectively be embraced, students must be given an authentic voice to provide input on the culture and policies that affect them every day. Meaningful adult-student partnerships are vital to positively change schools.

Beyond providing a practical benefit to initiatives, involving students empowers them to address complex issues, such as improving academic achievement; closing current engagement gaps in gender, class, and race; and creating a supportive learning environment for all students. Along the way, students learn about the education process and participate in ongoing reflection about learning and teaching alongside educators.


Teacher leadership is an asset in transforming schools and ultimately affects student learning. Examples of leadership roles for teachers:

  • Redesign curricula
  • Facilitate job-embedded professional learning for their colleagues.
  • Gather and use data from classroom- and school-based assessments to make informed decisions that improve learning for all students.
  • Promote ongoing collaboration with families, community members, business and community leaders, and other stakeholders to improve schools and expand opportunities for student learning.
  • Advocate for student needs at the policy level

Students can and should be engaged in every aspect of the education modernization process as well, although their roles will vary by age. Meaningful student involvement can inform how educators think about teaching, learning, and leadership in school improvement initiatives. It also makes learning relevant to students by providing an environment and context to apply their knowledge and skills. Examples of student involvement:

  • Provide input and feedback on projects, classes, and activities run by adults (e.g., purchase new furniture, choose new class schedule, or design new classroom spaces).
  • Initiate or direct projects, classes, and activities where adults have only supporting roles (e.g., create a student-run club or lead peer mediation).
  • Initiate projects where decision-making is shared with the adults (e.g., plan a fundraiser or find an internship partner).
  • Actively participate in research and evaluation of school initiatives (e.g., work alongside adults to design, execute, analyze, and write original reports about effectiveness of initiatives in improving their learning).

First Steps to Consider

  • Look for school projects, activities, and policies that are currently being modernized. Reach out to teachers and students for input and feedback on them.
  • Survey teachers and students to determine changes they are most interested in seeing for the school. Use this information to inform prioritization of reform efforts.
  • Develop regular structures that would include student and teacher voice in the modernization process. These structures could take many forms, including a student council, a teacher advisory board, or a faculty-student collaborative. Members should have authority to propose projects and work on them in addition to providing feedback on other schoolwide initiatives

Complexities & Pitfalls

When additional voices are added to a conversation, the discussion becomes more complex. If differing opinions are shared, someone is likely to be disappointed when a final decision is made. This does not mean that adding voices is detrimental; it means that managing the conversation and expectations regarding outcomes must be part of leaders’ work. The same is true when anyone is provided opportunities for leadership. Both distributing opportunities and delegating responsibility provide valuable benefits to organizations, but they also require management finesse on the part of the leader.

Common pitfalls

  • Disingenuous leadership. For teachers and students to have real agency as leaders, administrators need to see them as such and provide them with authority. For some administrators, this requires a significant mindset shift.
  • Weak relationships. Effective collaboration among teachers, students, and school leaders requires genuine professional relationships that must be developed and fostered.
  • Lack of time and commitment to collaborate: Teacher schedules and evaluation models should recognize and reward teamwork and collaboration, both with each other and with school leaders.
  • Listening and dismissing. Listening to student voices is easy. Taking their words to heart and incorporating their ideas may be more difficult. The same may be true with teachers.
  • Disempowered classrooms. For students to feel empowered to participate in larger schoolwide efforts, they need to be empowered within their classrooms through structures that encourage student voice, participation, and autonomy.
  • Leaving students for last. Developing and incorporating student leadership is sometimes seen as an “add-on” or last step in the modernization process as opposed to a necessity that should be included from the beginning. This can be exacerbated by an overemphasis on standards, accountability, and performance that neglects student empowerment as a goal.

Guiding Questions

  • How do administrators view the value of teacher leadership in their buildings?
  • What is the current relationship among and between students, teachers, and school leaders?
  • Do teachers have a voice in curriculum, instruction, and other school matters?
  • Do teachers lead professional learning for their colleagues? Why or why not?
  • How are teachers and students informed about current education policy issues, including modernization efforts at the school?
  • How do school leaders view the value of student voice and leadership regarding their schooling?
  • How are students currently engaged in conversations and decisions about school policies and structures?
  • What structures are in place (or need to be in place) to advance student and teacher leadership and voice in the school?
  • In what way(s) does the current curriculum support students’ development of “soft skills” necessary for leadership?
  • What structures are present in the school to involve other voices such as those of family and community members?