Advocacy is especially valuable for students to engage in during their academic careers. It teaches them how to turn their convictions into action, how to speak up for their peers and school community, how to keep the institutions and systems of power around them accountable, and how to be successful members of our democracy. Student voice is not something to be taken lightly in a school building or school system.
Whether the issue is racial equity, climate change, or food insecurity, educators and administrators must ensure that student voice is part of the equation. The leaders of our schools—especially principals and assistant principals—have an obligation to uplift our youth and ensure they feel empowered to use their voices.
I certainly have felt empowered to use my voice. Even in elementary school, the adults in my building made me feel included in learning. It didn’t feel like teachers were teaching at me but rather learning with me. We were encouraged to bring in new information regarding our lessons, share our connections with the books we read, and more. School climate began in the classroom, and leaders prioritized a positive learning environment above all else.
This type of environment inspired me to join the student council during my first year of middle school. My involvement led to my eventual participation in regional student council, the Baltimore County Student Councils, and my state student council, the Maryland Association of Student Councils, where I learned just how involved students can be. I saw my peers advocating for bills in the Maryland General Assembly that would impact the youth in our state. And I saw students sitting as voting members on our boards of education. I witnessed the possibilities of what I could do even as a student. In these spaces, I was never deemed “too young” or my ideas “too grand.” I was able to learn and ask questions about the intricate operations of our school system and all that happens to ensure that I am getting the best education possible.
In high school, at Eastern Technical High School in Essex, MD, I approached student council even more energized. I joined the boards of my regional and state student councils and began to engage in all that I had previously observed. I learned how to seek out bills that I was passionate about and how to testify for them—whether by speaking before my state legislators or submitting written testimony.
The Need to Be Heard
It’s crucial that legislators hear from students and that students, in turn, voice their opinions to legislators. With many government leaders being considerably older than students, it’s valuable for legislators to get a real sense of what schools look like today and what students experience. For students, it’s important to know they have a say in shaping their education and to feel heard by policymakers.
After all, it is the students’ education. It’s incredibly easy for students (and even many adults) to think of government in the abstract and feel no real connection to it. If you only ever hear about the workings of government on TV or in class, why wouldn’t this be the case? Many people simply don’t feel involved in the process. Policymakers can appear distant and inaccessible, and the concept of laws and government can seem daunting. Rather than just passively hearing about these subjects, students should have opportunities to get involved. Such opportunities can inspire students to become active citizens and successful members of our democracy.
When we advocated for bills during legislative sessions of the Maryland General Assembly supporting voting rights for student members of boards of education, free and accessible menstrual products in all schools, state environmental initiatives, and increased funding for schools, my peers and I felt connected to our communities and empowered by advocating for them. Fortunately, I also had the privilege of serving on NASSP’s Student Leadership Advisory Committee and advocating on a federal level, as well. As a committee, we traveled to Capitol Hill and advocated for Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act (a flexible block grant program to financially support school districts), and we lobbied for other bills that would improve schools and support youth.
Students can better connect to their communities by volunteering on political campaigns, registering to vote, setting up voter registration drives, or even just raising awareness for issues they feel are important in their schools. Whether it be in their classrooms or on Capitol Hill, there are endless ways for students to show they have a vested interest in their communities and how government impacts them.
More than anything, the support that my peers and I received made our advocacy possible. Our school system helped to provide transportation to Annapolis (our state capitol) so that students could testify for important bills. Through student council, students can attend student-led workshops to hone advocacy and leadership skills.
Additionally, mentorship programs help students receive the guidance they need in whatever endeavor they pursue. Most notably, my high school’s National Honor Society (NHS) chapter runs a successful freshman mentorship program in which freshmen are paired with upperclassmen for support in navigating the transition to high school. Mentors can help new students find resources within the school (such as tutoring or mental health assistance), choose extracurricular activities, and offer general advice.
As school leaders, principals and assistant principals are integral in creating and maintaining opportunities for students to grow their leadership skills. I urge all school leaders to support teachers who are involved in student leadership initiatives. Classroom teachers are the adults we see most often in the school building, and they are essential in fostering our leadership skills.
Additionally, encouraging teachers to ensure student agency in the classroom goes a long way as well, whether that means voting on the next book to read in class, choosing a piece to play for the spring concert, or selecting the format of their next project.
Accessibility is another fundamental part of having successful leadership initiatives within a school. Leadership opportunities should be as widely available as possible because all students can lead in some way. School leaders can ensure that programs to foster leadership skills are not only offered throughout the year but also during the school day so all students, even those who can’t stay after school due to work or family obligations, can participate.
Finally, school leaders must remember to ensure that students feel comfortable talking to them. I encourage principals and assistant principals to have lunch with a variety of students each month (or at some other workable interval). Talk to students in the hallway and during their lunch. Listen to what students want out of their school and their education.
Schools shape students into future adults. Advocacy and leadership skills are often overlooked aspects of education, and they should be fostered in every school building. After all, students who know that they have the agency to make a difference where they learn are the same students who know they have the agency to make a difference in the world at large.
Carmelli Leal is in her first year at Columbia University. She is a former member of NASSP’s Student Leadership Advisory Committee. This article first appeared in the April issue of Principal Leadership.