When I hear young people tell me stories of feeling unsupported in their schools, I think back to when I was 12 years old and how I wanted to free the world of litter by establishing
Greening Forward. Sure, no one explicitly said, “No, you can’t save the world.” Rather, I heard variations of, “You don’t know anything, yet.” “You’re only 12 years old,” and “You haven’t lived enough yet.” These words come hurling at other young people like myself when adults do not know
how to express doubt or disbelief to a young person with a big dream. Despite how unrealistic something may sound, I challenge adults to accept a young person’s idea with curiosity, and leave space for the young person to discover if they themselves can accomplish their dream. Yes, many school systems may be juggling significant challenges—budget woes, leadership turnover, teacher layoffs—but significant challenges like these should never prevent us from attending to the dreams of our students. Every week another young person tells me that their school does not have the capacity to help them start a new after-school student club, or create a recycling program. I know that some of our school systems are going through some hard times, but what are we truly deferring when we put on pause a young person’s dreams to positively impact their community? Sometimes, noes shield us from unnecessary danger and harm, but what if our young people heard more yeses when they have an idea that could positively impact the community? Perhaps we’d have a more motivated generation of doers who are ready to lead the change they desire for the world. When a no is necessary, help students to clearly understand
why that decision has been made by including them in the process. Then, continue to promote opportunities and outlets within the school community that respect student voice. Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine if your school is supporting a culture of youth leadership that allows them to think about their role as stakeholder in a school community:
If you are a teacher, how do you reinforce critical thinking, community awareness, and civic engagement in the classroom? And then, do you connect it to academic content? Facilitate healthy classroom dialogue around the issues that your students care about, but don’t keep them bogged down in the issues. Rather, show them how they can be a part of the solution—and be willing to support their ideas.
For school administrators, where do your students go to find out what’s going on at your school? Do you meet with your students regularly? Encourage them to share their ideas for improvements, and do so in a way that leaves opportunities open.
For all school leaders, how are you helping to create a culture that champions student leadership? When a guest walks into your school, can he or she feel the mark that students have made there?
Resolving issues in our schools and communities should not be left up only to the so-called “experts.” The youth of today are motivated to become catalysts for change—right now—and they bring a valuable perspective. They will need the support of their older mentors. As a student myself, I challenge you all to think about how you can use your power to help a young person find his or hers.