Our Students Have Incredible Power. Let's Teach Them to Use It Well.

Juan moved to California from Central America last year. When he first began school, he couldn’t recite numbers in English and could only count to 20 in Spanish. He was very shy around adults, but we had a perfect solution: We paired Juan with Araceli, one of our senior tutors. Araceli is a member of the E-City Services Community Service club, which focuses on helping those in our high school and surrounding neighborhood through service projects and drives. 

After three weeks of one-on-one tutoring with Araceli in Spanish, Juan was able to recite and write from one to 30 in both English and Spanish. After their third session together, Juan told Araceli that she is one of the few people at school with whom he can talk. 

Such connections are incredibly important. Our students have the skill sets to fill in academic gaps and provide role models socially. Examples are numerous. Mutual participation in sports helps build relationships and gives younger children role models. Bilingual older students can tutor younger students to support language acquisition, social transition and social-emotional learning through relationship building and mental health awareness. Student leaders can teach elementary school students successful hygiene practices and healthy habits. 

Beyond this, our students have the power to impact systems. We have seen this with student protests, walk-outs, and student movements rising against gun violence and to help save our planet. We, as educators, can tap into that empowerment and build student capacity in order to channel that power so students can better themselves, their peers and our schools’ culture. 

Here are some of the ways educators can help students succeed in positively impacting the system:

  • Let’s change our mindsets about student power. Our students are more than children to be taught. They feel empowered when adults provide a safe environment for risk-taking, exploration and expression. Vanessa, one of my club members, says that she feels empowered when, “teachers encourage me to try, ask questions and discuss the answers to the problems I see.”
  • Let’s provide opportunities for students to exercise their power positively. By facilitating and organizing programs both on and off-campus, students can express their power in constructive ways. Mentorship, tutoring, volunteering, recreational sports and activities, and community service provide opportunities for structured programs where empowered students can contribute meaningfully. 
  • Let’s build capacity through modeling, demonstrating leadership, and intentional training for future success. We can teach student leaders how to organize, lead and encourage other students to engage in activities. If a tutoring program requires weekly lessons, educators can train and model lesson planning, building capacity for students to do this work. I have seen high school student tutors plan multiple successful weekly lessons around reading comprehension, mathematics, geography and engineering. 
  • Let’s learn to step aside and let student leaders take charge. After building capacity and providing structures within which students can work positively, let’s allow them to own their role and flourish. We can encourage student leaders to train other students to initiate a positive feedback loop, so the system is sustainable. Accustomed as I am to leading and facilitating, I know that is where I can grow as an educator. To truly channel student empowerment, I must check myself and let my students do the heavy lifting.

Another senior student in my club, Savannah says, 

Working in E-City Services [community service club on my campus] the past four years has taught me how to take responsibility for others, build an organization and make it grow to its full potential. I love serving my community, especially our next generation of students. I see the impact club members and myself have on these kids because they look up to us. I believe we can do more to help our community and I am working to make sure of it.

After leading community service work at our school for the last six years, I have seen students like Savannah, Araceli and Vanessa do amazing things. I have seen relationships grow and our younger students blossom. I have seen student leaders facilitate meetings and programs and it is nothing short of magical. It is up to me, and educators like me, to provide the structures to channel the passion students have for each other and for their community so they can help grow and improve it.

Jennifer Click
Jennifer Click teaches 10th and 11th grade chemistry and AP chemistry at Edison High School in Fresno, California. She is a 2019-2020 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.

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