The Real Change Agents

Over the past six months, I’ve asked the following question to numerous  teachers, administrators, and librarians in Texas, Illinois, New York, Wisconsin, and Florida: “How many of you are having ongoing conversations with students about school – a genuine conversations about learning, leading, and teaching?”  The results have all been the same: few, if any, claimed to be engaging with their students.

This breaks my heart because they are a critical mass for organizational change and tapping their tremendous insights is imperative to their engagement.

It is also counter to the many discussions that have students at the center. In fact, many ideas flow from good intentioned adults about what our students want, who they are, and what they need without their voice represented. We make sweeping generalizations and we coin phrases about them.

Sadly, however, we don’t engage them in the very conversations in which we are putting them at center stage. Why when they offer so much:

  • Students can inform us of bias, of misconceptions, of exaggerations, of local realities, and of blind spots that inform our directions.
  • Students help us to see where our policies and practices are not aligned with our beliefs.
  • Students bring another dimension of innovation to the discussion as a critical stakeholder in the community.
  • Students represent the largest population of an organization and are vital for organizational change

Their voices are key; they are an essential stakeholder that we can no longer afford to have adults as the sole speaker on their behalf. Students deserve their own voice especially if we are going to continue saying it is about them.

In fact, here is my hard-line: stop saying it is about the students if you haven’t asked the students what they need, what they want, and what is the reality of their world. Just say it is about you or the school and what you find relevant. If you are okay with that, great.

Personally, I’m not.

The voices of change rest with the scholars in your building, every student that enters those doors each morning. Are you listening? Are you bringing them to the table and leveraging their insights? If you want real, lasting change, the answers can only be yes.

And, when you bring them to the table, are you vested in their thoughts?  Are we willing to challenge our own beliefs about learning and teaching based upon their beliefs? Will we leverage their ideas to shape a better present and future?

The time is now to tap into the potential of students as leaders, as change agents, and as powerful voices with amazing ideas and unmatched enthusiasm.



  1. Just yesterday we had this conversation at my school. An accreditation team is here reviewing us for re-accreditation and they had a lunch with the students. At that lunch, the students unanimously said that the school offered too many AP options and not enough electives and they felt pressured and stressed and unmotivated about their classes. Then the accreditation team asked the HS teachers what they thought of this. 50% defended the schedule as is saying it’s “good for them (the students)”, while 50% talked about listening to students and trying to create a curriculum to match their desires, skills and passions. I forwarded this article to everyone who was in that meeting in the hopes of starting a “real discussion” about really listening to students.

    • Thanks for forwarding this piece. It is important to see those gaps in perceptions and work together to close them. I’ll be excited to hear how things evolve.

  2. Thank you for this important reminder about putting the needs and interests of our students first. I am hosting small, informal lunches with our 5th grade students during these last few weeks of school and plan to use this post as inspiration to engage them in discussions about the change they would like to see in our Lower School.


    • Payton:

      Kudos! This is a great to hear. When the students realize that not only are their voices being heard but acted upon, the school becomes a community where they are vested in all facets. I hope you share how things go.

  3. What I wonder, Ryan, is whether or not involving students in conversations about what they want schools to look like is even our choice as educators.

    In the end, elected officials—and by default, the taxpayers who elect them—are paying the bills and making the choices that control our work.

    Until we can convince them to listen to our students, it’s almost an exercise in futility and frustration to hear from our kids about what they want schooling to look like.

    After all, I’m likely to agree with everything that they have to say and yet have no ability to make the kinds of changes that they advocate for because I’m held accountable by people with different expectations.

    Does this make any sense?

    Basically, I agree with your premise that kids are left out of important conversations at our own peril, but given that the important conversations are controlled by people who won’t even listen to teachers—let alone kids—-I’m not sure that I can make meaningful changes even when I believe in them.

    Enjoying the thought strand, though…

    • Thanks for the push back, Bill. You raise a good point and here is my answer.

      I never even consider it because I simply wouldn’t waste my scholars’ time if there insights were not going to be consider for implementation.

      I can say that the insights from the students have framed changes and shifts both small and wide. They have also helped us to avoid making mistakes because we made assumptions. The student learning space of our multidimensional learning space was built because of their insights. If we didn’t listen, this wouldn’t have occurred or would have been considerably less effective.

      My list goes on and on from what they’ve done on a vision level to a course correct level in my current school as part of conversations we’ve had on many levels and with many fellow administrators.

      But it doesn’t stop there.

      I can go back to when I was a high school English teacher. My juniors and seniors did an action research project on educational change. There research was presented with a proposal for change to a decision making body based upon their focus. For example, there was a pitch for Going Green to our Board of Education. This led to that change. Another example was a pitch to our building administrative team for AP courses. This led to the start of an AP program. Another example that struck home was a pitch to our entire faculty about the lack of critical thinking and engagement. This led to very difficult, gut retching conversations amongst our faculty. We knew change wasn’t an option.

      You see, there is the power to change. Can they change the federal or even state education system? My heart says YES! It may not be directly but if they can move change along locally, a model can start to form.

      Are there roadblocks? Yes. How powerful is it when we work with them to understand these roadblocks that we are facing so they can work with us?

      Finally, I spoke directly with my students about the experience they were having in our learning environment. There proposed changes, ideas, concerns, and challenges helped us to evolve. My “Grades as Dynamic Objects” was a direct result of our conversations.

      This isn’t a change that revolutionized education across the country. But, it fundamentally changed and influences the learning in our community. It also led to other teachers adopting it.

      Now, imagine how these messages can spread now that social media makes it that much easier?

      Lots of rambling here but I hopefully the central message is coming across: their voices can lead to significant changes, directions, and course corrections.

  4. Great blog post! I just sent it to my staff suggesting that they engage students in this conversation the last week of school as they reflect on the year and think about next year. An ongoing dialogue all year with students soliciting their insight would certainly help to engage them. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. So, when did we as educators stop being leaders, change agents, powerful voices with amazing ideas and unmatched enthusiasm? What do we need to do to get back there?

    It’s important to ask, or those new voices of change just may follow in our footsteps…



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