On my first day of the school year, even before students arrived, my department chairs met to discuss the year ahead. Conversation was rich and personalities kept the meeting lively. Then, near the end of a productive hour, when I asked about how we could make the most of our meetings, one spirited teacher looked me in the eyes and said: “We should make these meetings more like ancient Athens! Dialogue and debate. Sharing ideas.”
That line has stuck with me throughout the maelstrom of starting the school year. Powerful in its earnestness, true in its spirit, this aspiration strikes me as the best educational leadership can be: honest talk about things that matter to our community.
It’s called the SDA Student Forum.
This isn’t a club or an ASB activity. It isn’t a town hall meeting put on by admin or a class project manufactured to amplify student voice. The SDA Student Forum is a student inspired, student organized, and student run opportunity for all members of the school community to come together to talk about issues important to our school.
There aren’t rules in the strict sense of the word. Civility, however, is part of the expectation, as is participation, passion, and listening. One student moderated the event, smilingly welcoming comments and helping organize suggestions into an agenda projected on the screen behind him.
Students offered relevant ideas, which were recorded for everyone to see, and discussion began.
Several things impressed me right away. First, the student moderator, possessed with an infectious energy and positive attitude, got students talking. He encouraged students to ask questions, raise points, and provide answers. When one student brought up the question of gender neutral bathrooms, for instance, it was another student who was able to provide the answer. (We have two, and they’re open to anyone.). A question that normally might have been directed at the principal was picked up by a person with the answer who just happened to be a student.
Second, the crowd of students and teachers were attentive and interested. To see so many members of our school community together talking (not at each other, but with each other) was amazing. This wasn’t a place for complaints, but was a place for questions, raising concerns, and beginning to address those concerns. From the forum I heard the need for more student bathrooms and as a result we’re opening the bathrooms in the performing arts center for students to use any time in the day.
Third, it felt like everyone there had a voice. I saw both students and teachers speak and show each other the same respect. Back in Greece around 2400 years ago, Thucydides said: “Athens’ constitution is called a democracy because it respects the interests not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.” He would have been comfortable last week at our academy.
I left the Student Forum proud of the students who had spoken and the process they created to speak. I was pleased to have been able to contribute a few words, and even happier that I was able to listen. The energy in the room, democratic, respectful, and true, typified what makes San Dieguito High School Academy so special.
As the principal, I aspire to have the courage to allow my department chair meetings to look more like this forum. Once again, as happens so often, we adults can learn if we just listen to our amazing students.