'Don't let the monster of student voice run rampage in your school'

3rd February 2018 at 08:04
Failure in schools
Student voice can be a brilliant tool, but not for identifying great teaching, warns one English teacher

The monster of student voice can take many forms. It could appear as an innocuous questionnaire, a bi-termly chat with SLT, or even a whole-school initiative with video interviews being analysed in teaching and learning meetings.

Student voice can be a brilliant tool with which to carve out a better behaviour policy, to promote student wellbeing or to uncover areas of need that the leaders of the school are unaware of. What it isn’t great at is identifying good teaching.

And yet this hydra has grown in power over the years. Student panels on interviews for teaching jobs, were once a novelty, but are now an expected part of the interview process. Every time you think a new student voice fad has died a death, another one sprouts in its place: half termly feedback sheets, praise postcards for popular teachers, and movement on the pay scale prevented by less-than-glowing testimonials from bitter students. And with what aim?

'Derogatory comments'

It’s lovely if a student enjoys one of my lessons; I’m always genuinely pleased, and I remember their kind words and compliments. But that’s all it is — a compliment.  Sometimes, the things a student enjoys aren’t the same things that have improved their understanding of a concept or progressed their skills. There might be overlap between enjoyment and engagement, but they are not the same thing.

Student voice can be used to turn compliments into something more sinister. Formally collecting this information from students brings numerous problems.

To begin with, students start to believe that they are equipped to judge a teacher, and this belief empowers them in a way that they are not mentally or emotionally prepared for. When a group of genuinely sweet students recently told me (with smiles) that they “got Mr X sacked” I felt deeply uncomfortable.

Listening to students who have genuine concerns is a good thing. Creating a school environment where they are comfortable to raise concerns is great. But actively seeking out students and attempting to elicit derogatory comments about another teacher is not.  

Unfortunately, giving students the impression that they are knowledgeable enough to judge the quality of a teacher also means that teachers begin to change their lessons to please the students, and not improve them as learners. ‘Edutainment’ might make the kids like you, but it won’t give them the knowledge they need.

Competition among colleagues

Another consequence is that it creates competition among teachers.

“Have you had your feedback comments yet? Mine are so cute,” a colleague said to me when I was three weeks into a new job at a new school. I told her I hadn’t had any; that I was still trying to remember where the toilets were.   

“Oh…I’m sure it’s just an oversight,” she said, with a smug smile.

This is where we can fight the monster of student voice – by not allowing it to poison us against each other and create competition where it isn’t wanted.  

Striking off the heads of the hydra hasn’t killed it, but ignoring it might. Or, if you are a member of SLT, why not try retraining the beast for good? Use student voice for its original purpose – improving the self-esteem of students – not for creating discord amongst the staff.

Grainne Hallahan has been teaching English in Essex for 10 years. She is part of the #TeamEnglish Twitter group

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