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Interview #19: The Student Voice: Hear them roar
The Victorian Student Representative Council (VicSRC) is the peak body representing school-aged students in Victoria. Their mission is simple and effective - to empower all student voices to be valued in each and every aspect of education. Each year, the VicSRC host the VicSRC Recognition awards, which celebrates best practice in student voice, leadership and student-led action in Victoria.
At this year's awards, the Pearson Teacher of the Year Award recognised a teacher that has supported an SRC or school leadership program to expand its effectiveness and influence. Each nominee also received a monetary contribution towards the implementation of a leadership program in their school.
For this edition of In Conversation we spoke to the finalists of the Pearson Teacher of the Year Award - Kristie Satilmis (Auburn High School) and Sonya Gregorio (Barwon Valley Special Developmental School) - as well as the Teacher of the Year Award winner, Zack Pretlove (Melbourne Girls College).
What does being nominated for the Pearson Teacher of the Year award mean to you?
Zack: It’s an honour to be recognized, but also very humbling. The work I do with the SRC has been aimed at improving not only the structure of the group so they can be more self-sufficient but also to help them make progress with their ideas.
Kristie: It was the best surprise ever! I was really touched that the students felt compelled to nominate me and put all that effort into their video entry. Our school is new and the student leadership program is still very young, so I was delighted to see how much the students have enjoyed being part of it and have learned from the experience.
Sonya: Being nominated has given me personal validation in terms of the sense of pride I have experienced watching our Student Leaders blossom. Developing the student voice has been tremendously satisfying and rewarding for students with varying communication abilities.
What role do you think teachers play in the nurturing and instilling of leadership skills in students?
Zack: As a student I was lucky to have some amazing teachers act as classroom mentors, but also provide sage advice within extra-curricular activities. It’s clear to see the influence they had on what I do and don’t do now as a teacher.
Teachers are automatically leaders at school from a student’s perspective. While we offer specific programs to develop leadership, students are also picking them up from their teachers everyday. That’s why it is important for teachers to be positive, understanding and fair leaders.
Kristie: Teachers have a really important role to play in nurturing and instilling leadership skills in young people. Even outside a formal leadership program, there are leadership opportunities everywhere.
It’s important for a teacher to notice them when they pop up, draw attention to them and help students to access them. This may be something as simple as letting a student know when they’ve demonstrated leadership skills in group work. Sometimes a vote of confidence is all it takes.
Sonya: Teachers play a role in creating an environment that fosters the student voice. Working from a ‘strengths’ approach can give students the confidence to experiment while providing them with a safe environment that gives them the ability to learn through making mistakes.
Have you been surprised by how students responded when given the opportunity to be independent and act as a leader?
Zack: The surprise I experience is when a student rises to the occasion and becomes a leader with minimal interference. As an SRC teacher, you constantly need to step back and just let the students figure out the best course of action.
Without actually allowing students to lead, they will never develop their leadership potential. They are the leaders of today, they just need more opportunities to show it. Their response is usually the same I find, but what they do next is the unknown and provides me with the perfect set of conditions to teach what it means to be a leader.
Kristie: To be honest, I wouldn’t say I’ve been surprised. I am really confident in the leadership capacity of the students in the leadership team. They have all challenged themselves in some way in their leadership roles and taken up the opportunities they’ve been presented with.
It’s been great to see students taking more initiative in exercising their voice; in running their own meetings, in organising events and raising concerns and suggesting solutions.
Sonya: It is important to ‘listen’ to your students and learn their mode of communication. This can then be passed on so Student Leaders ‘listen’ to the people they are representing. I have seen our students shine in terms of engaging others and their pride in fulfilling the leadership role regardless of whether or not they have verbal or non-verbal skills.
Can you tell us about some of the positive changes in your school that you’ve noticed as a result of students becoming involved in the SRC program?
Zack: Shy and quiet SRC representatives have developed more confidence, and others have taken positions of responsibility within the student leadership program. By trialing the VicSRC Teach the Teacher program for the last 4 years, attitudes from students and staff have changed and we have found extra support for the student voice within our school.
This year we introduced the VicSRC Congress model as a way to set and alter our ongoing SRC agenda. Since our Congress in March we have seen positive changes for our students including facilities, uniform and more inclusive consultation with our school administration.
Kristie: In terms of student voice, two representatives of the Student Leadership Team attend School Council meetings, once each term, and report back on their work. Some students also took part in the VicSRC Teach the Teacher training and facilitated a really constructive session with teachers.
Our Student Leaders have met regularly with the Assistant Principal, as representatives of the Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee of School Council and offered their insights into areas that need improving. As a direct result of their input, numerous improvements have been made to the buildings and grounds, and there is an open line of communication between them and the Subcommittee.
Students are also running the end of term year level assemblies where they share the highlights of the term and examples of student work, giving junior and senior students the ability to collaborate and form friendships.
Sonya: Our student leaders are thinking larger than their immediate environment and being role models to other students. They have a willingness to participate enthusiastically in all opportunities and the student leaders have expressed a sense of pride in their role. Being involved as student leaders has meant the students have become more inclusive by fostering student voice.
How has being involved in the SRC program and supporting student leadership changed your day to day job?
Zack: My experience as an SRC teacher and my year long stint as Head of Girls’ Leadership have shifted my teaching focus so that all of my classes involve opportunities for students to take the lead whether in small project groups or just to determine timelines for the completion of units.
Wherever possible I get students to act as the teacher to explain concepts and their understanding of a topic to the rest of the class. My involvement with SRC has made me a better teacher as it makes me pause and reflect on the student voice within my classroom so that I can better address their concerns.
Kristie: Students will come and run things by me, whether it’s a concern or a gripe they have or an idea they have and would like to discuss at a meeting. I enjoy being that point of contact and that I get to hear first-hand about what students like and don’t like about their school.
Being a Leading Teacher and a member of the school Leadership Team, having this insight has been really useful. It has allowed me to bring another perspective to the work we are doing.
Sonya: From a teaching perspective, I have grown in confidence and learnt many lessons in building the expectations of students. It has taught me to raise the profile of disability so as a society we are ‘seeing the person’ and not just the disability.
What advice do you have for teachers who are looking to instill leadership in their own classrooms or student bodies?
Zack: Listen to the student voice. While they may not have the qualifications, years of educational study or pedagogical vocabulary they do have the power of observation. They see, hear and experience teachers every single day they are at school.
They have ideas on how to improve things but little opportunity to test these ideas without the support of teachers and school administrations. Let them. It may or may not work, but it is not the product of student endeavor we should focus on, but the process.
Kristie: Don’t underestimate what students can independently manage. With some modelling and encouragement, they’ll run with it!
Sonya: Give everyone the opportunity to shine, not just the obvious leaders. Allow the student voice to be heard and expressed in many forms, not just the predictable.
Kristie Satilmis, SRC Teacher at Auburn High School, heads the leadership program in the newly developed school as part of the Student Council. She believes it is important for teachers to notice every leadership opportunity and draw attention to it in order to provide students the path to have their voices heard. Watch Kristie's nomination video.
Sonya Gregorio, Wellbeing Support Officer, Barwon Valley School, runs the Student Leadership Program where she focusses on the non-verbal communication of her students with an aim to enhance her students’ voices. Working each day with students with moderate to severe disabilities, she is passionate about working from a strengths approach to give students the confidence to express their ideas in a safe environment. Watch Sonya's nomination video.
Zack Pretlove, SRC Teacher at Melbourne Girls’ College, developed the SRC Constitution and Congress at his school, giving students more power over the Student Council agenda. He strongly believes in letting the student lead and take responsibility at every possible opportunity to develop their leadership potential. Watch Zack's nomination video.
Since launching the 'In Conversation' series in 2015, we now have a collection of interviews to present, with more arriving each month!
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