The Secret Teacher: I’m all for promoting student voice (so long as there’s a mute button)

The old adage of having one mouth and two ears and using them in proportion should apply

Informed student voice is a beautiful thing: it is both refreshing and insightful and sheds new light on something we thought we knew already. Photograph: iStock

Informed student voice is a beautiful thing: it is both refreshing and insightful and sheds new light on something we thought we knew already. Photograph: iStock

 

During first-year religion class, I ask for some concrete examples of a moral dilemma.

“When I was five and my granny came to live with us and I had to move out of my room I didn’t know where to put my stuff.

“Mammy said we had plenty of space and that my older sister wouldn’t mind moving some of her stuff to make room for my things. My sister said she wasn’t moving anything and Dad said she was right as Granny would be better off in a home anyway so we three should stick together and tell Mammy that a home was the best place for Granny.

“I wanted Granny to come and live with us and figured if I took Mammy’s side it would be two-all and maybe Granny would get the deciding vote. Daddy seemed to care a lot about me keeping my own room so I didn’t know how to tell him I agreed with Mammy.”

This voice is that of a child we teachers all recognise from our classrooms: simultaneously endearing and frustrating.

She puts her hand up and, if left waiting more than a few seconds, assumes we haven’t seen her and starts waving frantically.

Making her wait would be a fruitless attempt to wear her down in the hope her arm will get tired. We already know she’ll share far more than she should, and that if her family could hear her they would cringe – the way her classmates do.

We try gently to bring the story to a close with a firm tone and a carefully chosen “thanks for sharing that, it’s very interesting”, but these words are likely to be greeted with “but I haven’t finished yet . . .”, as if we didn’t already know.

These are fraught battles with delightful youngsters who would give any dog with a bone a good run for his money!

New transition-year students have worked so long and hard to survive the Junior Cert that they have entirely unrealistic notions of what lies ahead in TY.

No earthly version could possibly live up to the fiction, so at the end of each term you’ll get 10 verses and a chorus of how crap it is and how they didn’t go anywhere or do anything.

They will, in fact, have gone lots of places and done plenty, but when in TY there simply isn’t as much to occupy them at just the age when cool adolescents need a lot and are expert at complaining. The concept of TY is ready fodder, and they feed on it mercilessly.

A headache

Student Voice in these guises gives me a headache. Recent documentation and school leadership initiatives heavily emphasise the importance of promoting Student Voice.

If this is to be taken literally, then that old adage of having one mouth and two ears and needing to use them in those proportions definitely applies. I’m all for promoting Student Voice and do so on a daily basis, but am conscious of using – and needing to use – the mute button too. Does Student Voice necessarily mean verbal communication?

Actions speak louder than words when it comes to what students are saying.

Leaving Certs are busy throughout their final year with all the school-leaving and negotiations with college (hopefully) administration.

There’s a ball to celebrate being in LC year (no clue why!) and a myriad of ‘lasts’ which all need to be suitably marked. Lots of Leaving Certs attend the debs balls of those who were one year ahead. If they are located in a city school, they are probably heading to more than one.

So they are starting their own Leaving Cert year while heading out for late-night balls. Essentially, they are celebrating other people’s achievements before they have even fully embarked on their own challenge.

What is more, the year finishes as it started, since most schools host or organise special events for school-leavers in the form of friendly competitions between staff and students. Then there are the more formal events such as graduation Masses and parties.

All in all, there is only so much time left for study, but there’s lots of time for predictions and so out comes the crystal ball: “I’m aiming for a H2 – do I have it in me?” asks the lad you advised to move to ordinary level. His ears certainly aren’t working in proportion to his mouth.

But Student Voice knows how to make a teacher stand proud in their shoes too. Little do students know what an impact it makes when they say thanks.

It’s rarely a gratuitous sucking-up thanks; pupils genuinely know a good lesson from a bad one and can easily tell when you have spent hours on a worksheet or notes.

Genuine appreciation at the end of a lesson is usually accompanied by thoughtful acts: chairs and desks left properly pushed in and any rubbish thrown in the bin.

Informed Student Voice is a beautiful thing: it is both refreshing and insightful and sheds new light on something we thought we knew already.

This is often true of the thoughtful feedback from a student, unadorned with any compliment.

A well-informed Student Voice which is constructive, positive and purposeful won’t be left waiting; it’s one we all want to listen to.