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Be Quick to Listen: The Importance of Student Voice and What Students have to Say in Illinois

By Aaron Butler, Ph.D. - July 18, 2022

Are you familiar with the saying, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger”? The turbulent and emotionally charged times we are living in make these words of wisdom seemingly harder to accomplish by the day. Unfortunately, there isn’t a quick fix for many of the challenges facing our world, nation, or schools today. We all know opinions are easy to find but sharing evidence and getting to the truth often takes a little more patience and effort to listen to each other than our social media driven culture is willing to allow.   

So, as education leaders, who should we be listening to right now? Whose perspective and voice will help clarify the real challenges facing our schools today and identify potential solutions? The Region 9 Comprehensive Center believes that we should start by listening to a group that represents the largest set of stakeholders in the education system, but too often is the most overlooked – students!   

The Illinois Student Advisory Council (IL SAC) was invited to speak on a special Region 9 Comprehensive Center webinar on June 30, 2022 – Improving Learning Conditions in Illinois. At the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, the IL SAC identified areas of focus and collaborated with legislators, educational leaders, and ISBE staff to develop a set of recommendations for the state Board of Education during the spring. The IL SAC shared their research and recommendations from the past school year on two key issues that are important in the lives of students - Student Safety and Emotional wellbeing and Exclusionary Discipline in schools.   

The IL SAC members made it their priority during the school year to listen to and speak with their fellow students, state leaders, and researchers regarding their varied perspectives on current conditions in schools to inform their recommendations. Each recommendation shared by the IL SAC included a reference to the sources of their research and collaboration, the expected impact on students, and the expected financial impact on schools interested in adopting their recommendations. Two themes really stood out to me while listening to their recommendations to improve learning conditions in schools that I believe other leaders in education will benefit from putting into action. 

  1. Find ways to give ALL students a voice in your school. 
    Be relentless and creative in providing opportunities for students be engaged with their school. The IL SAC shared examples of discussions they had with teachers and principals, opportunities to serve on committees, and even anonymous forms that students can fill out to share their experiences in a way that feels safe.  Whether these opportunities are formal or informal in your school or district may not necessarily matter as long as there is a variety of inclusive options for students to participate and they feel confident that someone cares about what they share.    

  2. Students and staff aren’t looking for or expecting expensive solutions.  
    Keep it simple and don’t forget that you’re dealing with people, not widgets. The IL SAC members talked about the importance of positive student-teacher and student-administrator relationships in creating schools where students and staff feel safe and supported. Your time, attention, and genuine interest in the personal success of students and staff as unique individuals is priceless. 

Where can I hear more from the IL SAC?   

Great question! We encourage you to sign up for our Region 9 newsletter as we plan to feature blogs from IL SAC members in the upcoming year. Ultimately, we encourage you to take action to elevate the voice of students and engage them in creating positive learning conditions in your schools and districts this year.