In order to fly, you have to let them go!

Today was another monumental day at school. For the first time, students were brought together to create the policies and consequences which they will follow in the upcoming year in the areas of attendance, lates, cellphone use and leaving school during the day. Areas, which up until now, had been the sole domain of the teachers and, usually, the principal.

When I arrived to take over the principalship almost 4 years ago, attendance was an issue particularly relating to students arriving for school, and class, late. It was particularly bad in grades 11 & 12. Being my first year, I watched and tried to figure out some way that this might be addressed so that the problem might be reduced to occasional occurrences not daily happenings. Over the next three years, I drew up different policies but they just didn’t work as a result of a number of reasons on all sides. This year, instead of coming up with a new policy, I tossed it back to the teachers telling them that they needed to solve how to handle the lates in their classes. That didn’t work. We continue to deal with a number of students who, for no other reason than they can, arrive late for classes in the morning and after lunch and, for some of them, in between.

As an administrator, it was starting to feel like the problem was unsolvable – the will just wasn’t there. Then, through a series of unfortunate events, I was left feeling that, if we weren’t able to deal with these issues, we certainly wouldn’t be able to deal with the bigger issues of drugs, student mental health, bullying and all those others that land in our hallways. So, I took a leap of faith and went to the people with whom these policies needed to work – the students.

Today, after lunch, I had the students in grades 9, 10, & 11 assemble in the library. I then explained my plan. They were going to set the boundaries for the following areas: students being late, students skipping classes, students leaving campus without signing out and cellphone usage. I explained that for three years these problems had continued without there being any real improvement. We’d tried a number of things and none of them worked. I needed them to identify what was acceptable in these areas, give boundaries for students and suggest consequences that students would have if they didn’t comply. I explained that these things we were talking about were mostly part of the Education Act, except for the cellphone use. These were areas that were part of the law and needed to be addressed. As with cellphones, we needed to come up with something that worked for them and for teachers. I spoke about how this was something that few students in schools get an opportunity to do and, depending on how things worked out, could be the start to many different issues that were part of how the school functioned. I trusted them, I explained, and was willing to give them the chance to demonstrate that they could do great things, “they could fly”. I then turned them loose with chartpaper and markers. 65 minutes later the last group handed in their ideas.

I’ve only had a few moments to go through their ideas but I can tell you that they took this very seriously and, without an exception, have come up with some great ideas for each area. Combining the ideas of the groups will result in something that is very clear to the students and very powerful. The one area that really struck me was the use of cellphones. Without an exception, each group agreed that they wanted to be able to use their phones during breaks but, once in class, they were to stay away unless called upon (calculator or agenda) and no texting was to take place. They gave consequences that were straightforward and reasonable, for the most part.

This type of thing happened for the other areas although there were some that were a bit “too strict” and some a bit “too wide-open”. However, it was clear that the students were wanting to be part of creating a solution. After this was done, I didn’t have time to talk with staff and won’t tomorrow because I’m at an all-day meeting. However, I’ve had some conversations with students and all of them have stated that the only way that this will work is if EVERY teacher follows through and doesn’t allow exceptions for particular students. This was mentioned for each of the grades that were represented. They wanted what they did to have meaning but know that all teachers must be using the guidelines. They expressed frustration with what they saw as double standards and were using this opportunity to voice their frustrations. They don’t want me to be the only one who goes about trying to implement their ideas.

They’re right. All teachers must be willing to embrace the chance these students have taken. I thought I was the only one taking a chance but, really, they were also taking a chance – a very big chance. They were willing to seriously consider what might be done about these things and they want those people who have the authority to follow through to do just that – to honour the work that they have done.

As a parent, I am always so proud when I see my children do something that I know has caused them some great inner struggle. Well, today I was very proud of these youth. They demonstrated that, given the opportunity and guidance, they can discuss, debate and deliver on a task that, up until now, has been difficult for staff to agree upon and follow through.

It’s been that kind of year

This year our school has taken the first steps toward having students being functioning members of the learning community and not just the beings that show up after we, the adults, have decided what should happen. They have had equal input into our school Code of Conduct, they have representatives that sit on our School Community Council who give us advice on particular ideas and they have now taken the first steps toward creating a true learning community, where all partners are part of the process. The crucial part will be getting teachers to work alongside the students – being there to help and guide them, assist and question them and, if need be, provide the discipline that is needed to help them. We’re a long way away from some of those schools that make headlines and are model schools and only time will tell if we can take what we did today and improve upon it. But, I am encourage and excited about the possibilities, seeing such things as our School Representative Council becoming more than a body that plans pep rallies and spirit days but instead being a place where such things as class trips are discussed and planned, electives for senior classes are explored and major decisions about how students act and interact are drafted.

We’re not done!

To add to this, on Thursday evening there is a meeting scheduled for staff, parents and students to discuss what types of electives they would like to see offered for our seniors. For the first time, instead of deciding what we will offer, we are going to have parents and students give us their ideas about what they would like to see happening at the school. Another huge step toward bringing all members of our learning community into the learning process. We’ll see how that turns out!


  1. Reply

    Congratulations! It looks like you’ve really set your students up for success! What steps are you going to take to get 100% staff buy-in?

  2. Reply

    Diane, to have staff buy-in, I’m going to work on a few things. First, will be to simplify the way we track attendance in our classes. I’m in the process of investigating a few options that allow for electronic transfer of information so that teachers do not have to send paper slips to the office.
    Secondly, we will be having a staff discussion about how we can improve our communication to parents regarding student attendance and the other issues we covered. We will also be updating parents about the process that was used and what the students told us they would like to see happen.
    Thirdly, I will be talking with individual teachers about what we will be doing, asking them if they see any problems with what the students have suggested.

    It will be a process where we, the adults, will have to listen to what the majority of students are saying and acknowledging their voices instead of the more vocal and louder voices. It will take time and a persistent effort by all of us to honour the work that the students have done. They did their part so now we have to do ours!

  3. Reply

    Very interesting Kelly. On Friday I am meeting with a group of staff members to discuss some of those same issues at our school. I think I would also like to get the student input as well. We should compare notes later to see the similarities and differences.

  4. Reply

    I think this is such an excellent approach–and I’m sure the students really begin to look at these problems differently when they are asked to figure out solutions.

    It will be interesting to see how this progresses.

    Kudos to you!

  5. Reply

    Carolyn, yes it will be interesting. Since our meeting on Friday, I’ve had to discuss some of the same said issues with a few students. It seems to be much more of a open discussion about how to solve the problem rather than a conflict about what’s right or wrong. I’ll let you know once we put the final policies together how the students live up to their own expectations.

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