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Student Voice: What Drives Change?

Dr. Jaime Brianna Pustis
Student Voice: What Drives Change?

Schools are tasked with the incredible role of building capacity in students that will support them today, tomorrow, and beyond. As educators grapple with this enormous responsibility, communities are identifying that our students are different than they were before and that something must change if their needs are to be met.  “We are preparing students for the world, even if the world isn’t ready for them yet!” proclaimed a keynote speaker at the 2023 AAIE leadership conference. “Our role is to help students learn about themselves, to be able to see themselves!” stated another keynote speaker. Any educator sitting in the audience (or hearing the thoughts) of this conference should have been shaking in their seats wondering “how do we meet these high expectations in the current state of the world?” 

Adam Grant (2021), in his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, outlines the challenges experts in different fields can face when considering change. Immersed so completely in what they do, it is uncommon for them to rethink the ways things are done as it challenges the deep seeded beliefs these experts hold. If one’s confidence and profession is built on these foundational beliefs, rethinking how one thinks takes mental capacity and strength. Education, filled with experts in content, teaching practices, and student development is, in many ways, an unchanging field. Change becomes driven by decades of “best practices” found to work in different populations around the world. However, as the world around us changes more rapidly by the moment, is this pattern of how change happens in schools still effective? If you asked students, the answer may very well be no. 

Schools across the world are scrambling to find new ways to serve ever changing student populations, often depending on the same data and systems from before. Some educators are finding that using decades old methodology to serve students in 2023 (and beyond) is not working. “It is time to leave the fear behind in not involving students in decision making,” shared one high school student at American School of Guatemala. There are school communities who have found that, rather than relying on traditional change making patterns, student voice is an effective solution. 

Student voice is the act of engaging students in the development of their educational experiences. It empowers students to take active roles in the decision making processes involved in school reform. As schools seek to innovate, providing a seat at the table for student voice provides the potential for the innovation to have greater impact. The data provided by students may be more accurate, speaking more directly to the needs of their classmates. Student voice also represents a school culture in which students feel safe enough to explore their own identity, to learn about who they are as humans. 

There are many different reasons that students need to be brought to the forefront of conversations about their education. Most international schools develop magical guiding statements filled with visions of students leaving their schools and changing the world. The capacity to do that work does not show up the day a student walks across the stage for their diploma. Schools must provide opportunities for students to build this capacity of leadership during their pK-12 education. Educational organizations should include students in the act of creating change in order to support them in developing the capacity to be change makers. They need experiences that put them in the driver's seat of imagining change and having the opportunity to work for it. 

Student voice brings experts of a different perspective to the table. Assumptions are often made about the needs of students without students having a voice in the process. Involving students in the conversation brings capacity for the identified needs of students to be true and authentic. Without the voice of students in this process, one might wonder what schools make decisions based on. Could it be time for educators to rethink the role that students play in schools? 

Student voice can look like many different things, depending on students and their school. Some educational environments may begin with surveying students about their hopes, dreams, wishes, and feedback. These data points may offer insight into what is working and what isn’t, giving foundational information for future goals. It is possible that the starting point may be working on school culture. If students do not feel safe sharing their feedback or taking the risk in trying to create something, it is likely that little movement forward with student voice can occur. Taking the time to better understand or assess the school culture may be needed to understand how to create a safe environment for students.

In other schools, beginning with after school activities may be the avenue that offers a chance for students to use their voices for change. Is it possible that clubs could be generated by student ideas? It is possible that after school activities are student led with adult support. Is this an opportunity for students to step into decision making leadership roles in a potentially low risk environment? 

There is no denying that the world is changing at an astonishingly rapid rate. This impacts every human on the planet, including students. If the hope is to support students in becoming their best selves in order to go out into the world and make positive impacts, it is possible educators need to rethink the way we’ve always done things. It is time that students are brought to the table to join the conversation about how to best serve their needs and there is no better time than now.



Grant, A. (2021). Think again: The power of knowing what you don't know. Random House.

Association for the Advancement of International Education. (2023, February). Global Leadership Conversation [Conference session]. AAIE 2023 Global Leadership Conversation, Washington D.C.



Dr. Jaime Brianna Pustis is an educator and leader in international schools. She is currently the high school principal at the American School of Guatemala. She has worked and traveled internationally with her husband, Rob, and their fox terrier, Brindisi, for the last 15 years. She is passionate about human centered leadership, school culture, and student voice in driving change in schools.


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03/29/2023 - Ron
Dear Dr. Pustis,
I wholeheartedly agree that it is time for more educators to rethink the roles that students play in schools. It has been my experience that teachers who start from student interest and motivation reap the benefits and develop classrooms of high engagement and high self-directedness. When schools make this a focus, they create an opening for students to see school as an opportunity factory rather than an assignment mill. There is a different level of engagement and interest when students speak about things that they care about, that they have developed, or that they have impacted. That should be convincing enough to any educator and that´s before we delve into the creative and critical thinking that we need from upcoming generations to navigate the crises of our times. Thanks for your work with young people in this area and for building momentum around it.



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