Education World: Wire Side Chats: What H.S. Kids Want from Their Principals

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What H.S. Kids Want from Their Principals




High school students can be a tough bunch, but they also like knowing that someone cares about them. In Sent to the Principal, high school students talk about what principals can do to help them become responsible, confident adults. Included: Tips for high school principals from students.



When high school students sense their principal respects them, they can become valuable assets in reshaping the culture of a school, according to Sent to the Principal: Students Talk About Making High School Better.

Kathleen Cushman

In the book, written by Kathleen Cushman, students from Boston, Massachusetts, Houston, Texas, and Oakland and Napa Valley, California, and New York City, among other locations discuss what they need from high school principals to become confident, caring adults.

High school students want to be seen as "investors" and contributors to their high schools, and principals who show an interest in students, don't rush to judge them, and take them seriously, can win many allies, the students said.

Sent to the Principal: Students Talk About Making High School Better is Cushman's sequel to the book, Fires in the Bathroom: Advice to Teachers from High School Students. (See a Wire Side Chat with Cushman about that book, Firing Up Teacher-Student Communication .)

Cushman talked with Education World about what she learned about students' views of their principals, and their desire to help mold their schools.

Education World: What did you find most surprising about students' responses for this book?

Kathleen Cushman: It always amazes me how much insight students have into the power dynamics of high school. Adolescents' chief task -- it's their passion, really -- is to establish their individual identity and autonomy. Kids know they need adult skills and knowledge to get to that point. They also know they need lots of practice, and they are actually eager for adults to mentor them along the way.

But whether they are very successful or on the verge of failure, high school students are keenly aware that their own development into adulthood sometimes threatens a school administrator's desire for control and order. It's not a war, but principals sometimes inadvertently make it into one. In Sent to the Principal, students explore ways the adults in school might interact with them differently, to help both sides get more of what they need from the time and energy they expend on high school.

EW: How does the feedback students gave about principals differ from the comments they offered about teachers in Fires in the Bathroom?

Cushman: In Fires in the Bathroom, students spoke primarily about how to make classroom teaching and learning more effective. Individual teachers matter enormously to them, but they also recognize that a high school's culture and climate -- the environment that will either foster or inhibit their learning -- depends in large part on the attitudes, actions, and policies of its principal.

In Sent to the Principal, students remind us that they come to school not only to attend classes and follow rules, but to develop a social and academic identity. And they talk directly to principals about what it would take to establish school structures that afford them equity, opportunity, dignity, and voice.

EW: How can principals use this book in their schools?

Cushman: Every chapter in Sent to the Principal ends with a "homework" exercise for principals, presenting scenarios in which students and administrators commonly have different points of view (for example, the dress code, student parking, detention, and the care and use of common space). Working through these scenarios in a school leadership team could help administrators reflect together on whether their priorities and responses in such situations support students' development into responsible adults. What could they say and do differently, either in the moment or on an ongoing basis? Who else do they need to involve, and how? What can they do to support other students in similar situations?

EW: What are some ways principals can start to reshape school culture?

Cushman: How decisions are made is the most important thing. Even while they are still in the rising generation, high school students need practice in exercising power in their own school community. A principal can start by recognizing that there is an intergenerational gap -- that the school's youth culture has its own perspectives and priorities, often differing greatly from those of the adult culture. With that in mind, principals can seek strategies to open up the dialogue and form mutually respectful relationships with students. Together they can develop processes and procedures that everyone agrees are fair.

"In Sent to the Principal, students remind us that they come to school not only to attend classes and follow rules, but to develop a social and academic identity. And they talk directly to principals about what it would take to establish school structures that afford them equity, opportunity, dignity, and voice."

EW: What can principals do to gain student trust and get them involved in school issues?

Cushman: Listening seriously to what students say goes a long way. But the student contributors to Sent to the Principal say that principals often make the mistake of just listening to kids who are already successful, not to those who don't believe that school is on their side.

They point out, too, that just listening is not enough. To gain students' trust, principals must take the risk of translating students' feedback into action. Kids need and deserve a chance to help the school try out new practices or structures, to assess how such changes work, and to go back to the table with adults, deciding together how to adjust things when they don't work out.

Finally, students feel undermined if adults give them power and responsibility, but forget to mentor them in the tools and skills they need to manage it. For example, they say, "If we are supposed to facilitate meetings, teach us how."

EW:Most high school principals today already are overwhelmed, yet students seem to be saying that they'd like principals to know them better as individuals and be involved in their lives. How can administrators respond more to students and still manage their workloads?

Cushman: It's startling how many of the suggestions students make in Sent to the Principal are little things, not big or time-consuming ones. They don't call for new things for principals to do, instead asking for new attitudes toward what they already do. (For example, they praise the principal who greets a student sent to the office with a warm and interested, "What's going on?") Such small gestures -- eating your own lunch in the student cafeteria, learning a few simple phrases in the language a student speaks at home, framing their artwork and hanging it on the school walls -- make a big difference in building a sense of partnership between students and adults in the everyday life of school.

This e-interview with Kathleen Cushman is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Updated 01/23/2012