About two months ago, the principal made an announcement to the school informing everyone that he’d hired a former student to be a new English teacher next year. Given my tentative situation as a long-term sub, all my students assumed that meant he’d hired another teacher instead of hiring me on permanently. They came rushing up to my room after lunch, expressions frantic, asking “you’re not coming back next year?!”
The only answer I could give them was “I don’t know.” It’s a complicated situation. I’m still in the running, but I know he is considering other teachers for my position, too. This new teacher he’d hired was a whole separate situation and had no bearing on my job. However, I wasn’t at liberty to discuss most of the details with my students. While I tried to assuage their fears as well as I could, I also couldn’t give them the certainty they wanted. So they expressed their teenage outrage at my tenuous position and what appeared to be the hiring of my replacement. “We should tell them that we want you back,” they announced. “We should start a petition for them to keep you!” And honestly, if I’d encouraged the idea instead of discouraging it, they probably would have done it.
This post isn’t to brag about how much my students like me, though I do appreciate their concern. This post is about their attempts to change things. On my drive home that day, I told the story to a teacher-friend on the phone. She laughed. “Ha! A petition. Teenagers think all problems can be solved with petitions.”
I chuckled at her statement, partly because it’s true. I wonder how much change has actually been implemented through teenage petitions. Maybe some, but I’m guessing not an overwhelming amount. And yet, they keep on trying them. It makes a bit of sense, though. A petition is one of the few ways students feel they can make their voices heard with little risk to themselves individually.
There’s an inherent problem to student petitions, though. Students rarely, if ever, know the full extent of what goes on behind the scenes at their schools. Budgeting details, scheduling issues, other school needs, and concerns involving specific students aren’t meant seen by the student body. So when students send a petition to the administration, they’re trying to be a voice in a much, much bigger discussion, though they usually don’t realize it.
When students feel passionate enough about something to begin and complete a petition, they often develop a sense of right-vs.-wrong need for justice. They come charging into a discussion, armed with their petition, convinced they know exactly what needs to happen. And if the petition doesn’t work, their outrage is all the greater because “the administration just didn’t listen and didn’t care”.
I’m over-generalizing, I know. There are exceptions, but this is a common pattern, right?
Teen readers, don’t mistake my meaning. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to have a voice. Often the changes you want are good. (I do want to stay in this job, after all!) But demanding attention through a lot of signatures doesn’t mean you’ll get what you want. You haven’t really joined the discussion. You’re just yelling at people through your petition. While the administration should take your desires and concerns into account, that’s only one piece of the conversation. My boss must be concerned with the future and stability of the whole school. If I don’t get my job back, it won’t be because he doesn’t care, even if my students were to submit a petition asking for me to stay.
So what can teenagers do to make their voices heard?
First, respect is important. You can disagree with those in charge, but if you want them to take you seriously, you have to disagree respectfully. When it comes to getting what you want, polite is generally more effective than abrasive. Calling your principal an idiot isn’t a good way to change his mind. This is true whether or not you actually feel respectful of the person in charge. If you want someone in authority to listen to you, behave respectfully. (This will be true for the rest of your life.)
Second, if you truly feel passionate, allow your face to be associated with your message. I think students like petitions because they feel safety in numbers. There’s no risk in being one name on a long list, right? However, it is harder to ignore one articulate, passionate, respectful individual than it is to ignore a passive-aggressive list of names. I once overheard a student say that he was going to write an anonymous note to a teacher he didn’t like, telling her she was a terrible teacher. I asked him what he thought that would accomplish. Did he think cruel words hidden behind anonymity were actually going to change her teaching methods? If he had specific concerns, he should go talk to her face to face. Face to face is scarier, but if you actually care about seeing results, let your face be seen. If you want to see change in your school, don’t immediately fall back on the idea of a petition. Instead, set up a meeting with an administrator to personally discuss your concerns.
In my situation, at least two students did that. Without my knowledge, they individually set up meetings with my boss and respectfully shared their opinions and concerns with him. I don’t know who those two students were – and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that their methods impressed my boss enough for him to intentionally tell me that my students supported me. Whatever his decision may be, he wanted me to know the impact I’d made.
Third, as I already indicated, be articulate. Do your research, think through your concerns, and figure out the best way to express them. Consider the bigger conversation, and try to address problems that could spring from getting what you want. When you do secure a meeting, really listen to the other side of the story. Don’t just think through your next argument; see if you can pinpoint the problems from the administrator’s perspective, and address them if you can. I don’t know what my students said to my boss on my behalf, but I doubt they realized that the principal is not concerned about my teaching ability. He’s worried about other, unrelated issues unique to the private school world.
Finally, be aware that you might lose, and if you lose, it’s not because administrators are horrible people who don’t care about what you want. My boss knows my students like me, and he does appreciate that. But he still might not offer me my job, and no amount of student signatures would change that, because a petition wouldn’t change all the things he needs to consider. Understand that there are countless factors to any given situation, even if you don’t know what they are.
Yeah, I want to keep my job. I don’t want to leave – partly because of these amazing students who went out on a limb for me. If the answer is “no,” my gut reaction will probably be frustration, disappointment, and some anger. But if I have to leave, I’ll leave knowing my students supported me and my administrator respected me. That means a lot.
I’m not saying petitions are always ineffective. They serve an important role in the grand scheme of society. I’m sure someone will read this and post a comment about a time a petition worked for them. I’m just saying they shouldn’t necessarily be the go-to method for teenagers to implement change in their own schools. I appreciate the route my students took on my behalf without using a petition. It demonstrated maturity, understanding, and personal investment that a petition couldn’t share.
Have you seen students implement changes in your school? If so, how did they do it?