Let’s Fix it With a Petition! (…or not)

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?

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16 thoughts on “Let’s Fix it With a Petition! (…or not)

  1. This is solid advice for anyone — students or adults. I’ve not been in a situation where I’ve even signed a petition (that I can recall), but I’ve experience respectful disagreements that end in a positive result. That truly does work. Well said. I hope your students (former and/or current) read your words and remember it when it’s needed. Take care.

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    • I thought of that. Replace “administrator” or “principal” with “boss” and the same message applies. Articulate, respectful disagreements can actually work towards positive results, whereas abrasive fights often lead to negative feelings without accomplishing anything. Thank you for the encouragement!

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  2. My students were seventh grade. We had some tragedies and they felt it dearly. They gathered together to pray. One situation in particular was a student killed by a drunken driver. I was asked by the parents to speak at the funeral and it teared my heart out. He looked so small in the coffin. Many of my former students were present. In my eulogy I told them to go on and fulfill the dreams that needed to be done. Some of them went on to great achievements. Hope takes the place of sorrow.

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  3. I’m surprised that the officials let out this hiring information before hand. Petitions are not ineffective. They put out a general sense that there is some dissatisfaction with decisions are being made without input from the people whom it will have a big effect. Teaching the young people to stand up to authority is noble goal. Authority is not always right and it is not always good. Thus it should be challenged when thought necessary.
    Leslie

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    • My boss only officially released information on the new hire that is a “done deal”, not anything that’s still undecided. The students got confused because that new teacher is in the same subject field as me, so they thought he might be replacing me. It was a completely different position and wasn’t the message my boss intended, but the misunderstanding started this whole saga with my students.

      I agree that petitions done right can be effective. It’s just that in this situation, it wasn’t the right course of action. Petitions are the go-to response for a lot of teens, and it’s important to teach them that they are other, sometimes more effective methods for bringing concerns to those in authority.

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      • Perhaps they didn’t feel comfortable enough to just come right out and ask. The fact they they felt strongly enough to petition for you will not go unnoticed.
        Leslie

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  4. You aren’t just teaching English, you are also teaching civic skills! You are also showing them how to be an effective/productive member of society. Student activism is great because early successes often lead to activism in other areas in society during college and beyond. Unfortunately, we also live in a world of apathy and many students sit back as ask, “What difference can we really make?” It is always nice to see and hear about students who are willing to try.

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  5. On several occasions as a high school/college student, going to the administration directly actually backfired as I was basically told that I was only expressing my opinion and no one else felt this way. Sometimes, this was somewhat accurate, but more often than not, it was completely untrue. Just sending in a petition might not do much, but having the petition in hand when going in for a face to face meeting can provide tangible support for your position. In fact, in one instance, after being dismissed as the only one who felt that way, I was able to request a review by other students which triggered an investigation into the matter. Had I just had that one on one meeting, the whole matter would have been ignored. Also, students usually feel dismissed because of the way they are treated. If more administrators would acknowledge the validity of their opinion but respectfully state that there are other factors involved, even if they can’t go into the details, student probably wouldn’t feel that their concerns were being ignored.

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    • I think there’s a little bit of a difference with college (and our college especially, since I know how that administration treated students). Having a well-executed petition in hand does help in that case. This may be an over-generalization, but I also think petitions carry more weight at the college level, since by that age people tend to think a little more about what they sign. I’ve seen teens sign their names to high school petitions without even knowing what they were for. A friend put a piece of paper in front of them and told them to sign, so they did. That’s not an accurate representation of collective opinions, and high school administrators know that. Not that college students wouldn’t do the same thing sometimes, but I think it’d be less likely, and the names on the list would be a better representation of student feelings.

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  6. At my school we have a “town hall meeting,” where the principal comes and we ask him questions and discuss changes we want in our school. We only have it twice a year for an hour with select students, but I feel that this helps us learn more about our school and our principal know more about what our opinions are. We have a student council, which any student can be part of, but the students don’t talk to the principal. The co presidents do or he just gives us things he wants our opinion on and has us vote. Town hall meetings are different because we get to choose the discussion and it isn’t just two people giving their ideas.

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  7. It is frustrating to know what the kids do not, and then to be unable to really tell them: the new hire can coach football, his Mom is the principal’s best friend, he goes to the principal’s church. . .sometimes the children are right about being unheard, or things being unfair. . .even if they do not really know it. Good luck on securing your position.

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    • Yeah, even I don’t know some of that stuff. I have a suspicion one of the other candidates for my job falls into the “personal connection to the school/principal” category you just described, but no one has actually said anything to me about it yet. It’s just the only reason I can think of that would make him not hire a teacher that has spent the last four months proving herself.

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