Who represents student voice?

11418656_598659953605348_925584119_nPlease welcome guest blogger, Sophie Schneider, who poses important questions for student voice practitioners.  

In the past 6 years, I have had the privilege of being an advocate for student voice, or a student voice practitioner if you will. My passion for change and movement in education has shaped my life and has ratified my love for learning. Starting in grade 7, I did a Ministry SpeakUp project, which I continued to successfully apply for in the following two years. I also joined the founding executive of the Ontario Organization of Secondary Students, was on my board’s Student Senate for 4 years, was on the Minister’s Student Advisory Council, participated in Students as Researchers, and for the past year and upcoming year, I am a Halton District School Board Student Trustee and am on the executive of the Ontario Student Trustee’s Association. My involvement with vast varieties of student voice also allows me to be critical of its process and effectiveness. I want to emphasize my experiences with those I have worked with, the ability of accomplishment in advocacy, the definition of success in this field, and finally what truly constitutes a representation of student voice.

Now the jurisprudence on the world of student voice is long, political, illogical and predominantly communicated through word of mouth. Despite this, a very condensed list of some significant student voice stakeholders (pertaining to public education) is shown below.

Ministry of Education SpeakUp Branch

  • SpeakUp Project: $1000 grants for student projects bettering student voice
  • Students As Researchers: Students gather research and commit action plans based on topics they see to be an issue in education, then submit the research to the Ministry of Education
  • Minister’s Student Advisory Council: 60 students chosen every year based on lived experience and ability for advocacy opposed to leadership status. Speak one on one with the Minister as well as collaborative projects. Opportunities to go to consultations as student voice
  • SpeakUp in a Box: Materials needed to run a student voice forum at your school, results forwarded to the Ministry

Student Trustee

  • Each board has 1-3 student elected student trustees who attend board meetings and advocate for students but have a non-binding vote
  • Student Senate: different in every board but essentially a council to inform student trustee’s of the diverse student voice in the board and also do initiatives
  • Ontario Student Trustees’ Association – l’Association des Élèves Conseillers et Conseillères de L’Ontario (OSTA-AECO): Organization of the Catholic and Public student trustees in Ontario. Meet 3 times a year at conferences, where they work on initiatives and professional development. Executive meet every month and work with stakeholders to provide the student voice in various parts of the system and also work on initiatives.
  • Fédération de la jeunesse franco-ontarienne (FESFO): The spokespeople of the students who attend francophone high schools in Ontario. They run initiatives to collect and advocate for the Franco-Ontarian voice

Student Made Organizations

  • Regroupement des élèves conseiller.ère.s francophones de l’Ontario (RECFO): Student Trustees of francophone high schools in Ontario. Work to strengthen the prevalence of the Franco-Ontarian voice and it’s diversity in student voice
  • Ontario Organization of Secondary Students (OOSS): Founded during the Bill 115 conflict, its original purpose was to advocate for students as a prevalent stakeholder in the conflict. They now run initiatives and conferences for students on various topics
  • Federation of Canadian Secondary Students-Fédération des Étudiants du Secondaire au Canada (FCSS-FESC): OOSS re-established as a Canada wide organization, with provincial branches opening in Alberta, British Columbia, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador
  • Student Voice Initiative: Working to introduce the student trustee position across Canada
  • Ontario Secondary Students’ Union – Union des élèves du secondaire au Ontario (OSSU-UESO): In development, wants to broaden student leadership and voice, both at the local and provincial level

As you may notice from just reading the list, the possibilities for political competition, ambiguous initiatives, and unhappy people are quite rampant and true. I have witnessed and been a part of many conflicts that were unfortunately necessary. In fact, during the last teacher negotiation conflict, my current organization was told that student voice’s credibility was in jeopardy because of the mixed messages the several organizations were competing to send out to stakeholders. That was a bell to me, especially as an elected public advocate.

I remember in grade 9 talking to the founders of OOSS, and why they created the organization in the strike conflict when I thought that OSTA-AECO was responsible for advocating on behalf of us since we elected them. They felt that OSTA-AECO wasn’t adequately representing them. Whether true or not, in hindsight I should’ve suggested consultation and collaboration instead of creating a political statement against what was already there. Engaged students grow up in a world of competing for marks and resumes. Yet no one thought that the solution to the problem would be collaboration. United fronts are always more credible, are stronger, and are beneficial to all parties.

What does it truly mean to be accomplished in advocacy? Like some previous bloggers stated, representing the disengaged is the ongoing goal of being an advocate. Being a student in the position of providing student voice gives me an opportunity to state what the adult stakeholders can’t see. That’s reality in our classrooms and schools in Ontario. I’ve witnessed some of my friends in Northern Ontario move away from their friends and family in grade 9 just to get a decent quality education. I’ve also witnessed international students who live without their families develop a state of insane loneliness and pressure impairing their wellbeing. I’ve seen my transgendered friends fight for their right for their preferred pronouns and names to be used. These issues are realities, and I believe that as soon as an advocate convinces stakeholders that the reality is not just, action must be taken. In higher student practitioner positions, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to take action ourselves. In fact, I believe we have the responsibility to. As soon as we are distracted by self-inflicted politics or power struggles, we are taking priority over those students who need advocacy. This is a weight I carry on my shoulders with every minute of time I claim to be a student advocate.

Yet the painful reality of it all is the motive for student voice advocates. In politics, we are told the motive of every politician is to get re-elected. In student leadership, unfortunately the motive behind many students is university applications and scholarships. They know it’s not good enough just to be student council president anymore. Universities want to see that you’ve “done” something, and for many that means creating an organization, which is much more exciting then “I was part of a collaboration.”

With something that I like to call the business student revolution, more and more organizations in the student voice field will pop up that is in conflict with ongoing work already being attended to. What needs to be known is that the voice of students is not a market. The voice of students is not a commodity. The voice of students do not deserve to be taken advantage of. This political mess has induced elitism and no longer are we thinking about student disengagement, in fact, it is a fight between students who are engaged. If everyone put down their guns, stepped back for a second, and realized our commonality and goals, we could accomplish so much. After all, more involvement and diversified student voice should be a good thing.

Amongst all of this, I am immensely upset that our generation, one that claims to be progressive and strongly defiant against political standards, have the same chip on our shoulders as our parents. The whole point of student organizations is that we shouldn’t have egos that prohibit us from attaining true advocacy, yet we have fallen in the same trap. We imitated our adult counterparts at the stake of progression. The hunger for power and prevalence blinds us from fervency of what really matters. There are students in our schools who are not able to learn because of mental health, who don’t have a pathway, who have untapped potential or who can’t afford to go on the class trip. These are the students we should be fighting for. Student voice practitioners are in positions of change, it’s about time we start acting like it.

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Sophie Schneider is a grade 12 student at Abbey Park High School in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. In education she has been involved with student voice initiatives since grade 7. She has served in MSAC, as a student trustee, and webmaster and communications officer of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association. In the future, Sophie plans to pursue a career in computer science and design.

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