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Blog: Thursday, April 9th, 2020

Student Voice: Are You Really Listening? (#3: WJ Mouat)

By Dr. Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools

The last three weeks have been the most surreal in my career.  I would have never dreamed that the place we call school could be so dramatically disrupted in such a short period of time.  But COVID -19 seems to have done that.  It seems like months ago now, but just prior to Spring Break I had visited WJ Mouat Secondary, and spoke with several staff, the admin team and a group of senior students about the things working well and the things they were looking to improve as a school community.  I feel compelled to share my reflections from the series of visits to the school.  In light of what’s transpiring around our province, I would like to honour our school community by sharing this post which I wrote shortly after my visit. What the students told me punctuates the fundamental importance of relationships as a part of the learning experience, at a time when we have had to physically isolate ourselves from each other.

Things I really value about my school

As a warm up, I started by asking students about the first word that comes to mind when they thing about school, and here are the words that they shared: helpful, homework, cramming, difficult, diverse, stress, welcoming, opportunity, and support. There were several similarities with this group and previous student groups (opportunity, stress, welcoming, homework and support), and there were some unique responses (diverse and cramming). When asked about the best thing about their school, students referenced the multiple opportunities they were afforded to participate in things like sports and leadership. They felt that they were for the most part supported and that the adults cared about them as human beings. They felt that the school was an inclusive place (I happened to be there when they were celebrating Diversity Week).

They started talking about their favourite classes, so I asked them to tell me what made learning in these classes so valuable. Here are some of the themes which emerged:

  • Giving you choice about how you demonstrate your learning (far and away the most common point);
  • Teachers who show they care about you as a person;
  • Teachers who understand your strengths and interests and teach to them;
  • Fueling your passions by allowing you to do projects;
  • The opportunity to think deeply about what you have learned;
  • Asking you to apply your knowledge; and
  • Interaction with peers.

A passionate debate ensued about the benefits of pencil and paper exams that tested your ability to cram compared to doing a project where you could show your understanding in different ways. We discussed this for a time, and after much debate the students felt that a balance of both approaches would be most effective. Despite their affinity for projects, the primary reason identified for balance was that they needed to take more sit down exams to prepare for the way that universities would assess them.  Hmm…

How could your experience be improved?

The diversity of the group was evident as the students started responding to this question. Responses ranged from fixing the turf field to becoming more environmentally conscious to providing more dual credit university prep classes. The one topic they all settled on was their flex block. From their perspective most of the students appreciated the opportunity to focus on their own learning and/ or work in an area where they perhaps needed help. Their concern was two-fold: some of their peers were not taking advantage of this privilege, causing the staff to reconsider it; and the staff was not engaging them in the problem or seeking their perspective on its value or how to resolve the challenges. They told me that rumours of it being cut were floating around the school, but there was no concrete desire to ask them how they felt about it.

Another idea that surfaced and I was asked to punctuate was that: “People learn in different ways and we need to teach in a way that reflects the way we learn.” I think no further explanation is needed here.

The topic of stress, anxiety and mental wellness surfaced as having a palpable impact on their school experiences, so I asked them to unpack this for me (I actually told them to explain the differences between the kind of stress I might have experienced as a high schooler in the 1980s, and that which they were now feeling). Well, since you asked…They argued that because of massive technology changes over the last two decades they were bombarded with far more of the world’s issues than I was when I was at John Oliver Secondary. They also felt that there is far more competition to get into a preferred post-secondary institution than before; that they are competing with students from overseas, something I did not have to contend with. Finally, they made the point that there is certainly less stigma nowadays about mental wellness, and consequently they probably feel more comfortable speaking about it than I did when I was their age.  Mic drop.

The issue of their Capstone Project came up and they identified it as another stressor. Again, their issue was two-fold: grade 12 was enough of s stressor, so their recommendation was to complete the Capstone in grade 11. I explained why this was likely the case, which prompted their second point: They wanted to discuss CLC and CLE with the teachers so they could share their ideas about the best way to establish these courses to make their lives more manageable and the course nore meaningful. Finally, they also asked me to put in a good word about their school helping them with basic finance, budgeting and taxes.

The Power of Relationships

One of my go-to questions relates to the human connection. The students had already brought up the importance of connecting with their teachers so I asked them if they could each think of three adults who cares about them, and whom they would likely remember thirty years from now. Each one of them said yes, which was great to hear. Without naming names, they spoke warmly about the things these adults do to positively impact them. Unsolicited, they also told me that they really appreciated their principal who, despite his busy schedule has taken the time to get to know them in a very sincere way. How affirming is that?

I would like to thank Raynal, Jaskaren, Jashan, Lacey, Sophia, Rianna, Tanvi, Josiah, Arman, and Balraj for reminding us all about the precious nature of relationships in our school experiences.

By Dr. Kevin Godden
Dr. Kevin Godden
Dr. Kevin Godden

By Dr. Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools

Kevin has been the Superintendent of Schools for the Abbotsford School District since July 2011, overseeing some 19,000 students and 2,500 employees. Kevin is committed to student success in all forms and envisions a school district that can nimbly respond to the ever changing needs and interests of its students.