Writer Charlotte West sat down with two students from Chicago Public Schools, Grace Ayena and Mikayah Cheeks. Both young women are part of the district’s Student Voice Committees, or SVCs, at their schools. Run through CPS’s Department of Equity, the student voice committees aim to give upper elementary through high school students leadership opportunities, improve school climate, and foster communication between adults and students. Student voice committees also tackle student-led projects addressing issues such as gun violence and school policing.
In addition to being active members of the student voice committees at their schools, Grace and Mikayah are also part of a district-wide high school leadership program, the Student Voice and Activism Fellowship, also known as SVAF. The fellowship is a year-long program where students participate in an intensive summer of learning and planning, and then take part in stakeholder meetings, conferences, and student-led events. Grace and Mikayah have both been part of student-led professional development for adults.
This year, Grace and Mikayah are both seniors, looking forward to starting college in the fall. They shared their perspectives on how adults in schools can build trusting relationships and foster open communication with students, and what they wish their teachers knew about them.
Voices: Grace and Mikayah
Communication [is] at the top of every list. It’s the most important thing, no matter who you are.
What’s your name, what school you go to, and how you’ve been involved with student leadership.
Grace: My name is Grace Ayena, I am a senior at Steinmetz College Prep. My pronouns are she/her/hers and I’ve been involved with student work with SVAF and also my SVC. I have done workshops with other SVAF members around the importance of identity and microaggressions and providing better spaces for student and adult allyship. I’ve also been a part of other groups that have open conversations on how we can create space for adults and students.
Mikayah: Hi, I’m Mikayah. My pronouns are she/hers. I am a part of the student voice committee at my school, and just like Grace, I work with SVAF.
I wonder if you could explain what a student voice committee is.
Grace: A student voice committee is basically a group of students coming together with an adult facilitator to decide how to implement better plans in the school, and also take part in not only the representation of the student body in our school but also provide ideas to help admin with stuff that we want. Basically we represent the student body and make sure our needs, thoughts, and opinions are also being heard. It also provides space for the students and adults to work together. And SVAF is the Student Voice Activism Fellowship. And it’s basically a group of students that come together to basically represent our SVCs.
Do either of you have any examples of when a teacher has been able to really build a relationship based on trust with you as an individual but also with your entire class?
Mikayah: I talk about it all the time, my dance teacher, her name is Miss Kay. She has weekly check-ins with all of us. Especially during COVID, she made it her responsibility. It was a Google form you could put your name on. And even during class now, we have check-ins, we have fun questions, like, ‘If your feeling was a jolly rancher flavor what would it be?’ And she’ll answer the question too. It lets us see, ‘Oh yeah, you’re a person too.’ It’s this idea of sharing space with us instead of just making that space. She also includes herself in it.
Grace: One of my favorite teachers, she would always do this thing where she would give us a five-minute meditation and she was totally fine if you didn’t want to do it, but she would always give us that time to kind of mellow ourselves out. And because she was an art teacher, she would always believe that everybody was an artist. So, if you try to say anything, like ‘Oh, I can’t do this,’ she’s like ‘Yes, you can.’ She just had a way of making everybody feel they were special.
Have you done any of the professional development workshops for teachers?
Mikayah: Yes, I have been a part of the professional development for teachers. It was more around working on effective communication with teachers, and things that you might want to notice. Ours was with the new teacher department and it was things that a new teacher would need, or basically how to structure your class.
And what I took away was communication [is] at the top of every list. It’s the most important thing, no matter who you are. It’s this idea of knowing it’s not what you say, but how you say it. People can have microaggressions when they come to you, and you feel attacked. But if you have effective communication, you can say, ‘Oh, that hurt me.’
So what were some of the strategies that you shared in that workshop with the new teachers about how they could more effectively communicate with students?
Mikayah: I am all for check-ins. Maybe more so group conversation, and sometimes allowing students to have that time together, outside with you not in the room. For example, one of my teachers, she’s pregnant, and she always goes to the bathroom all the time. She’ll tell me afterward, ‘Oh, it’s my thing, so y’all have time with each other.’ Because sometimes we’re all in a class with each other, but we don’t know each other. Or we’ll see each other in the hallways, but allowing us to build a community. And then when she comes back, she inserts herself in that community. And I would also say another thing we talked about was really having those conversations with your students about yourself. Letting them know you’re a real person. Things you might do outside of school, of course there’s boundaries, but little stuff. Sometimes I feel when you have these stories, when you have these people that have power over you, that’s all you see, demands. But you don’t see them as real people and when we break it down to more so a level of them being on our level as students and saying, “Hey, I’m a person too”.
What does a student voice look like in an individual classroom? Kind of generally, but then also, if you have a specific example.
Mikayah: I love that question, I’m gonna use it. I think the sort of ways student voice can be used directly in a smaller setting like a classroom is when teachers are allowing their students to actually have thoughts on what comes next. Because sometimes, when we’re learning things, it’s just what the district says we have to learn, or what the teacher says we’re gonna learn. So really saying, ‘what have you guys learned?’ So, for instance, last year, during COVID, my civics teacher gave us a Google form of every topic we might have wanted to cover. And throughout the year, she made sure that she hit on at least some of the ones that we wanted to talk about. And I feel they really felt we were learning stuff that we can actually retain. Because I feel sometimes we’re learning things and it goes in one ear and out the other. But if I’m really interested in something, and I really wanted to learn this, I’m going to take time to say, hey, let me sit here and pay attention and not just get this grade, but I want to get this grade so I can learn this thing and maybe share it to other people.
Are there times in your classes where you felt a teacher was ignoring your needs or not listening to students?
Mikayah: I would also say when teachers kind of accuse you of not studying, that’s been my biggest pet peeve ever. I can kind of give you an example of that. During COVID, I was struggling really bad on chemistry. I [asked my teacher] if he would record his virtual lessons during so I could go back and look at them. And when it was report card day, he got on the thing with my mom, and he basically said ‘I think they just want me to record the lesson so they could watch them later and sleep through a class.’ He just told my mom this whole thing but she just was like, ‘Actually, Mikayah has been really struggling in your class and I told her to tell you to record the lessons so that she would have that help after class as well.’ So yeah, [it’s a problem] when teachers kind of assume they know what’s happening with the student without actually asking them, ‘hey, what’s happening?’ And I feel a lot of teachers don’t wait till you’re doing bad to ask that.it.
So what do teachers need to do to be more approachable or make you want to take advantage of the help they’re offering?
Grace: I feel a lot of times teachers don’t help students until they feel they’ve hit rock bottom. And then when the students that have hit rock bottom, the way that they help them isn’t really helping. You’re just stating the obvious that I’ve hit rock bottom. You’re not offering any aid, you’re not offering any ideas, or they’re just literally sitting here having a conversation about how I slipped in how you hope I can fix what’s ever going on wrong with me. You’re not even asking me. Yeah.
Mikayah: I feel sometimes teachers don’t understand that you all work so hard, especially AP classes, the work is very hard. And just because I’m doing great in it does not mean I know what I’m doing. I’ve been in classes where I can get As, but I really don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just doing something and that teacher is still telling me it’s good. But sometimes, like math, how you’ll get the right answer, but you don’t know what you did. And then that method can kind of hurt you later because you can’t just make your own methods in math. Sometimes you have to follow someone else’s. And sometimes it helps when the teacher is coming to you and checking what you’re doing. And making sure that now that not only are you ok, but you’re doing it right.
So if you were going to design a college course for future educators, maybe in a teacher education program at a university, what topics would you cover in that class? What do you think new teachers need to know?
Mikayah: It would be called amplifying communication. And then we would just go over how to really monitor how what you’re saying as a teacher…can affect students. I’ll say something that I’ll think is fine but actually someone somewhere is hurt so knowing sensitive things and really watching how you’re presenting yourself as a person every day. You’re more than a teacher, you’re actually a human being.
Grace: The first week would be solely strictly on microaggressions and identity and the importance of that. And then maybe the next two weeks would be around student and adult allyship and the importance of that. And then another part of the course would be basically, how to implement that. How do we see that happening in classrooms and outside of classrooms? And then lastly, I’d like to have a cute little final or cute little midterm. We would proctor that out. We would test that out and see if that really does work. How would you implement that? And lastly, to end it off, I think I would have something around body language. Because a lot of times I don’t feel teachers can pick up on body language or mannerisms. Sometimes I feel they glaze over that because a lot of times I could see one of my classmates, and I’m like, ‘Oh, she’s not having it today. You see the way that she’s tapping her leg right there, she’s not having it today.’ But, I see a teacher, they glaze over that entirely and just start calling on them for questions. Leave that kid alone. Let them just sit in the corner for a minute.
So I think you’ve mentioned microaggressions and identity in several of these different questions. I’d be curious if either of you has an example of a time that a teacher has said something that really sat wrong with you and how you felt afterwards. How did you approach that?
Mikayah: Yes, I have an example. One of my favorite AP teachers. He’s been with me since freshman year. He was our history teacher and our English teacher. And so we were reading a history text, and a slur came up in the text and he decided to read it. We were mainly hurt because it was him and because we all have that relationship with him. We all emailed him and we were like ‘Hey, we didn’t like that. This made us feel uncomfortable and you cannot do this again.’ And we told him we love his class, but that’s just something we did not agree with. And he made it his mission that day to have another Google meet after school and talk about us. He had us all talking about it, and how we felt about it. And, he apologized, and honestly, he didn’t even think it would be something that was that big. But he was now seeing our point of view on it. He really saw where we were coming from. Because we know [our teachers] as people, we can reach out to them and say, ‘Hey, this hurt my feelings.’ And I admire the way he came back and made sure that we could talk about it after, but also how he took accountability for what he did. He wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I didn’t do this.’ He really was like, ‘I really don’t know you all’s experience. But what I can tell you is that if this…hurt your feelings, I’m sorry.’ So I think that a lot of people would think that kind of might have separated our bond. But no, ever since then, it allowed us all to get tighter with him. And we see that our teachers do make mistakes, and that they’re not perfect.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.