Adults have a lot unique motivations to become teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, counselors, and school support staff. However, few of these motivations are as strong as our perspectives: If adults see students as needing or wanting us in any way, we can pretty much justify any activity that creates, fosters, and sustains learning for students.
The way we see students determines how we treat them. The way we treat students determines the outcomes of our activities with them. It can be hard when we are in the middle of our busy careers and work to stop and reflect on our perspectives of students. Adults’ perspectives of students are informed by countless factors; however, I have seen five distinct perspectives of students emerge. Following is an exploration of these perspectives.
The first way adults can perceive students is with apathy. This occurs when adults deliberately choose to be indifferent toward students. This is different from antipathy, where one person does not know the other person exists. However, in schools, adults implicitly know students exist. Consciously choosing not to see them meaningfully is what determines whether adults have an apathetic perspective. This can happen in many ways, including school decision-making affecting both individual students and entire schools. Both students and adults can (and do) express apathy toward students. When an educators chooses not to listen to students’ regular complaints about their teaching style and instead continues to teach the ways they always have, they are being apathetic toward students.
Pity happens when adults perceive students from the top down, making students the essential person to help without acknowledging the benefits they receive. Pity makes adults think they are completely superior to students in all ways, including intellectually, morally, and culturally. Adults view students as completely incapable of providing anything for themselves, and see students as fully dependent on adults. By positioning adults in positions of absolute authority, pity dehumanizes students by suppressing their self-esteem and incapacitating their self-conceptions of ability and purpose. Knowing what’s best for students, adults in schools frequently do things to students without regard for whether students know what is happening, why it’s happening, or how its relevant to their lives. This is pity towards students.
Perceiving students with sympathy is alluring to many adults. Sympathy disengages students from actively creating knowledge or resources by singularly positioning adults to give without acknowledging they are receiving anything in return. Sympathy is another top down perspective. It allows adults to give to students what they apparently cannot acquire for themselves, whether material, time, money, or otherwise, and to do that from a position of compassion. Beginning to acknowledge that students need to understand why they are doing what they do, principals might post their formal school improvement plan on the internet and invite students to view it. However, students aren’t engaged as actors in the plan, instead being targeted as the recipients of change. Posting the plan demonstrates sympathy towards students.
Reciprocity is at the core of an empathetic perspective of students. This viewpoint allows adults to see students are giving something as well as receiving it. Each person acknowledges the other as a partner, and each person becomes invested in the outcomes of the others’ perspective. Empathy is rooted in equity and reciprocity. A professional development session that engages students as teacher trainers allows students to share their authentic voice with educators while allowing educators to gain valuable insight from students. This mutual exchange demonstrates empathy with students.
Complete solidarity comes from the perspective that students are not different from adults simply because of their age. Instead, it allows for complete equity by fully recognizing the benefits and challenges of Meaningful Student Involvement, and engaging students and adults in complete partnerships. These relationships between adults and students operate from a place of possibilities rather than deficits. Solidarity may be the most challenge image to conjure in education, since it makes both students and adults equally vulnerable and beneficial.
There are many important considerations to recognize about adult perspectives of students. Following are two of the most important:
- Adults do not maintain one perspective of all students all the time. While there are predominate perspectives, there are also exceptions to the rule. When confronting challenging perspectives it can be important to acknowledge the exception, if it is positive.
- These perspectives are not about good and bad—they just are. Adults simply cannot operate in complete empathy towards students all the time; likewise, students should not be expected to care for every single adult they ever meet.
Using these perspectives of students as a starting point, the challenge for adults becomes whether we can consciously, critically, and creatively reflect on our attitudes, behaviors, and ultimately, our perspectives. While we do this it is our obligation to keep an eye towards further developing our practice in order to be more effective in the work we do.
Meaningful Student Involvement actively engages students throughout their schools and the education system. As they stand today, the vast majority of student voice and student engagement programs only serve to help students learn about the absence of their effect on adults and their lack of power. They often reinforce the belief that the roles of young people throughout society are determined for them, and they simply need to accept what is coming down the line. These historical approaches to student voice and student engagement have brought our schools to where they are now. By manipulating, tokenizing, and exploiting individual students’ perspectives on any given topic in education, and by seeing students in pitiful or sympathetic ways, entire generations of young people have been disengaged in schools.
While this prognosis is grim, the models in Part Three also showed another way. Learning about student-led involvement as well as equality and equity between students and adults demonstrates practical theory to inform practice. Perhaps more importantly, Part Three examined personal steps each student and adult in schools can take by transforming their perspectives from apathy towards empathy and solidarity. This is the hope represented by Meaningful Student Involvement, that schools can move from being done to students towards being done by and with students. That’s the future of learning