By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education
Students often have the best ideas about what they need individually to be successful in life after high school. So this year, I’m spending more time listening to them.
During my first year in office, I met with more than 10,000 educators across the state as part of my Classroom Chronicles tour. (You can read my reflections on last year’s tour here.) A big takeaway for me from those hundreds of school visits was the need to incorporate students’ voices into the conversation more often, especially as we think about creating school cultures where they can thrive and providing them with the opportunities they need to have a leg up for their college and career journeys. That’s what we are doing this year.
Because every decision we make is centered on what is best for students, it only makes sense that we include and elevate their voices into the conversations we are having as a state. Throughout the course of their K-12 experience, students have a variety of opportunities depending on where they live—but some have more opportunities than others. I want to ensure that all students receive an education that meets their unique needs and prepares them to be successful for life after high school.
My goal is to visit 30 districts during this school year and host student roundtables to hear feedback directly from our “customer”—our students. Each roundtable will give me insight into the lives of students from different backgrounds and their plans for life after high school. I hope to learn about what they believe has prepared them for postsecondary, and what they believe are the areas of opportunity for our schools, districts, and the department to better support them.
In just the first few student roundtables, there are already two key themes that have emerged. The first is that students have expressed that they want more courses that will help them transition into some form of postsecondary school. They want more AP classes, more dual enrollment options, or more career and technical courses that equip them with a certificate that can help them get a high-paying job right after graduation. They want more internship and work-based learning opportunities, and they want to be able to explore a variety of fields as their interests in different areas change over time. That is exactly what I want us to focus on.
The other key theme is our students’ favorite teachers are the ones who challenge them. Time and
time again, students repeatedly named the same teacher, and this isn’t the teacher who was their best friend or was really funny. This was the teacher who took their learning to the next level, who helped them get ready for college, and who showed them what they needed to do to be prepared. Students repeatedly said they weren’t “babied” by these teachers, but instead they were held to higher expectations than they thought they could reach—but that as a result, their writing and thinking skills were better than they ever thought they could be. Rich instruction that holds students to high standards is absolutely what we need to make sure every high school graduate is prepared for college and careers.
Students’ voices are shaping our policies at the state— and in fact, they are going to tell you about it right here on the blog. After our school visits, we will share guest blog posts written by students who I have met. I look forward to sharing their stories with you!
As a former teacher and teacher of teachers, Commissioner McQueen’s heart is never far from the classroom. In the 2015-16 school year, she surpassed her goal of connecting with over 10,000 teachers in the state. As she continues visiting schools this year, she’s focused on learning from students. So far in the 2016-17 school year, Commissioner McQueen has enjoyed visits to Benton County, Cheatham County, Arlington Community Schools, Johnson County, Johnson City, Haywood County, and Chester County.
In addition to the Classroom Chronicles tour, the department is focused on listening to student voices through other initiatives. During the spring, every member of the department’s senior leadership team shadowed a student for a day to get a sense for the range of experiences high school students have across the state and the different opportunities that are available in different schools. Additionally, department officials began convening informal student advisory councils across the state to learn more about the challenges facing all types of students as they chart their paths through high school and beyond.