We Don’t Have a Clue What School is Like

I always look out for the word “our” when I’m listening to institutions speak. I pay particular attention when institutions are speaking about young people.

The word “our” comes up a lot in the world of children, youth, and student work. I regularly notice it when myself and others say things like, “our young people, our kids, our students, our youth, etc.” When I hear myself say it, I don’t feel quite right and work through the next few weeks erasing the word from my speech, replacing it with “the young people, the kids, the students, the youth” or just “young people, kids, students, or youth.”

Now, I get it, sometimes the word our isn’t so bad, in fact it communicates something closer to association than ownership, more about love than control, but I’m not certain that it’s healthy to quickly assume that adults and institutions fall on the positive side of our when it comes to the way that young people are being supported right now.

I think about this kind of thing a lot, but I was pushed into writing something after watching a back to school video released by the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), the board that looked after my schooling when I lived in London, Ontario. The video articulates what I assume is a collection of hard work by a lot of people at the School Board. It expresses lots of reasonable sounding precautions and when I saw it for the first time, the person who tweeted it shared that they loved the positive tone it took.

However, what stuck out to me, was the way that the video ends, “Thames Valley is ready to welcome our students to our schools in September, we have missed you.”

A Back-to-School video from the Thames Valley District School Board

The function of the word our in this phrase is to indicate that the students and schools are students and schools of the TVDSB. That sounds so very reasonable on the surface; of course the students and schools are associated with or owned by the TVDSB. The TVDSB, is even, at least in some tangential way, owned by the people. It’s a level of government, with representatives elected by residents to represent them in the operation of the school system.

The problem is that there are relatively few opportunities for children and youth to lead in the setting of policy, curriculum, rules, and governance within the TVDSB. The fact that our students are returning to our schools says to me that students haven’t really been part of the TVDSB since schools were closed.

You might say, “well duh,” but I’ll respond by asking, ever cheekily, “why is that a given?”

To me, the absence of students from the TVDSB since COVID, means that students are largely seen as participants rather than to co-creators of the school environment. Save for student trustees, students are not really anywhere in the governance of the organization and I’m going to bet that they weren’t really equal partners in decisions being made about how to structure the return to school.

This isn’t an unfamiliar experience for students, children, or youth, but it makes me a little bit sad to think about students walking back into yet another environment created by others, for them.

All of this connects to something that I heard comedian Hannah Gadsby say, on the Ezra Klein Show, the other day. She said (and I’m slightly paraphrasing), “we don’t have a clue what it’s like to go to school right now.” She further explained that the experience of being a child or youth in a school is one that we, as adults, can’t access. I take that to mean that we can approximate it—by imagining what we’d feel like if we were in school, by comparing it to our own experiences, or by studying things from a child and youth perspective—but really, the only way to understand the reality of say, what it feels like to attend school surrounded by COVID, is to involve children and youth who know what it’s like to attend school surrounded by COVID.

We won’t change the relative absence of young people from the governance of our school systems overnight, perhaps especially not during a global pandemic, because transforming a system to engage people that have been typically excluded is deep, painful, hard work. However, a start is to acknowledge and interrogate the implications of the fact that schools are not really, at least not structurally, places owned by or co-created by students.

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