Students Teach the Teachers

In February, Colorado Academy’s (CO) faculty took a day away from classes for professional development. However, unlike other professional development days, their instructors for this session were six upper school students who attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) in Atlanta in December.

SDLC, part of NAIS’s People of Color Conference, is a multiracial, multicultural gathering of upper school student leaders (grades 9–12) from across the U.S. It aims to help participants develop effective cross-cultural communication skills, better understand effective strategies for social justice, practice expression through the arts, and learn networking principles and strategies.

The students talked about their SDLC experiences and led the school’s faculty and staff in a session of sharing, questions, and expressions, which resulted in applause, tears, and reflection about classroom practices. In the vein of the popular book I Wish My Teacher Knew by Kyle Schwartz, the student leaders described their experiences as students of color, of varying socioeconomic groups, and of the LGBTQ community. And some described what it was like to come to Colorado Academy (CA) after attending schools in a variety of different settings.

Students described being more aware and self-conscious of their differences in an independent school. They talked about how their school experiences made them more mindful of what neighborhoods they came from, how they spent their free time, and how they looked. They talked about the implicit bias and assumptions that are reinforced by society and about their genuine wish to help younger children who are destined to experience similar things.

Teachers thanked the students for their courage in leading the sessions. “What surprised me wasn’t that [the students] were engaged in this work, but that the students helped create a safe, inclusive, and brave environment for the faculty to immerse themselves in difficult dialogue,” says Adrian Green, CA’s director of inclusivity.

Students, too, expressed gratitude for the ways that CA has challenged them. “I’m grateful for many of the teachers that I’ve had,” a student said during the session. “You all have helped me grow tremendously and have influenced my life in ways I can’t even describe.”

Teaching is not just about being subject matter experts, but also being aware of the often-invisible forces at play in students’ lives, says Mike Davis, head of school. “There is such value hearing from our students and from gaining an understanding of what they bring to the classroom,” he says. “Sharing this information can only make us better at what we do, how we teach, and how we support each and every child.”