Students Leading PD, a Powerful Shift in Learning

As I dive back into my imperfect journey of writing, I will attempt to capture a shift in learning that I hope all of you experience as soon as possible. If you have already experienced it, I encourage you to recreate it or hand your students the avenue to create it themselves.


I have given students opportunities to lead professional development over the past several years and it’s even something I have passionately written about. In fact, I have tweeted about co-leading a session at a local conference on the power of student leadership with my colleague, principal, and nine seventh and eighth-graders.


Students presented the school-wide initiatives, clubs, and service-learning projects they are leading at our middle school. It was incredible and our young leaders certainly inspired the educators in the room.  Yet what took place in our own building was unique in that it wasn’t a presentation.  It was a partnership.


The week before our spring break last school year, we had two hours of student-led PD with the themes of equity and social justice.  Although most sessions were led by our phenomenal high school students, I was honored to support four seventh-graders in sharing their story of the social justice podcast they had just launched, an adventure that was born out of our co-designed digital leadership class.  We had met during lunch on three different occasions and under a healthy time constraint, creativity, determination, and certainly a few nerves showed up in full force.


As soon as session one began, I was reminded that when students are able to provide learning to familiar faces, the dynamic is irreplaceable.  They are loved.  So, when they shared how the podcast began, played their first episode on pronouns, and asked my colleagues to play a role in choosing future topics as well as volunteer their voices for an interview, every adult in the room was captivated. 


Yet the shift, the magic moment, came when these motivated middle schoolers asked us to form breakout groups.  Two students led a discussion on whichever social justice topics colleagues desired and the other two chose to dive deeper into pronouns, sharing their perspectives and knowledge after which they opened a conversation.  The latter is where I spent most of my time and what happened was worth every second of my attention.    


The staff members and administrators in the room looked to the students for their advice, opinions, ideas, and solutions.  They fielded questions beautifully, chimed in to capitalize on each other’s answers, and offered ways to explore thinking further with the intention of looping back with colleagues to work as a team.  The mutual respect in the room for what students and staff members were asking each other to offer sparked potential for relationships between them to grow and for opportunities like this to only continue.


The joy that this experience brought students was indescribable. They had set out to bring something to our school community with purpose and inspired their teachers and principal in the process. They were thrilled and proud.


Although there are hundreds of ways to make student leadership happen, I hope anyone reading this will make space for the kids in our buildings to teach the adults in our buildings, to feel the shift, honor it, and make it happen as often as possible.  It matters and the world needs the voices of our students.

About the Author: 

Nili Bartley is currently a technology teacher and digital learning and innovation coach in Natick, MA. After an eleven-year adventure in the classroom, Nili’s technology integration role at the elementary level for the next three years pushed her to see the importance of a thriving culture and led her to write “Lead Beyond Your Title: Creating Change in School from Any Role.”  Nili continues to grow as a teacher and coach after taking the leap to middle school and as a MassCUE Committee Member and Champion, BrainPOP Certified Educator, and enthusiastic presenter, she is committed to sharing her passions beyond the school community and is always excited to connect with other educators. 


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