Ripples of Voice:
Embracing and Illuminating the Voices of Children
in Our Role as Leaders
Seeing the Children
Do you see them? Yes! They are right here. They are all around us and seeing them is easy. We watch them learn, discover, and grow. We see them interact, smile, and play. We are always looking, observing, watching and documenting...but are we listening? Do we hear their words? Do we listen to their wants, their needs, their aspirations, their ideas...their voices? Are we close enough to them, to capture the little moments, shared through their words, that are dropped into a stream but can lead us to the endless ocean of possibilities? Their voices are the never-ending currents of our future, always in motion and holding the capacity to dictate how and where the water will run.
Listening to the Children
Maria Montessori had a deep understanding that children deserved the utmost respect because they would embrace the world with “the greater possibilities of their future.” I have bore witness to children who have embraced the world but were neglected the right of respect. I remember when I was ten years old two brothers were coming to live at our house. My parents were committed to sharing our home with children most in need through the foster care system. I remember being so excited because the boys were two and three and I could help care for them. As their caseworker walked into our home with the boys, I remember not seeing what I envisioned. I saw two little boys, scared, sad, dirty and hurt. They hid behind the woman as she spoke to my mom. We attempted to interest them in toys and play, but they responded by turning away and covering their faces. As my siblings and I strived to engage with the boys and offer all our toys, I listened. And as I listened, I heard many words but there were two words that even as I write them today still give me chills and stir up an unsettling weight in my stomach: “cigarette burns.” Those babies had been burned with cigarettes. Not as an accident but intentionally and repeatedly as though they were human ashtrays. I share this story because it is the beginning of my journey for children. I saw them and I saw the scars. I watched those two little babies quiver at the invitation of play from another child. My family witnessed their pain and yet we never heard their voices. Their voices had been taken from them. My leadership journey has been shaped by this powerful experience and has allowed me to discover a path forward. Early childhood leaders have an opportunity to give children's voices back to them.
Centering the Children
This drawing is my first response to the prompt, “What does the word leadership mean to you?” As I look at the drawing two images capture my attention. First, the light emanating over the dark horizon. “Light shall shine out of darkness” Corinthians 4:6. I have always believed in finding and sharing the joy, the light, even in the darkest of times. Second, the heart cradling the upward and ongoing adventures of the children. The children are the heart of leadership! That has been at the core of my journey and remains embedded in my personal pedagogy. Placing children at the center of leadership can only be done by illuminating their voices, but first we need to deliver their voices back to them and create safe spaces for their words not only to be heard but to be put into action.
Speaking for the Children
Who is speaking with and for children? I was not. I had thoughts, the information, and the passion but I was lacking the courage. I knew someone needed to be the voice of the children and yet I was unable to be that person. I wanted to be the stone of voice dropped into the river and watch the ripples of conversations begin to emerge from the center outward. Instead, I was the clunky rock of fear dropped into the river, sinking to the bottom with words of change being lost in the dark depths of the water. Although the depths of the waters were clouded with hews of ebony, the rays of sunlight will glisten through. Those rays of sunshine are early childhood educators. The National Association for the Education of Young Children highlighted the importance of teachers, as advocates of child voice, by illuminating the vitality of the voices of practitioners when stating, “it is the teacher who is in the classroom every day with children. So it is the teacher (not administrators or curriculum specialists) who is in the best position to know the particular children in that classroom—their interests and experiences, what they excel in and what they struggle with, what they are eager and ready to learn. Without this particular knowledge, determining what is best for those children’s learning, as a group and individually, is impossible.”
Being with the Children
This is what my last day of school with my students looked like. They shared stories about their adventures with a flat version of me. They were happy, excited, smiling, and asked the question, “Why didn’t we go back to school together?” As I composed myself and held in my tears the only response I could logically give them was, “So we could stay safe at home with our families.” Although truth in this response, after I selected the end meeting button, I began to further ponder the “whys” about being together. I know the needs of a child and how children learn. Children thrive on interactions, engagement, close proximal distance to healthy emotional regulation, play with others, conversations, touch, facial expressions, choices, sharing, dancing, singing, routines, making friends, problem solving, feeling safe, loved, needed and being with others. Children flourish on the joy that is shared between people. We may have ended the year on a screen but that is not how we are going to begin the school year in August. I will be brave. I will advocate for their rights. I will be the voice that ripples. I have seen, I have listened, I have centered, and now I will give voice back to the children. The ripples may not lead to the ocean, they may move slowly, but I will drop the stone of voice that will set the currents in motion. “For you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light...walk as children of light” Ephesians 5:8.
Meg Riordan, Director of External Research, at EL Education recently wrote, “research indicates that students who believe they have a voice in school are seven times more likely to be academically motivated than those who do not feel they have a voice. One way to engage and empower student voice is to include our students as part of an inquiry process--both in reporting on their experiences and in interpreting or providing root cause explanations and ideas for change.”
Let’s not allow the children to “believe” they have a voice. Let’s empower it.