HACK YOUR SCHOOL
A guide for students, from a teacher.
Helpful hints from within the system of how to change your school for the better.
Actions have consequences. Challenging existing power structures is not an activity often met with ice cream parties and awards. You may have people frowning at you. I cannot promise there are not punishments that go along with some of the things I will present as options. It’s on you to do things right, to know your school and its rules, and to act in ways that you are ready to accept responsibility for. Hopefully doing the first options of change well will remove the potential “you’re in trouble mister” options from the table.
This information is intended for (and, really, only useful for) positive action to create a better school for students. Schools are not perfect places, and sometimes can be wholly awful places. Though it should not be the student’s responsibility to fix things, sometimes nothing will happen until the wisdom, energy, and organization of young people make it happen.
Know Your Power
When I was in high school, I was a pain in the ass, and I was loud about it. Some things I did well and were helpful, and some things were annoying enough to distract and deter from the intended goal, but both were important times to learn and grow. Now, I’ve been teaching for a decently long while and wish I could send a letter to that kid with the pink hair writing articles and organizing protests in his friend’s basement. That’s what this kinda is.
Let me tell you a secret that I doubt is really a secret. Schools are scared of kids. Kids make schools difficult places to run, difficult places to work in. Kids are so human, so full of feelings and histories and constantly evolving lenses through which they see their world. Teaching would be easy if there weren’t people involved, but, every day, there they are leaving their backpacks in weird places and falling in and out of love and hate and getting in actual tickle fights with the person next to them and then looking at you like, “well, why aren’t you teaching?”
I think teaching high school is pretty hard. I’ve written about 50,000 words of a book in the last few months that, so far, could be titled, “teaching high school is hard, plus jokes.” Teaching is tiring and frustrating work, but it’s work. It’s a place I go to and a place I leave. I think about teaching a lot when I’m not at school, but I don’t really need to. So, teaching high school is pretty hard, but going to high school is a whole heck of a lot harder.
Going to high school means being surrounded by high schoolers, plus teachers, plus administrators and parents, all with a thousand expectations on how to act, dress, feel, think, not to mention what to read, what to write, and when, and how. When you leave the school building, most of those expectations are still there. Except for summer and select exceptional weekends, school is an unfairly large chunk of your whole life. So, it’s worth having a school that you like. Sometimes, that means screwing with the school that you have.
Also, you should understand that you have the right to a school that does not suck. School sucks sometimes because it’s school, and because you’re a teenager, and because life. Sorry. That said, you do have rights. Here’s a list of rights I think students have. Feel free to make your own better one.
You have the right to a positive environment.
You have the right to be free from embarrassment, shaming, or screaming in your school day.
You have the right to have your identity, your passions, and your personal history affirmed.
You have the right to be heard.
You have the right to good classes, good teachers, and work that is good for you.
You have the right to be weird and still be treated like you belong.
You have the right to use changing your school as practice for changing the world.
If you feel like any of those things aren’t happening, then you have the right to ask and then demand and then work for and then jump up and down and stomp your feet until those things happen. Here’s how.
Understand Your School
Before you start making change in your school, you need to understand as much as possible about how your school works. This means understanding how the system works, what you can expect as far as support and resistance from people in different roles, and, above all else, understanding just how much power students have, so, let’s start there.
It’s easy to imagine that students are at the bottom of the power ladder in a building. They are subject to more rules with less input than anyone else, which is why there is so much work that needs to be done. Students have things like detention and suspension, they are subject to grading, and as individuals need more from their school than their school needs from them.
A single student may struggle, but a group of students is the most powerful entity in a building. Really. I promise. It’s true, and schools hate when students start to figure that out. Schools are given exactly the amount of power students collectively allow.
Like I said, I was a pain in the ass when I was in high school. I started an underground school newspaper that was critical of school policies (plus jokes). I organized protests against deteriorating art budgets and fought the school on the censorship of materials in the library. In a high school of around 1,000 kids, about half the members of my school board knew me by first and last name, and I don’t think it was because they liked me very much. Still, I didn’t push nearly as much as I could have because I was scared of what they would do to me.
Looking back from inside that structure, I realize now I could have done one whole heck of a lot more. When it comes down to it, there’s almost nothing your school can do to you unless you break a rule or a something or attack someone. Don’t do those things.
Really, seriously, don’t break stuff or hurt people. I’m not discounting the whole history of violent rebellion in the world, but as much as your school may suck, your school is not a tool of fanatical fascism. Your school is not stealing your family or cutting off any of your limbs, so long as you don’t break the big rules, and especially if you can manage to stay polite and keep a smile on your face, your school can do almost nothing but frown at you. You can’t be suspended for disagreeing. You can’t be suspended for asking questions or raising issues. Your school should treat you fairly and respectfully. If they don’t, fight (but not really) until they do. Sometimes, that fight is easier if there are adults on your side.
It’s unfortunate and ageist and ridiculous, but sometimes one parent in a principal’s office is worth ten students. It’s important to have parents behind you so that if the school is calling home with grumpiness, they have your back. It’s important because parents may have easier access and a different audience if you can recruit them to your cause. If your issue is the right sort of issue, you may find a friend in your school’s PTO, and certainly they should be interested in your side of whatever story needs to be told.
Teachers are pretty restricted in terms of open rebellion. This is my cop-out paragraph, and it’s going to be full of the same sorts of cop-outs you will likely hear from teachers. Many teachers have family and mortgages. It may be harsh, but they are not willing to risk those things to fight their bosses on hat rules. When I was in high school, I had a few teachers that I knew were friendly to my various goals, and those teachers were profoundly helpful in talking through my plans with, in coaching my language on letters, and at least pointing me towards maps of the system I was trying to navigate. When I asked them about their bosses, they would often smile, say they loved their bosses and every decision their bosses made, then show me a picture of their house with their family standing in front.
In my high school, our fight was often with admin. Your situation may well be different though, and those bosses, the administration, may end up being a great help to you. In fact, if you’re planning on being a student activist, it is not a bad idea to seek a positive relationship with your administrators along the way. I’ve worked with some really brilliant people who run schools, and those people love to hear student voices and student concerns, and love to work with those students. Principals are people too. Reach out to them, be respectful and calm and informed. Trips to the principal’s office are one heck of a lot better when you’ve asked to be there in the first place.
Once you’ve understood the school you’re in and the people around you, it’s time to pull a chair up backwards with a cup of hot chocolate and have a nice healthy chat with your very own special self and whatever minions you’ve gathered to your cause. If you are angry, upset, offended or passionate about your cause, your instinct will be to sit and complain about said thing. It feels good to say something is wrong in front of a group of people, and it feels even better when people in the room nod their heads. Don’t get too caught up in this. You have work to do, and your first job is to ask the best possible questions.
Ask the Right Questions
What is the root of the issue?
Lots more questions. Is someone not being heard? Not being represented? Does the problem stem from mistreatment or from opportunities being limited? To really fix something, you have to know more than what it is, you have to know where it’s coming from.
What do you want?
Don’t stop at what you think is dumb, or what you think is wrong. Come up with a plan for how things would be better, or how things could be instead. Imagine the meetings you may have. Will you be focused on solutions? Will you bring new ideas to the table? People shut down quickly when all you are doing is telling them they’re wrong, even if they are wrong. People get defensive when you tell them they’ve screwed up, even (and especially) if they screwed up. If you don’t need to establish past problems, don’t. Focus on moving forward. If all you’re looking for is an apology, you likely won’t get it, and if you do, an apology to you won’t help the next kid.
Will what you’re doing get you what you want?
Anger feels righteous, and breaking rules is pretty fun, but will it accomplish your goals? When I was a teenage rabble-rouser, I always wanted to jump first to whatever action was the most dramatic. Sometimes those things worked, but often times it took a lot longer and a lot more compromise to change things after a loud, messy first attempt. Keep your goal in mind, and make sure your plan is pointed at achieving that goal.
What is the scope of the issue?
Is this a classroom problem, a building or district problem? Is this regional, national or global? If this is something just happening in your school, or just happening to you, you should look around and see if there are larger issues at play you can ally with. If this is a global issue, finding global support may be easier, but you also need to figure out how you can make your issue personal and local to the people you are trying to convince. There is no problem too big or too small for good work to be done, but you should be aware of the size of the problem at hand.
Does everyone have all the information?
If students are taking issue at the actions of a single teacher, great. Before you move forward with massive protest, does that teacher know? Does their boss? Do they know, and do they know the whole story, and do you? You have strength in your truth, but you compromise that strength when you only share it in pieces, or when you tailor it to different audiences. Collect and distribute information to all stakeholders. Doing so may just make everything move that much better as you move forward. Information may solve the problem all on its own.
Low Level Rucussing
You can do this alone, I promise you, because you’re a beautiful magical snowflake and everything is possible. Still, you should figure out if you have any support, and you should bring those supporters together. Start a facebook group, an email chain, a twitter hashtag, whatever works for the people you are bringing together. You could also, if people still do this, meet, like for real, so you can talk. Organize your allies, your ideas, and your plan of action before you start.
Your group needs to decide:
1.) What is the problem?
2.) What needs to be done?
3.) How should we do it?
Don’t do anything until everyone involved knows the answers to those questions and how you came to them. Communication is organization, and organization is power.
Schedule a Meeting:
There are few great, productive options when you start agitating for change. This means, like all great revolutionaries in history, you have to ask for a meeting. First and foremost, you need to give whoever has the ability to fix the problem a chance to fix the problem. Figure out who that person is, and then make sure that person knows who you are. That person may be a teacher, a staff member, a building administrator, a superintendent, the school board, or someone in the state government. When I was your age, you little whipper-snapper, that meant writing a letter to a person who talked to the person who might be the person you want to talk to. Now, you have e-mail, and e-mail kicks the ass of all but the most ridiculous bureaucracies. Email someone in charge, introduce yourself, say a bit about the thing you are interested in changing, and ask for a meeting. If they don’t respond in a day or two, email again. If they don’t respond again, or respond in the negative, find out who that person’s boss is, and email that person instead. Wash, rinse, repeat as necessary.
When you get a meeting, be sure to use it well. The person you will be meeting with will most likely be a professional-meeting-being-atter. They will want to drive the meeting to fit their needs. Walk in knowing exactly what you want to say and not say. Come with a plan, and look for resolutions, and don’t spend too long establishing there is a problem unless they need extra convincing. Don’t waste their time, and don’t expect that everything will get fixed instantly. They may need some time to think things over and talk to other people, and if you represent a group of people, you should make no final decisions without consulting them. There may need to be follow up meetings, which may sound super awesome, but be careful. It’s very easy to confuse having a meeting with actually doing something. Keep your eye on your goal, and keep working until it’s done.
Meeting To Do’s:
1.) Know what you want said.
2.) Be confident in your message. Be courteous in your delivery.
3.) Listen to what they say.
4.) If they promise to do something, write it down and remind them later.
5.) Keep pushing.
If meetings aren’t working or the people involved refuse to have them, it may be time to take your message public. The advantage of trying to settle things quietly and civilly before you go public is that all those emails you have unanswered are now ammo to prove you’ve done things right and been ignored. If you aren’t getting heard in private, go public.
Going public can mean lots of things. It may be that news media is already sniffing around the school and all you need to do is raise your hand and step forward, or it may mean you need to contact them. The problem with jumping towards the media first is that you are ultimately not in control of what they say. Someone’s genie wish gave us the internet (bless their heart), and you should use it. Write blog posts, start a Twitter or Facebook campaign. Be funny, be satirical, use art, use your brilliance. Make sure that anyone who can hear you knows you’re someone who should be listened to. Sure, sometimes those people may also be media members, but unless your issue is, “I’m never on the news,” getting interviewed is not achieving a goal. You need to make sure it helps you get there.
Talking to the media is dumb, because the media is pretty dumb, and also full of its own agendas and biases. In order to help them helpful, you should make sure you (and anyone in your group who may get a microphone shoved in their face) have some talking points. What are the crucial things you want to say? Make it simple, and say them over and over and over. Video and print media need to pick little clips of what you say, and your hour-long interview will be condensed down to 15 words you only kind-of said unless you give them those 15 words over and over again.
But what if your 15 words are great, but no one will listen? Well…
The Nuclear Options
There’s a lot of reasons that Walk Out’s are dumb. Really. I’m not just saying that because I’m an adult and adults always tell kids not to be loud and ridiculous. They don’t work because kids walk out and have no idea why. That kid, that one with the hair thing and the shirt and stuff, that kid? That’s the kid the news is going to talk to, and there’s no way that kid is going to say anything about your issue. That kid just hates Biology. I’m not saying don’t do a Walk Out, I’m saying if you’re going to do one, you better work your butt off to do it well, or it may just make things worse.
Like a Walk Out, if you’re going to go here, you need to have all your ducks in a row, and then you need to be ready for your ducks to get in some serious trouble. If you’ve gotten this far and nothing has worked and the only way to fight the system is to disrupt it, fine, but do everything you can to think of a better way first.
Disruptive protest is a beautiful thing when it is done for beautiful reasons. If there is great injustice, fight it with greatness, with fierce courage. If the best brains around you are working with you, you can think of a better way to protest than ripping off the 60’s. Go big, go loud, go brilliant and creative and wonderful. Celebrate the beauty of human voice and experience in the faces of those who would restrain it. Don’t be scared of work, because there will be work. Don’t be scared of set-backs, because you’ll get your share. Don’t just advocate for change - that’s what adults who are scared of losing their jobs do. Make change.
Push and push until the wall gives way.