By Christian Potter '18
What do you do when you’re discontent? Luckily, St. Albans creates a community that we feel lucky and joyful to be parts of, especially at this time of the year. But all institutions, especially in the thick of their life cycles, produce certain issues that create discontent. And then what? To whom do you go with a complaint or even with solutions? If I could suggest a change for the future of St. Albans, it would be the creation and support of mechanisms for student feedback, concern, and ideas.
The obvious mechanism in current operation is the Student Council. As a member of the Student Council for three years and then its leader in my senior year, I will always believe in the Student Council, but I also know its limitations. The Student Council’s role at St. Albans is threefold: its members set good examples of conduct, work to uphold yearly necessities, and promote change on behalf of the student body. The first role I will always consider the most important, but it doesn’t relate to student input. The second involves planning yearly events and serving on honor and disciplinary committees; it consumes time that would otherwise be spent on the third role, carrying out procedures vitally important to the life of the school. So only a third of the student council’s roles and perhaps half of its time can be considered a mechanism for student input.
Then further limitations kick in. Much of this question of student input is about access. The student council has direct access to the head of the upper school and to itself. For some decisions, that access is enough, but for most, other parties are needed. When the adoption of a lost-and-found system was announced, Simon Palmore ‘19 in particular was commended for “navigating the ship through bureaucracy.” I’m not sure that the issue is bureaucracy, but it is true that the student council needs access to other parties, sometimes several at a time, to accomplish many of its goals. In that case, it was the facilities managers. Often it’s the kitchen staff or the athletics department. Mr. Ryan, Mr. Brooks, and Mr. Schnell have all met with the Student Council this year with eagerness to help. But, of course, they aren’t members of the Student Council, so our access to them is limited and case-dependent. What I would suggest, then, is the creation of a student advisory board, composed perhaps of student council members, vestry members, and others, that would meet regularly with key faculty members from the athletic department and the curriculum committee to provide student input. Or these administrators could meet regularly with the student council as it is. Regular access of student leaders to athletic and academic decision-makers would provide a forum for student input so that little changes in student life can be voiced with the potential for success.
Another mechanism in current operation is student publication. The St. Albans News and Exchanged are great platforms for students to discuss school affairs and, to the extent they can, work to effect change. Isn’t that what this article is part of ? It’s important that the school continue to support these platforms, even when it’s difficult to do so. Without a constructive place for students to express concern, including criticism, they can revert to destructive ways of showing student solidarity or anti-administration sentiment. This rift directly inhibits their and our goals. Healthy student publications promote a healthy student body.
Even with an advisory board for student interests and thriving student publications, issues often arise on an individual-student, -teacher, or -class basis. End-of-the-year surveys are great, but the timing (explicit in the name) is optimal for reflection but fruitless for benefitting their responders. For small-scale, individual change, I would simply suggest restructuring the advisory time and making office hours live up to its name. Advisors can only advocate for students if allotted the time to thoroughly discuss situations that arise. Certain advisory slots could be designated as times to discuss specific or general academic issues or social issues at the school and formulate plans to solve them. If office hours were extended to, say, one hour, the results would be immense. Students, now able to utilize the time without worrying about sports encroaching, would meet far more frequently with teachers to discuss their work, promoting a closer relationship between teachers and students. One-on-one, in-person interaction tends to do that. With that climate, students could more easily approach teachers about individual items they think need fixing, and teachers could more easily work with them to fix them.
St. Albans doesn’t need too much fixing. It’s a well-built house, always expanding with new additions. Some people do the building, and others do the dusting every day: faculty, administrators, the Student Council, and, of course, the recent curriculum review all play a role. But currently, there are few places students know they can go for solutions if a teacher or coach is acting unfairly or if they want to speak out about antisemitism, racism, or homophobia, to which we know we are not immune. We must acknowledge that while our students thrive, they also can also suffer. We should be equipped to help ourselves. And we almost are: St Albans students have brilliant ideas, and that’s no accident. Our education here has taught us to spot inconsistencies, analyze situations thoroughly, and craft creative solutions. We’ve been taught to draw a picture before applying the formulas, to outline the evidence then craft a thesis. The next step in our education is to allow us to use those tools to solve the real-life problems that arise in our community. If all students could play some role in dusting the St. Albans house, our sense of responsibility would grow along with the school itself, and St. Albans would be an even better place.