Empowering Student and Educator Voice

Achievement Network (ANet)
4 min readJul 3, 2023

The center of our vision is the student. We approach our partnerships with the belief that it is not just about what or how it’s taught; it’s about who. All children should have access to an empowering education and the opportunities provide. Providing an empowering learning environment for our students starts with us changing our own perceptions of accountability, performance, and representation. In 2020 we asked ourselves, how can we be accountable to students and empower educators in an equity-centered, whole child teaching and learning approach? What would that look like? How do we accomplish this? We formed a partnership with Transforming Education (TransformEd) to answer these questions and pilot our practices with schools across the country.

While schools are increasingly expected to support the social, emotional, and academic growth of all students, school leaders and educators are rarely provided with support and training to realize this ambition. We partnered with five pilot schools to integrate our practices that support whole child development and document our findings. After our second school year with the pilot schools, we found that to accurately address a student’s social-emotional learning we needed to focus on the social and emotional learning of our educators. We learned empowering our educators paired with small and focused additions of whole child practices in our pilot schools yielded significant results in student achievement. Read our most recent report here.

Focusing on the Whole Child While Addressing The Impact of COVID19

“Our teachers have concern and compassion and curiosity for students. They want to be supportive, but we don’t have good systems in place to put that support into action.” — Oak Elementary Instructional Coach

Faced with increased social, emotional, and academic challenges and expectations, educators struggled to build or rebuild the necessary systems of support to respond adequately to student needs post-COVID19. Our pilot school leaders and their teachers were faced with supporting their communities through traumatic loss, anxiety, depression, and grief while also handling additional workloads. They were nervous about adding what could be seen as “extra” to their workload which meant we had to be very flexible in our approach and expectations.

We realized the social-emotional learning of our educators was a key component to the success of whole child learning.

Before introducing what may have seemed like a new approach to teachers, administrators wanted to start by building their own understanding of how all the pieces fit together. Understanding the “whole picture” allowed administrators to align and integrate whole child approaches within work already underway in their schools.

ANet coaches and TransformEd invested time in building a shared understanding of the relationship between academic, cognitive, social, emotional, and identity development through a whole child approach so that school leaders weren’t tasked with developing that framing and rationale on their own. We introduced the work to teachers in a way that highlighted the interconnectedness of the whole child strategy and contextualized it within the work they do every day with students.

Our coaches encouraged narrowing priorities to ensure staff were not overwhelmed and had a clear focus throughout the teaching and learning cycle. Each pilot school began the year by identifying one academic focus area and a whole child practice to implement during the school year. These whole child practices gave students co-ownership of the education process, allowing them a greater voice in their education.

The Results of Whole Child Practices

“During interactions, I hear leaders making connections on their own to whole child practices and academics. They are beginning to plan with these concepts in mind and to have more integration instead of separation.“ — Colleen Kelly, ANet Coach and SEL and Whole Child & Healing Centered Practices Specialist

Narrowing the focus with each of our pilot schools yielded more results for our educators. Honing in on one whole child practice allowed for supportive implementation and integration for students and adults. Teachers were able to more intentionally combine the whole child focus in their teaching and learning cycle and were given more space to try new instructional strategies.

Each school’s whole child focus led to increased student participation and understanding of academic concepts. Educators reflected that they felt students were “co-facilitators” of their learning. One of the pilot schools noticed an increased ability of students to own and explain their learning. Students exemplified

  • joy in their studies
  • a willingness to participate without fear of failure
  • and an ability to synthesize and exemplify key academic concepts

The Aspen Elementary School Administrator said, “I’ve noticed real shifts in expectations around productive struggle. Teachers are requiring more independence from kids. They were doing this math activity, and the instructions were very complex — there were two pages of instructions so you could engage in the activity. And instead of the teacher reading the instructions, she set a timer and they were given time to read and talk about it in their teams, she didn’t over-explain, she clarified a few things after… Little subtle shifts like that I see a lot of. “

While at the beginning of the year a lot of the coaching and professional learning was focused on building understanding and introducing whole child practices, by the end of the year school leaders were beginning to integrate these understandings into their instructional designs and school-wide approaches to teaching and learning.

Next steps

ANet continues to build upon the lessons learned. In the next phase of this work, we look to continue our learning alongside our partners in three key ways:

  • Further deepening our anti-racist lens alongside partners as they implement a whole child approach and understanding the implications of this lens in our actions and decisions to better integrate social-emotional and academic learning.
  • Expand our focus to define empowering learning environments and articulate how we can support schools to create the right conditions for an empowering learning environment.
  • Simultaneously prioritize the SEL development of staff as well as students.

Our partnership provides ample opportunities to adjust and add conditions to support student success and make our practices reflective of our student’s brilliance and resilience. Learn more about our in our latest report.

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Achievement Network (ANet)

ANet is a nonprofit dedicated to the premise that every child in America deserves an excellent education and the opportunities it provides.