Teacher Voice: A voice for the voiceless


Roosevelt High special education teacher Derek Govin strives to help his students develop authentic voice.

*Note: This story appeared in the February 2020 issue of HIDOE's Ho‘oha‘aheo newsletter.

By Derek Govin

School Design. Teacher Collaboration. Student Voice. These highly discussed topics are known as the three high-impact strategies to strengthen our public education system here in the HIDOE, referenced in the 2030 Promise Plan. Student voice is about providing students with the opportunity to develop an authentic voice to advocate for themselves and their educational experience. 

As a fully self-contained special education teacher, I find myself questioning not if this promise plan applies to my students, but how it will be applied. This is what special education teachers are all about. How do we take the norm and apply it to an area where things do not seem “normal”? 

My question to special education teachers is: How do you encourage, activate, and develop authentic student voice for the voiceless?

My classroom is a beautiful world of bright, talented, and sophisticated young men and women. One target in my classroom is for all students to self-advocate for themselves and their educational experience. This includes students who have functional communication skills, students who are non-verbal, students who script, and students who choose for their preferred communication method to be through the use of an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device (i.e. iPad using Proloquo2go).

My students’ voices are elevated in their opportunities to determine their preferred activities, determine the order of their workload on their daily schedule, and state their desired reward for completing said tasks.

In my high school classroom, we all begin our school day with a morning routine. This routine is individualized to every student and adult within the room. Most consist of greeting teacher as the student enters the room, putting away belongings in the respective areas, bathroom and hygiene skills, completing a calendar activity, and preparing for whole-group morning meeting. Morning meeting is a time when student voice is activated for all of my students. 

After being inspired by a video of a teacher who greets every student with a greeting of their choice – high-five, dance, or a hug – I knew I must activate my students in allowing them to choose their morning greeting from their teacher as well.

Edutopia reports that greeting students at the door sets a positive tone and decreases disruptive behaviors. Academic engagement can be increased by 20% and disruptive behaviors decreased by 9%. My students are greeted one by one with eye contact, a verbal “hello” and after receiving the same from them, a choice between high-five, dance, or hug.

Student voice is activated by allowing choice through pointing, sign language, AAC communication, or verbal communication. Providing students with different modalities allows them to pick the preferred mode of communication, allowing for authentic student voice in the morning greeting to set a positive tone for his or her day. 

Communication. Self-advocacy. Problem-solving skills. These are the three most important skills for students with special needs to learn to provide them access to their world.

How does this happen? How do you ensure every student has a voice that not only provides access to school activities, but to their home, community, and everyday life tasks? How is it that we  ensure every child has a voice, believes they are valued, and speaks with the intent of being heard?

All voices matter. Yes, even those who take more developing to hear. Listen closely. We all speak.

Derek Govin (@derek_govin) teaches Community Based Instruction at Roosevelt High School. He is a Hawai‘i State Teacher Fellow and a school level mentor. He is passionate about connecting functional academics with life skills to empower individuals with special needs to both gain access to their world, as well as thrive in the most independent manner.

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