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Feeling voice: The emotional politics of ‘student voice’ for teachers
In recent years, student voice has become a popular school reform strategy, with the promise of generating
relations of trust, respect, belonging and student empowerment. However, when student voice practices are taken
up by schools, student voice may also be associated with less affirmative feelings: it is often accounted for in
terms of teacher ‘fear’, ‘resistance’ or ‘uncertainty’ about altered power relations. Such explanations risk
individualising and pathologising teachers’ responses, rather than recognising the complexities of the institutional
conditions of student voice. This article considers the affective politics of student voice: that is, the contestations
that attend who gets to name how student voice feels in schools. Working with data from an evaluation study of
three Australian primary schools who engage in ‘exemplary’ student voice practices, we listen to school leaders
and facilitating teachers’ accounts about the responses of other teachers at their schools to student voice. Parallels
are drawn between the construction of some teachers as reluctant, and previous analyses of ‘silenced’ student
voices in schools. We argue that, in order to analyse the enactment of student voice in more nuanced tones, it is
necessary to consider the profoundly emotional experience of teaching and learning, the ambivalences of teachers’
experiences of student voice, and contemporary reconstitutions of teacher subjectivities.
Student voice, primary schools, emotion, politics of emotion
Student voice as an educational practice has been advocated for decades (e.g. Atweh & Burton,
1995; Fielding, 2004; Thomson & Gunter, 2006), but the past 20 years have seen its
enthusiastic renewal across primary, secondary and higher education. Particularly in schools,
what Mockler and Groundwater-Smith describe as ‘the student voice juggernaut’ (2014, p. 3)
is seeing the enactment of a wide range of programs and practices which seek to engage
students in classroom and school decision-making processes and structures.
Some of these programs and practices are part of school improvement or reform efforts.
These seek to recognise, listen and respond to students as key stakeholders within the school:
their primary purpose is to improve student educational outcomes and ‘to make the learning
environment engaging, relevant, meaningful and more productive’ (Quaglia & Fox, 2018, p.
14). Others are driven by more transformative interpretations of student voice, which use the
language of agency to describe students’ contribution to wider education reform and policy
change. These interpretations describe student voice as a practice and experience which is
‘dialogic, intergenerational, collective and inclusive, and transgressive’ (Pearce & Wood,
2019, p. 113) and which should be enacted ‘in everything from curriculum to the everyday
practice of leadership in school and community life’ (Walsh, Black, Zyngier, & Fernandes,
2019, p. 398).
All educational interventions and interactions are inescapably emotional, yet, as Brooks
explains, ‘historically, educational institutions have had an uneasy relationship with emotions’
(2015, p. 505). Student voice, as a school reform strategy, is no exception. There has been a
strong scholarly focus on the felt dimensions of student voice for the students and teachers
concerned. At times, this scholarship describes the emotional climate that should be fostered
within a school for student voice to flourish. Quaglia and Fox, for example, define student
voice as a process that ‘involves sharing thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and opinions in a safe
environment built on trust and respect’ (2018, pp. 13-14). At other times, the emphasis is on
the potential for student voice to produce positive emotions. Ward describes the role of student
voice in creating an affective dialogic space where students ‘might voic[e] their hopes, dreams,
fears and frustrations’ and where teachers might ‘hear the timbre, the emotions, and the
silences’ of ‘students’ lived experiences’ (2014, p. 201). Other scholars describe the capacity
of student voice practices to generate such feelings as ‘trust, respect, recognition, and a sense
of shared responsibility for teaching and learning’ (Cook-Sather, 2015, p. 3), ‘care and
empathy’ (Baroutsis, Mills, McGregor, te Riele, & Hayes, 2016, p. 132) and ‘belonging’,
‘confidence’ and ‘engagement’ (Flynn, 2014).
These affirmative emotions are not the only ones that have been analysed in student
voice research; it is well-known that the enactment of student voice may not always ‘feel
empowering’ (Ellsworth, 1992). As Biddle and Hufnagel note, growing up ‘is a time in which
young people engage in vocal critiques of power and their social world […] and voicing their
experiences can be emotional work’ (2019, p. 488). This may especially be the case where
students have to navigate the ‘culture of silence’ (Baroutsis et al., 2016, p. 438) which persists
within schooling, where students’ voices remain constrained by educators’ expectations
(McCluskey et al., 2013), or where they are employed chiefly for institutional or systemic
purposes that have little to do with students’ priorities (Charteris & Smardon, 2018). It may
also be the case in the many documented instances where student voice practice is promoted
within the school but where students themselves are not asked about their experience of it (Hall,
2017). As Mayes notes, ‘young people learn significant lessons about the boundaries of speech
and political engagement through experiences of “student voice”’ (2018, p. 14), and those
lessons are emotionally intense.
The emotional cost of student voice work may be particularly felt where students
encounter ambivalent teacher responses to their efforts. Researchers have described teachers’
nervousness (Flutter, 2007) and avoidance (Holdsworth, 2014) of student voice practices as
well as their ‘fear of anarchy’ and of ‘children criticising teachers’ behaviour’ (Cox &
Robinson-Pant, 2008, p. 460), and ‘resistance to accepting students as authorities on teaching’
(Kane & Chimwayange, 2013, p. 58). Students may equally feel nervous or intimidated about
voicing their views to teachers (Bahou, 2012; (Bahou, 2012; Groundwater-Smith, Mayes, &
Arya-Pinatyh, 2014). Biddle and Hufnagel describe students’ ‘fear and anxiety about the
messiness of managing adults’ emotional reactions to any data on their teaching from students’,
and of ‘having to be the messenger of student dissatisfaction’ (2019, p. 503). In their study,
students and their adult advisors decided to ‘tone police’ other students’ emotionally-charged
views, ‘out of concern for the teachers’ feelings’ and to maintain institutional support (p. 514).
Student voice and teacher emotions
In this article, we further explore that emotional dimensions of student voice for teachers.
Previously, it has been suggested that students’ modes of linguistic expression, communicative
styles and emotionality are the cause of teachers’ lack of receptivity to what those students
have to say, especially where student voices are interpreted as ‘too strident, too offensive or
too irresponsible’ (Fielding, 2004, p. 303) or ‘too adversarial’ (Taines, 2013, p. 169). Diverging
interpretations of students’ voices can create complex emotional webs. Bahou, for example,
describes one teacher’s response after students presented their research about the impact of
teachers shouting at students:
Angrily, teacher Valery challenges the [student] presenters, ‘”And why do teachers
shout? What are the students doing for the teachers to be shouting? You are
misbehaving that’s what … and what are we supposed to do?” (2012, p. 244).
Mitra similarly describes the emotions surrounding a student research presentation to staff
where ‘floodgates’ of ‘emotions, anger and passion’ were ‘open[ed]’ (2001, p. 91). In this case,
the emotional dimensions of student voice for both teachers and students are clearly evident:
[T]he presentation offended a handful of teachers to the dismay of the student
presenters. […] Students were surprised and hurt by the reaction of these hostile
teachers. […] Student voice had been blocked before, and unblocking the dam
caused a pouring forth of emotions, anger and passion. (Mitra, 2001, pp. 92-93)
These descriptions of less affirming teacher responses to student voice tend to foreground the
rationality and emotional diplomacy of the students involved. Bahou (2012) describes the
‘composure’ of a student presenter when confronted by a teacher:
With total composure and unrepentant, student Karim responds, ‘The teacher should
be calm and talk to the students and show them how they feel so that students
understand.’ A silence envelops the staff room for a minute as teachers smile and
nod in agreement; Valery softens her posture. (p. 244)
For Bahou, this student was modelling the kind of response that the students had been
advocating. Mitra’s account similarly foregrounds the intentions of students in sympathetic
terms, quoting one student who says: ‘“We don’t want to point any fingers. We’re together
with teachers to fix the problems why students aren’t learning the way we’re supposed to”’
(2001, p. 92). Such accounts suggest that schools can progress towards eventual harmonisation
and the surmounting of teachers’ initial reservations about student voice. Their
recommendations often focus on what should happen before the student voice encounter (for
example, sharing positive stories of student voice) or afterwards (for example, affirming
While we sympathise with these representations and recommendations, there is a risk
that they construct voice as a zero-sum, quantifiable noun – as if students and teachers have to
compete with one another for ‘more’ voice within the school (Britzman, 2012; Nelson, 2017).
There is also a risk that they pathologise the teacher, rather than recognising the complexities
of the institutional conditions of student voice (author details removed). In such accounts,
teachers’ felt responses are localised rather than being situated in broader discursive contexts.
They are framed as properties of the individual teacher, to be allayed by working through their
own misgivings and recognising the positive intentions of their student/s or by hearing positive
accounts of other teachers’ student voice work. Bragg has raised concerns that some of these
accounts may be ‘overly psychologizing’ (2007b, p. 344). Other critiques have similarly called
for more productive ways of theorising the linguistic, singular voice (Thomson, 2011) and of
exploring the problematic emotional dimensions of student voice (Zembylas, 2007).
In this article, we respond to these concerns by considering how unsettling felt
intensities circulate and congeal in schools seeking to promote student voice. Before
proceeding, however, it is important to clarify how we are using the terms ‘feeling’ and
‘emotion’. We do not understand ‘feelings’ to be individual possessions of an individual person
(for example, student/ teacher) ‘expressed’ from the ‘inside-out’ (Ahmed, 2004b, pp. 8-9).
Rather, feelings are intensities before and beyond human perception; we distinguish these from
‘emotions’ which are the labelling of these sensations in language (Grossberg, 2010). When
feelings are understood in individualistic ways, the responsibility falls on the individual to
smooth over and calm feelings deemed to be negative. Locating feelings with individuals alone
does not account for how feelings ‘rehearse associations that are already in place’ (Ahmed,
2004a, p. 31) – for example, gendered emotional norms that construct women as irrational and
overly emotional, and young people as emotionally ‘immature’. Individualising ‘feelings’ also
does not account for how interpretations of feeling are political, eliding questions of who
decides what feelings are acceptable and unacceptable and how such feelings should be
‘expressed’ (Boler, 1999).
In this article, we analyse spoken accounts and interpretations of feelings as emotions.
We deliberately use the term ‘emotions’; emotions are narrations of sometimes uncertain,
ambivalent sensations and feelings. People’s accounts of their ‘emotions’ are generally
composed through the lenses of received ways of understanding (Manning, 2007) – describing
feeling happy, excited, disappointed, confused, guilty, resentful, and so on. The way a person
talks about their ‘emotions’ are usually contained within the political boundaries of what is
acceptable and unacceptable to be said (Ahmed, 2004b; Boler, 1999). Our particular interest is
in the emotional politics of student voice: that is, the contestations that attend who gets to name
how student voice feels in schools. Our analysis seeks to complicate an understanding of
feelings as individualised and as either simply positive or negative. Instead, we suggest that
feeling, emotion and action in student voice are complex and sometimes paradoxical for
students, teachers and school leaders.
This article draws on data from a multi-sited case study of three primary schools in Victoria,
Australia, which has generated multiple accounts by students, teachers and school leaders of
their student voice practices and experiences. This study was commissioned by the Victorian
Student Representative Council (VicSRC) as an evaluation of its Primary School Engagement
(PSE) student voice program. We have synthesised the key themes from this evaluation study
elsewhere (see Mayes, Finneran, & Black, 2018).
The VicSRC is ‘the peak body representing school aged students in Victoria’
(VicSRC, 2018, para. 3); ‘it is run by students, for students’ (VicSRC, 2018, para. 1). The
VicSRC’s definition of student voice is:
Students have unique expertise and perspectives on learning, teaching, and
schooling, and should have the opportunity to actively shape their own education.
Student voice involves students actively participating in their schools, communities
and the education system, contributing to decision making processes and
collectively influencing outcomes by putting forward their views, concerns and
ideas. Student voice not only allows students to engage and participate meaningfully
in their own learning, it contributes to building leadership, confidence and other
skills that ensure student wellbeing. (Victorian Student Representative Council,
The evaluation was guided by two overarching research questions. The first question concerned
the various impacts of the Primary School Engagement project conducted by the Victorian
Student Representative Council (VicSRC). These impacts were expected to include shifts in:
school structures and processes; teaching and learning practices; pedagogical relationships
between students and teachers; teacher professional learning; student engagement and other
outcomes. The second question concerned the factors that enabled and constrained these
All three case study schools were nominated by the VicSRC for inclusion in the
evaluation because they are considered to have consciously adopted and implemented strong
student voice practices within the context of the PSE program and their own Student
Representative Councils (SRCs) or similar structures. These schools are not considered to be
representative of other schools’ experiences with the VicSRC or of student voice work. Rather,
they serve as a purposive, critical case sample (Yin, 2013) of the exemplary implementation of
student voice. Each has been identified by the VicSRC as leading student voice practices: one
has previously been awarded a VicSRC Recognition Award for their student voice work while
another was recently awarded the Department of Education and Training SRC of the Year -
Primary School at the VicSRC Student Voice Awards. Exemplary student voice practices have
been described by the Victorian Minister for Education as practices that ‘empower students to
fully participate in school life’ and that enhance ‘the ability of students to be part of decisions
that affect their learning and their lives at school’ (Merlino, 2017, para. 1 and para. 4), and by
the VicSRC as practices that ensure that ‘all students have access to education that is student-
led, student-driven and student-focused’ (VicSRC, 2016, p. 2). The recognition of these schools
as leading such practices makes them well-placed to shed light on the forces that shape the felt
experience of student voice for teachers and school leaders.
In this article, we use pseudonyms to denote each school, and demographic data from
the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) public My School
website (ACARA, 2017). Metro North is a government sector school located in a northern
suburban area in the capital city of Melbourne. It has an enrolment of 314 students and is
relatively socioeconomically advantaged according to its Australian Index of Community
Social Educational Advantage (ICSEA) of 1070 (where the ‘average’ is set at 1000; schools
with an index above 1000 are relatively advantaged, and schools with an index below 1000 are
relatively disadvantaged; see ACARA, 2015). Metro South is a Catholic system primary school
located in a southern suburban area of Melbourne with has an enrolment of 286 students and
an ICSEA of 1152. Regional School is a government sector school located
in regional Victoria. It has an enrolment of 338 students and an ICSEA index of 999.
While each school’s student voice practices vary, we offer some indicative examples
of their student voice practices to contextualise teachers’ responses. These include classroom-
level practices such as: teachers surveying their students about how they would like to learn
(Regional); older students consulting with younger students on a formal, weekly basis to
ascertain their concerns about the school environment and take action on their behalf (Metro
North); and students and teachers planning lessons together (Metro South). They also include
whole-school initatives such as: students sharing their research with teachers at a staff
professional learning meeting and jointly planning action for future student actions (Metro
South); a joint staff and student inquiry into the nature of ‘deep learning’ across the school
(Metro North); staff and student ‘think tank’ meetings to design strategies to strengthen student
voice in classrooms across the school (Regional); and whole school planning, designing,
building and maintenance of a chicken coop (Metro North).
Our methodological approach recognises that qualitative case studies continue to be
frequently used in student voice research (e.g. Nelson, 2017; Quinn & Owen, 2016). This is
because the case study method is well placed to shed light on the practice of student voice in
the complex grounded context of the school and over a period of time (Yin, 2013). The research
engagements of the evaluation study occurred over the course of 2018. At each of the three
schools, these engagements included focus groups with students and participant observation at
VicSRC events. They also included an individual face-to-face or telephone interview with the
school leader and two individual face-to-face interviews with the key teacher facilitating the
school’s SRC or equivalent student voice body. These interviews sought to generate an account
of student voice at the school before and during its involvement with the VicSRC, including
the challenges of enacting student voice.
Ethical consent was firstly obtained from the Human Research Ethics Committee
within the authors’ university as well as from the two governing agencies with responsibility
for state and Catholic schools in Victoria: the Department of Education and Training Victoria
and Catholic Education Melbourne. Following this, all school leaders signed an institutional
consent form authorising their school’s participation in the evaluation. This was then followed
by a process which asked all participants to sign individual consent forms. Students signed
their own consent forms, which were written in suitably accessible language, while
parents/carers also signed a separate consent form authorising their child’s participation.
During the course of the evaluation, participants were regularly reminded about their various
rights, such as the right to withdraw from the evaluation study at any time. Focus groups and
interviews were recorded and transcribed with the permission of participants, with all
identifiers of schools and individuals removed from the data.
Reflecting on the data
In this article, we concentrate on the data arising from our interviews with two teachers
and one school leader at each of the three schools. The teachers whom we have interviewed
were identified by their school leader as the leading champions or advocates of student voice
in their schools. In their interviews with us, these educators variously describe their own
student voice practices and provide accounts of the practice of other teachers within their
school. These accounts provide various representations of teachers who are, for a range of
reasons, excited and willing, or else uncertain, unenthusiastic or even resistant to the principles
and practices of student voice.
Our analysis of this data was initially informed by discourse analysis – ‘the analysis of
language in use’ (Rogers, 2003, p. 5). In using discourse analysis, we examined key terms or
phrases which can serve as ‘condensation symbols’ for wider educational discourses about
student voice (Troyna, 1994, p. 79). Our analysis also emerges from our own felt encounters
with the data, which are entangled with our own biographical histories with student voice. Both
authors began their careers as facilitators and advocates for student voice. Rosalyn Black’s PhD
thesis explored the ways in which young people are constructed as reflexive citizens and actors
through their schooling and what this means for young people who are subject to structural or
socioeconomic inequalities (Black, 2012). Eve Mayes’s PhD thesis explored the ambivalent
feelings circulating with and through the notion of student voice as necessarily ‘empowering’
(cf. Ellsworth, 1992; Mayes, 2016).
As we spoke to educators, listening to their accounts of the student voice practices at
their school, we were reminded of previous encounters in other spaces and times. At times, this
included memories of interviews with other educators – both those enthusiastic about student
voice, and others with reservations. The felt complexity of this research also reminded us of
previous scholarship in this area. McLeod, for example, describes teachers’ accounts of their
teaching work as something that spans and combines a complex emotional spectrum: ‘regret,
fondness, disappointment, longing, nostalgia, concern for the present, a story about teaching as
well as an account of themselves’ (2016, p. 275). MacLure describes ‘engagements with data’
as ‘experiments […] in which provisional and partial taxonomies are formed, but are always
subject to metamorphosis, as new connections spark among words, bodies, objects, and ideas’
(2013, p. 229). Nelson describes the ‘affective glow [of] emotionally sensed data’ (2017, pp.
191-192). The analytical approaches work with the feelings apprehended by the researcher
(which are often sidelined in formal accounts of data analysis processes), as well as with the
spoken accounts of participants, the research literature and broader theories and discourses.
Our research engagements, both at the time and in relation to other memories, generated
‘disconcerting sensations’ (MacLure, 2013, p. 229) – knots in the stomach, anticipation,
goosebumps, unease, lightness, fascination.
At the same time, we acknowledge, with Boler, that the study of feeling ‘is one of the
most difficult and slippery scholarly undertakings imaginable’ (2018, p. 193). Participants
spoke to us (as researchers) about their feelings and named them in particular terms, but that
was not necessarily what was ‘actually’ felt, nor will all readers necessarily interpret these
accounts in the same ways. As we consider the spoken accounts of our interviewees, we do not
pretend to be accessing the ‘true’ feeling of the educators who speak or are spoken for, nor can
we stop or pause the feelings articulated by teachers and school leaders for analysis. It also
must be noted that these accounts of the practice of other teachers were not specifically invited
by us. Rather, our interviews with school leaders and teachers sought to understand what they
hoped students, other teachers and school leaders might gain from the PSE program and any
concerns they may have had about how these stakeholders might respond to the program. What
emerged from this line of questioning was an often emotional response that revealed the felt
complexities of student voice in schools. Exploring these teachers and school leaders’ accounts,
we consider the politics of feeling and the politics of voice in schools, and question: who gets
to ‘speak for’ the feelings of others? Our analysis of these accounts gesture towards the ‘limited
vocabularies and capacities for reflecting on our affective experiences’ in schools (Boler, 2018,
‘A real buzz’
The widespread ratification of the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child has
made the perception of the ‘participation rights for children […] a new norm’ (Groundwater-
Smith & Mockler, 2019, p. 29). In the state of Victoria, there has been recent policy recognition
and prioritising of student voice as of foundational significance for student engagement and
quality teaching and learning (VicDET, 2018). Such policy endorsements may increase the
capacities for educators who are already enthusiastic about the pedagogical possibilities of
student voice, such as the teachers and school leaders whom we interviewed. These teachers
and school leaders are all emotionally engaged in student voice and passionate about its
observed and potential benefits for their students. All gave accounts of the affirmative effects
of student voice experiences on students and teachers. For example, the Metro South school
leader describes a student presentation to the teachers participating in a professional learning
The highlight for me is just seeing the students in action […] you could see that they
felt that they were being listened to and that they were being given this great
opportunity to work with the staff, and I could see how excited they were and their
work through the process was coming to a point where it was genuinely being heard
and that they were calling – not calling the shots, but they were running it, they were
running the show, and that they – you know, I think they got a real buzz out of it.
So that is the most exciting thing for me.
Describing this event, the school leader describes a felt transition in feeling – a ‘real buzz’ and
‘excit[ement]’ – an increase in the capacity to act – for the students, their teachers, and the
school leader. There are two cohorts being praised in this account: the students who have taken
up the invitation to have a voice, and the teachers who have welcomed and accepted that voice.
The Metro North school leader, for example, has warm praise for the teacher championing the
implementation of the PSE program and student voice in that school: ‘[she] is very proactive
and very engaged with the kids and wanting them to be engaged in as many opportunities as
they can be outside of the school, to build their voice and agency’. This teacher is praised as a
key actor in the creation of a climate where students’ voices can flourish.
‘Very keen’ and ‘really open’
These student voice champions are also quick to praise the adoption of student voice
practices and principles by their other colleagues. In the following account, the Metro North
teacher describes surveys in which students provided feedback about their satisfaction and
engagement in the school experience as a whole as well as with the work of individual teachers.
Where some teachers may be resistant to taking such feedback on board, it is part of the culture
of the PSE program that there is an open and receptive climate in which student views are taken
Probably the most positive, interesting observation I had was when we collated the
data. Teachers were very keen not just to look at the school data, but they wanted
to look at their own class data. “So, how did my students respond to this?”
A similar account emerges from the Regional teacher:
[…] we are really lucky that our teachers are really open to that. They want to hear
from the kids, even if it is negative: how can we improve? So there's no egos. It's
all really positive.
This perceived openness to hearing from students suggests teachers’ desire to gain insights into
students’ understandings of their practices (Keddie, 2015). However, there may also be other
vectors in motion. The Regional teacher described how students have recently had more of a say
in ‘their classroom with day-to-day learning’. Following student surveys about their teachers and
a student-staff brainstorm session, teachers formulated their own professional goals for students to
Those goals are visible; should be still visible in all of the classrooms; so that (a)
the teacher can see them but [(b)] that the kids – the students are very good at saying,
"Remember, that was your goal." So you have to remember to do whatever it was,
[for example] "reflection at the end of the section". […] So the teachers have set
goals and the kids have monitored those; so it is actually student-led.
It is not for us to say how the teachers who are making their goals ‘visible’ in their classrooms
feel about this mandated practice; there may be some teachers whose capacities are increased
by this practice, and others who may feel challenged and incapacitated (or something more
ambivalent in between these extremes). Bragg wonders, in a broader educational climate of
accountability and audit, whether teachers ‘may be suspicious about what will happen to the
data that students collect’ (or that is generated about them from student surveys), and may be
concerned that students ‘may not fully understand the complexities of the context or the system
in which they operate’ (2007a, p. 513). If framed in consumerist terms, student voice may
‘position [students] as consumers, judging the quality of instruction’ (Charteris & Smardon,
2019b, p. 104). Teachers may be keenly aware of how student data may be used against them,
and of the need to present an ‘open’ and ‘keen’ teacher face. These teacher narratives describe
the receptiveness of colleagues to student voice, but they do so in ways that are emotionally
loaded. The facilitating teachers themselves are enthusiastic and gratified about the school
culture they describe. There is also a suggestion that teachers embracing student voice are
putting the students first: as the Regional teacher puts it, ‘there’s no egos’. The counter
suggestion is that if teachers are resistant to student voice, this could be connected to ‘ego’: to
pride and the willingness to put their emotional needs before those of their students.
‘Set in their ways’?
The teachers and school leaders in these three schools also demonstrate some sympathy for
those of their colleagues who are struggling with the PSE program. Yet, their accounts also
have an edge of disapproval and even dismissal. According to the teacher at Metro North:
Some people have said that they find the student voice thing challenging because
[…] they are quite set in their ways.
I don’t think many staff would be open to having students comment on their
performance, as such. […] I think they think that it's giving them [students] too
And the ones that I have noticed are the ones that have been teaching for a long
time, that are set in their ways, and they like to do things in their certain way. You
don't hear too much of it because we are so student voice focussed in everything
that we have been doing. Maybe they just don’t tell me because it’s a big part of
what I do. Maybe they don’t want to say it to me. But I have had people say to me
‘oh, you know, this student voice stuff is hard’.
In this account, colleagues who are not fully adopting the principles and practices of student
voice are suggested to be resistant or uncomfortable. There is an insinuation that these are older
teachers who are not only out of touch with newer pedagogies but whose identities as teachers
are ‘set’ or rigid by comparison with the ‘open’ or innovative identities of those teachers who
champion student voice within the school. This is not a simple account about the introduction
of new pedagogical practices; there are strong emotional overtones here as well. Where student
voice brings creativity and satisfaction to some teachers’ practice, it may bring others blame,
shame and anxiety. Teachers may self-censor; there may be uncomfortable silences,
particularly with staff who are known to champion student voice practices. By contrast, for the
teacher at Metro North, new (and, by inference, younger) teachers are held up as the future of
student voice practice in the school:
Even when new teachers come in, we would say ‘this is how we do things at our
school’. The best way is to get new teachers on board and say ‘this is the way it’s
run. This is what we do’.
Hargreaves notes that ‘although classroom responsibilities are at the core of teachers’ work, it
is teachers’ relations with other adults that seem to generate the most heightened expressions
of emotionality among them’ (2001, p. 506). This teacher’s account constructs student voice
practice as a mark of belonging into which new teachers are invited or initiated. Those teachers
who are unconvinced or unwilling to adopt student voice remain outside this normative practice
and the forms of belonging it implies. According to the school leader at Metro North:
For us, I think the relationships, teaching and learning relationships are not where
we would have hoped after a four-year strategic plan, but they [teachers] are
certainly moving down that track/pathway.
In such accounts, reluctant teachers may be positioned as part of the slower ‘progress’ of a
school towards its strategic planning goals.
Despite the positive statements which we considered earlier, it is clear that some teachers in
each of the three schools are finding its student voice practices emotionally challenging. This
is hardly surprising: as the Metro North school leader puts it, the PSE program requires teachers
to substantially change the language and dynamics of their classroom, to ‘throw […] the power
back’ to their students. The Metro North school leader is well aware of the factors that may
underpin some teachers’ resistance to the PSE program and student voice:
I don’t think many staff would be open to having students comment on their
performance, as such. And they might get – yeah … I think they [teachers] think
that it’s giving them [students] too much power.
This school leader is sensitive to that challenge and describes the need to accommodate those
teachers who are still adapting to these new pedagogical norms:
We also, though, want to be cautious about that because if you just open the
floodgates to that, and children present a challenge to a teacher in a way that feels
uncomfortable to the teacher, the teacher will close the doors again. So we want to
make sure that we build respectful dialogue and challenge within that context.
This sympathetic discourse of teacher discomfort simultaneously serves to justify limiting the
scope of student voice within the school. The PSE program encourages students to express
their views about the teaching and learning environment of the school, but at the Metro North
school, this does not extend to commenting on individual teachers’ performance. This
curtailing of student voice stems from the pragmatic recognition of school leadership that
student voice is emotionally intense for teachers and that feelings are attended by risk – that
‘floodgates’ might be ‘open[ed]’.
At the Regional school, the school leader is similarly sympathetic about the pedagogical
leap which may be required of teachers involved in the PSE program. The discourse here is of
support, accompanied by a distancing from uncertain or unconvinced teachers:
[H]ow do you get someone who hasn’t got the natural philosophy, attitude or
capab[ility] – how do you get them from zero, you know, to being able to do it?
Because sometimes you have either got it or you haven't. […] I guess it is getting
permission; it is being good examples. So we have to expose them to what's possible
and resourcing them with some skills to be able to do all of that.
Here, those teachers who welcome and support student voice are positioned as having a
naturally or inherently democratic attitude towards their teaching practice. They are contrasted
to those who do not possess this ‘natural’ disposition, and who need to be taught and resourced
to develop it. The inference is that such teachers are lacking or in deficit (author details
removed), both in terms of their professional aptitude and ability but also, by extension, in
some deeper pedagogical attribute that must be modelled for them.
In environments such as these, it may be those teachers who have misgivings about
student voice who face the greatest challenges in voicing their concerns, rather than those who
seek to champion it. Black (2015) has previously described the efforts of a small number of
teachers to promote student voice in the face of a resistant school culture. Our interviewed
teachers are not in this position. Since they have the support of the VicSRC and of school
leadership, they represent the new pedagogical hegemony within their school. It is their
unconvinced colleagues who are in the professionally risky position of opposition or dissent.
This last point raises a number of questions. What are the felt dimensions of student
voice practice for teachers who are uncertain about its claims? What opportunities do such
teachers have to raise dissenting voices? Who speaks for such teachers, and how are they
represented by their colleagues who champion student voice?
The affective politics of student voice
Parallels can be drawn between the construction of some teachers as reluctant about student
voice practices, and previous analyses of marginalised student voices in schools. Previous
analyses have warned about the silencing and exclusion of certain student voices. Black, for
example, has noted that some student voices ‘are unacceptable within the normative,
institutionalised imaginary of the school as a whole’ (Black, 2015, p. 378). Batchelor has
described the ‘vulnerable student voices’ that are overlooked, drowned out or silenced by the
normative discourses and dynamics of education institutions (2006, p. 787). Fewer accounts
have considered that in some instances, it may be teachers themselves whose voices are
marginalised as a result of the school’s adoption of student voice: an uncomfortable irony. The
professional precarity of teachers who may, for various reasons, feel uncomfortable about
student voice practices has been particularly underexplored. In an institutional climate where
teachers’ appointment and promotion opportunities are premised on the demonstration of
‘evidence’ of proficiency according to ‘standards’ for particular professional practices, it
becomes significant to explore these teachers’ reservations.
In order to analyse the implementation of student voice in more nuanced tones, it is
necessary to consider the profoundly emotional experience of teaching and learning, the
ambivalences of teachers’ experiences of student voice, and contemporary reconstitutions of
teacher subjectivities. As Britzman makes clear, ‘the difficult existential truth about education’
is that teaching can be ‘deeply unsettling and conflictive’ (2012, p. 3). In the dynamic
movements of teaching and learning, students and teachers affect and are affected by powerful,
unsettling, and often inexplicable feelings, and schools may seek to reduce the impact and
disallow the ambivalence of these feelings.
The institutional encouragement to engage in student voice practices can, variously,
affect a teacher’s capacity to speak and to act; these practices may variously embolden or
trouble a teacher’s sense of their ‘identity’ as a teaching subject. Nelson suggests that student
voice can never be other than ‘contingent, incoherent, elusive and becoming’ (2017, p. 192), a
game within which ‘students and adults are positioned as mutually but differently powered
players/ dealers contesting and co-constructing contingent truth’ (p. 193). Nelson is describing
the dynamics of student voice research, but her depiction could be just as easily extended to
the felt dynamics of student voice between the teachers charged with its implementation and
The accounts of the teachers and school leaders who position themselves as embracing
student voice suggest that they draw energy and inspiration from their work with students. At
the same time, their student voice practices may generate affective risks for some of their
colleagues. What different teachers’ ‘voices’ and bodies can do seems contingent on their
positioning within various school arrangements. Thinking about the affective nuances of
student voice, Mayes and her colleagues have previously adapted the words of Deleuze and
Guattari, replacing their word ‘body’ for the word ‘voice’:
We know nothing about a [voice] until we know what it can do, in other words,
what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other
affects, with the affects of another [voice], either to destroy that [voice] or to be
destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in
composing a more powerful [voice]. (Mayes et al., 2017, p. 31)
Teachers’ ‘voices’ may de/re/compose with students’ voices in shifting institutional, material,
discursive and affective arrangements. Britzman suggests that the pedagogical work of
teaching requires the construction of a ‘teaching voice’, a process which may involve ‘finding
the words, feeling heard, understanding one’s practical constraints, learning from negative
experiences, speaking one’s mind, and constructing a new identity from speaking differently
the language of education’ (2012, p. 18). For the student voice champions whom we
interviewed, their ‘teaching voice’ includes the work and the vocabulary of promoting (and, at
times, protecting) the voices of students, which strengthened their own capacity to give an
account of their pedagogical work in affirmative terms. Our study did not allow us to explore
what the ‘teaching voice’ might sound like for those teachers who were less convinced about
the value of student voice, but it did shed light on how such teachers are described or voiced
by their colleagues.
Another issue which our study did not permit us to explore is why student voice is
resisted by some teachers, and the complex affective intrapersonal dynamics at work in schools
when students ‘have a voice’. Teacher resistance may be, as Biddle and Hufnagel suggest, a
response to ‘the often implicit political challenges of allowing students to express their voices
within the context of traditionally hierarchical school structures’ (2019, p. 490). It may be that
teachers hold ‘unspoken “emotional” investments in unexamined ideological beliefs’ (Boler,
1999, p. xvii) – including deficit conceptions of the capacities of the children and young people
whom they teach (Gillett-Swan & Sargeant, 2019). It may also be that pressures to perform and
meet systemic targets pull teachers back into more familiar pedagogical approaches (Bourke
& Loveridge, 2018). As Charteris and Smardon note, ‘the political currents of neoliberalism
continue to influence how voicework is enacted in schooling settings’ (2019a, p. 13). We are
reluctant to speak for these teachers who are represented by their colleagues as ‘set in their
ways’, as to if and why they are uncertain about contemporary student voice practices. Instead,
we suggest that further work is needed to take account of and appraise how student voice feels
for all involved, particularly in the context of shifts to the discursive, material and affective
conditions of teachers’ work. Such work might attempt to attune to the range of affective
experiences of those charged to ‘empower’ their students.
We acknowledge and pay respects to the traditional custodians of the lands on which this research was conducted:
the Wurundjeri and Wadawurrung people of the Kulin nations, and pay respects to their Elders past, present and
emerging. Rachel Finneran was a Research Assistant to the Primary School Evaluation project, and we
acknowledge and thank her for her project management and interviewing skills. We thank the anonymous peer
reviewers and the editors for their constructive feedback and support.
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