MindMatters Panel: Module 2.4 Empowering students

Julia Zemiro:
Hello, I’m Julia, welcome to the MindMatters panel. We’ve all read Lord of the Flies so we all kind of know what happens when young people are in charge, but we’ve also read The Hunger Games so we know what happens when adults are in charge. Here to help us figure out how adults and young people can share power without a violent rebellion are: clinical psychologist and family therapist Andrew Fuller; assistant principal George Massouris; teacher Nerissa Rodriguez; teacher Martin De Clercq and former student, Habib Mohammadi. It’s finished now hasn’t it – now you’re a student outside of high school that’s alright. But first let’s see if Phil at Eagleton has any bright ideas on how to empower students.

Eagleton High clip:

PHILLIP
In the bad old days at Eagleton, pre- MindMatters, student empowerment was limited to choosing what flavours of milk were sold at the canteen. But now we have a new initiative – Student Positive Emotion and Wellbeing Team.

The students came up with the name... 
But we take it a lot more seriously than the acronym suggests.

The SPEW Team are a group of really keen students who brainstorm ideas for improving mental health in the school. A few of them have come along today to pitch a few ideas at me.

MIRANDA
We could do a presentation at assembly...

PHILLIP
good, but try to think bigger.
 
JACKSON
So, we could do these custom postcard things, with something about mental health on them, and this super detailed design that I could draw, and send it out to all the parents... 
  
PHILLIP
I love your vision, but try to think smaller.
 
CINDY
Stand-up Comedy night!

PHILLIP
Cindy, comedy has no place in a mental health program.

NICK
An obstacle course...

PHILLIP
Safety.

LEELA
A Facebook page…
 
PHILLIP
Privacy.

CAMERON 
A cage fighting league...

PHILLIP
Seriously?
 
Seriously?

PATRICK
Beauty Therapy!

PHILLIP
Patrick. If you’re not going to take this seriously you can no longer be in charge of the SPEW team. 
 
PATRICK
But it’s all about building a connection with the mums...

PHILLIP
No, I’m sorry. Take your badge off and give it to Mr Schmuttermaier. I’m putting a teacher in charge.

We’re still working through the process.

Julia Zemiro:
Well Mr Schmuttermaier said I could be in charge. Cage fighting sounds tempting but it’s illegal, come on - let’s go with the stand-up comedy night because there is room for comedy. Now look why didn’t Phil get that right? What exactly is student empowerment and why would we want to do it? Andrew.

Andrew Fuller:
Well, yes, I’m still spewing from it too – yeah so, obviously the students need to have a sense that they can make a difference in the world and the only way they can make that sense is by doing things in the world that do make a difference and so it’s about kids learning that kids change from the outside in. That essentially if I get them doing things that are powerful, compassionate, forgiving, caring, generous then they define themselves in that way.

Julia Zemiro:
What was he doing wrong though?

Martin De Clercq:
He wasn’t empowering students at all. He was in charge.

Julia Zemiro:
And also a bit negative too, was he being negative or just that he wasn’t letting them talk more about it because not every idea’s going to work but you have to try, is that the idea?

Martin De Clercq:
There’s a difference between being negative and sort of constructive criticism and I think he was being a bit negative. 

Julia Zemiro:
So, you’re all out there – Habib, you’re a former student. How do you empower students? Give me some examples that are happening.

George Massouris:
Our program started off. Our issue was bullying and we thought well the best way to find out what’s going on out there is not only hearing kids are being bullied but actually get the bulliess and talk to them and not the traditional kid, the leader or the normal kid that does academically well but opening it up to kids that normally wouldn’t be in any group to talk to you and we had to sort of break down a few things with them but eventually – their opinions were just as worthy as anyone else’s and we used a lot of that information to form our broader group and it helped us because they went out with a different mindset after they heard from each other about why they do the things they do.

Julia Zemiro:
Habib, you were one of those kids.

Habib Mohammadi:
Yes. I was. 
 
Julia Zemiro:
And thank you for coming here today and sharing that. Tell us about your experience.

Habib Mohammadi:
Well, multi-pride started a few years ago. I was having my days and doing all the things that boys do, getting in trouble and everything. But I met the guy through city of Casey, he’s a youth worker, he’s like a multi-cultural officer or something down in city of Casey and he started talking to me and I was helping him out with the volunteer work and everything with a lot of his programs and one day he’s like ‘Oh we’re starting a new program at the school, do you want to join us?’ I was like ‘Oh I’ll be keen’ but I wasn’t really keen at the time.

Julia Zemiro:
So you were lying? Is what you’re saying? 

Habib Mohammadi:
You could take it that way, or not.  And then he’s like ‘Oh join it’ and I was like ‘oh fair enough, I’ll join.’ and I went to a few of the meetings and everything so did the kids.

George Massouris:
There was food.

Habib Mohammadi:
I wasn’t there for the food, it was more about students coming, like actually start doing something.

Julia Zemiro:
What are the things that you actually did like what were some of the ideas?

Habib Mohammadi:
Some of the ideas were basically –  the big ones are –  we work with the local primary school and we went on a camp with them and also inside the school we set up a like few other like breakfast club, we had our own camps and everyone basically in the group does something. The school is massive so we have kids starting from year 7 to year 12 so everyone has their own zone, like their own part of the school so basically where ever year 7 are, they normally, once a week they get told to just stay there at recess and lunch if kids want to talk, or anything that happens – they can go tell their teachers and that’s – normally we have kids that come up to the students and they’re like ‘Oh, I want to join you guys and be part of it ‘ because the jumper we were wearing is like maroon.

Julia Zemiro:
So you had the jumper to identify who you were.

George Massouris:
They provide the safe zones for our school and it just changed that sort of fabric of how relationships were had out in the yard and yeah it was lunchtime and recess and it was a safe zone and each kid had a zone to sort of patrol.

Nerissa Rodriguez:
Our café we started back in 2011, and the kids come to school at 7am. They’re there, and there could be up to 15 kids there ready to work. The boys have implemented all different things to try and get the kids involved and it’s nice to actually share your ideas and actually feel like ‘Oh it’s making a difference, and it’s being heard.’ 

Julia Zemiro:
If something goes wrong, what do you do?

Martin De Clercq:
You let it happen.

Julia Zemiro:
Do you? You have to be brave enough to let it happen.

Martin De Clercq:
It depends what you’re talking about going wrong. I mean if you set something well enough where it’s sort of secure, you let students learn from failure. In one of our life skill subjects there – at the end of the year the students can – have to organise their own excursion for the class to do with one of the topics done so – for instance one of the groups went to the immigration museum and then went out for lunch at a restaurant in Footscray and there’s 5 classes that were running in that year level, I think it was year 9 that they run it at and 4 out of the 5 went. One just couldn’t get their act together and organise it and so they never went and that was all left up to them, the teacher didn’t come in at the last second and help them out.

Julia Zemiro:
Ah right ok. So they missed out? 

Martin De Clercq:
Yep. They just – they didn’t get it organised in time so didn’t do it but learnt from it. That was as a valuable lesson as it was going out to those things.

Julia Zemiro:
Yes. I don’t want to miss that next time.

George Massouris:
We let our program really take a long time to evolve and so we just put kids together every fortnight that come in – they’d want to come – the meetings would be quite shambolic for weeks and you know, bit by bit we learnt that we had to work with each other and I think the youth workers helped us through that and they sort of got the kids to start to listen to each other, often they’d all talk at the same time so it took weeks – that first year, you know, sometimes I’d question how far we’d come but luckily in our case it was quite organic, we let it evolve. We thought well, it’s 50 minutes out there what could possibly go wrong?

Julia Zemiro:
Andrew, do you find this a lot in schools?

Andrew Fuller:
Well, I think whatever you try to do, something’s going to go wrong, you know, in fact that’s part of the process isn’t it? In schools and in society we often get too outcome focused and really it’s that process of human kind of foibles and working out you know I let my friends down or I didn’t do my bit so therefore the whole thing didn’t happen can be just as valuable.

Julia Zemiro:
Do you have a SPEW team at your school Martin? No.

Martin De Clercq:
We don’t have a SPEW team, we’ve got an initiative that happened by accident actually and it’s become really successful and we’ve learnt from it and again it took a while to get off the ground. The Reverend at school at the time applied for a grant to make a short film, she got a flier that said you can apply for a $30,000 grant I think it was about that to make, if you were successful in your application and she was quite shocked and sort of came in and goes you know ‘We’ve got it, what do we do now?’. So that was two years ago and so we run the life skills subject, we run it at the year 10 level – we decided to pitch it at them and we said we’re after volunteers to join this group and the film had to be about sexuality, that was the theme of the grant and so students came on board and staff pretty much said first meeting there was no agenda it was, ‘we have to have it done by here so how are we going to do it?‘ and there was some guidance. So they decided with the money they’d hire a – use the money for a director to help them and they attended seminars and then the students just took a life of their own. They were contacting the project and they’re still out promoting that – that was 2 years ago and so then the next year we kept the initiative up. We said ok, we’re going to do it again, we don’t have a grant or anything but that whole project was so successful and student-driven that we said we’re calling it the awareness project, we don’t even have a topic this year, if anyone would like to join – and the momentum from the first one, everyone saw that and was just so excited that they – we had to sort of say we’re going to cap it at 25 students and that’s it. And they chose refugees as  their topic and again they educated themselves throughout the year – they researched on what seminars were available and who to contact to get information and this year it’s the environment is the topic. 

Julia Zemiro:
Were they good films?

Martin De Clercq:
Yeah they were fantastic, yeah they’re really good, 3 shorts films and –

Julia Zemiro:
Because really you also want the product, you know it’s about making an interesting product, something’s that, you know, works and – 

Martin De Clercq:
Exactly and we’ve been talking at length that you know failure is just as important but you kind of, you do want some success and it was really successful. So yeah they  – even the – they decided to make 3 short films that were kind of out of order and when you watch together it was from different people’s perspective and all those ideas and the script and everything was them and even the acting was them and it was fantastic.

Julia Zemiro:
It’s a great example of you did have money to begin with, then there wasn’t so you had to be creative and I will ask that question. A lot of schools will be saying ‘we’ve got limited resources, we can’t fund everything the students what to do, so how do we choose what to run?’ You did it that way. What are some other ways where you can choose what you’re going to run?

George Massouris:
We’ve currently run out of money.

Julia Zemiro:
You’re going to be creative.

George Massouris:
So we’re going back out to our community and we don’t have a lot of money now but we don’t really need it. Right now our school’s sort of saying give us the ideas and we might be able to build them in to our programs and that’s where you can get your funding as well.

Julia Zemiro:
Can the students choose or is it always that level that has to be teacher-led?

Andrew Fuller:
Most of the effective strategies and resilience I’ve seen all around the country don’t cost much money. Good relationships don’t cost money so it doesn’t actually require, I mean sure it’s nice to have coffee machines, it’s a great thing to have or to have some funds to create films and stuff like that. Of course, that’s great but really the guts of it doesn’t require very much at all perhaps the odd pizza, the odd bit of food and a bit of bribery to kind of kick it off. But generally once that happens I find that schools take it on in fact often it’s those really, you know, we’re flying by the seat of our pants, we’re not sure if it’s going to work out – we haven’t got no money at all are the things that often end up being the most successful. 

Julia Zemiro:
Necessity. Mother of invention – all that.

Andrew Fuller:
Teachers and students are incredibly innovative creatures, you know,,they really are very creative and if you let that energy happen often it’s better than having a kind of – because, you know, when you get a grant for say a video, it’s on a particular topic or, you know, you’ve got to spend it in a particular way, or you’ve got to justify it and sometimes that can get in the way of some of the best ideas.

Julia Zemiro:
From a mental health perspective, why do student empowerment at all?

Andrew Fuller:
Well we know that one of the fundamental characteristics of mental health is hope. If you don’t have hope in your life, that things can change, so that you actually have some power to change things – then you’re helpless really and hopeless and defeated and of course they’re the really warning signs of the commencement of depression and despair and so by basically modelling empowerment in a school by giving students the opportunity to do things that change circumstances for either themselves or for other people and thereby doing that, that changes things for you because you’re helping other people. Then you get the sense that you can do it, you can actually shift things and what we really want is young people who feel like they can change not only their own world but the world and that’s why we do it.

Julia Zemiro:
To inspire you to provide young people with some opportunities to practise responsibility we’ll leave you with the words of Kurt Vonnegut who wrote “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.”