Field Trip: Ownership & Student Voice


Picture what happens happen when every staff member in your school or district – from substitutes to the superintendent – can articulate exactly how they are connected to your educational mission. When students have a genuine voice in their learning. When everyone feels heard and has ownership in education.

That’s what Mountain Brook Schools in Birmingham, Alabama set their sights on.

Director of Instruction Missy Brooks and junior high principal Donald Clayton share why they were surprised when they asked students if they felt listened to or not, and what they did in response:

  • How they cast a vision for soliciting student voice
  • What having a voice does for students – and how it’s possible to get excited about learning grammar
  • How they build ownership in every staff member across the district so that every single person is invested in making an educational impact
  • Offering professional development that encourages ownership and leadership
  • How all of this breaks down barriers between the district office, building leadership and staff


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Full Transcript  

Today’s story is about cultivating ownership at every level throughout an entire school district.

DONALD CLAYTON: When everybody’s pulling, like Missy said — custodians, teachers, administrators, students, top to bottom — when everybody’s pulling the same direction, it just us at a different place to where we really are meeting the kids’ needs, especially in the local school.

What does it look like to make sure everyone is involved and has a stake in the education students are getting?

MISSY BROOKS: That became abundantly clear, that focusing on student voice and student ownership of their work was something that we needed to work on.

It’s the podcast for leaders in K12. We bring you stories of people who are meeting the challenges of education in the 21st century head-on, in creative and exciting ways.

DONALD CLAYTON: We’re more connected than we’ve ever been, and I don’t mean that just in our building. There are a lot of different strands of that. I think we’re more, I know we’re more connected with our students. We’re more connected to one another, because there’s power in working on the same thing together.

From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.

RYAN ESTES: My guests today are Missy Brooks, Director of Instruction at Mountain Brook Schools, and she is joined today by Donald Clayton, who is principal of Mountain Brook Junior High. Missy and Donald, thank you for being here.

DONALD CLAYTON: Thanks for having us.

MISSY BROOKS: Absolutely.

Mountain Brook is a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. It’s a tight-knit community. Lots of people who grow up there wind up coming back after college. Mountain Brook Schools serves about 4,300 students. The schools are a real centerpiece of the community.

RYAN ESTES: Today we’re talking about how to build a culture of ownership within a school district among all stake holders. But the first question really has to be, what do you mean by a culture of ownership?

MISSY BROOKS: What we mean by that is, we want everyone that is a part of our school district and even our broader community to really feel a part of our school district. We want students to own their own learning and to be advocates for themselves, and we want to bring forth their voice. But we also want teachers and administrators, custodians, C&P, central office staff, every single person that works in this district, to feel like they are a huge part of this district.

And more than just being a part of the district – they’re working to make sure every single person in the district understands and is invested in how they impact the education students receive.

RYAN ESTES: What kinds of things do we see in a school district when there isn’t this culture of ownership? I mean, what is it that this is going to really bring on a day to day level to what it is that you’re doing with students?

DONALD CLAYTON: Well, I think what is a big thing that it brings is just the continuity and the unity of investment. Because it sounds cliché sometimes, but when everybody’s pulling on the same values and the same beliefs of what upholds our kids and sets them up going forward, when everybody’s pulling, like Missy said, custodians, teachers, administrators, students, top to bottom, when everybody’s pulling the same direction, it just puts us at a different place to where we really are meeting the kids’ needs, especially in the local school.

RYAN ESTES: So tell me a little bit about the connection between leadership and ownership. What have you found about equipping people to take on leadership and ownership?

MISSY BROOKS: So one of the things that we’ve done recently is to put in some structures so that everyone can see their place in the district. And when I mean place, I mean the investment in and how important they are, so that we can achieve our purpose. So recently, as a matter of fact, February 15th, we did this, we had kind of a state of the district where our superintendent talked to us about all kinds of things, just trying to be very transparent, letting everybody know the financial situation of the district, et cetera.

Missy said that one of the things they wanted to work on was staff cohesion. They wanted to encourage people to get out of their silos, begin working across departments. And in order to do that, they just wanted to help the staff get to know one another better. They divided up the entire staff – teachers, administrators, custodians, librarians, everyone who’s a full-time employee – into 32 different cohorts, each one having conversations and doing activities based around getting to know one another and the district’s purpose statement.

MISSY BROOKS: We identified facilitators for each cohort and we put them through a training. And by design, we intentionally did not select anyone in a leadership role, meaning a principal, assistant principal, district staff. Those people were not facilitators, and that was intentional. So we had administrative assistants that were facilitative leaders. We had our head custodian at the high school. We had a bookkeeper from one of our elementary schools. We had some teachers, of course, in there and we spent a while training them on the activities of that day. And then they were the ones that had to lead the cohort.

So it was a very light day. We did things like, when they first got in the room, they had everybody line up without talking, in order of years of experience in Mountain Brook. And so then everybody kind of said, “Well here’s what it did.” For me, I’ve been in Mountain Brook, this is my 11th year in Mountain Brook, but it’s my 28th year in education. So I had a lot of other experiences. And you got to share that just to see who was in the room. And it didn’t really matter based on your job in the district, it just mattered how long you had been here.

DONALD CLAYTON: Our group was actually led by one of the school nurses and she just did a phenomenal job of facilitating and giving everybody an opportunity to get to know each other. It was really interesting for me, because there were several people in the room that I already knew, but when we’re in those conversations and I’m asking these questions, like, “What are your favorite movies?” I got to know them differently and better. And it was just a great opportunity to connect across the district. You know, all the schools and all the departments are familiar to me when you start getting a chance to interact with people from all of these different departments, it just makes it that much better. It gives more life to the whole group.

MISSY BROOKS: And then we did something called — we laughed because it’s kind of like speed dating, but it was really just like one minute interviews. So we lined up in two lines and we had random questions like, “If you could give advice to your middle school self, what would that be? If you could take a vacation and time and money didn’t matter, what would it be? Where would you go? What would you do?” And so you had a one minute conversation with someone just opposite you and you shared that, and then you switched and you went down the line. So you got to speak to everyone and have these kinds of conversations so that you really got to know something about the person.

RYAN ESTES: So these are cross team, cross department. It’s not like the custodians all in their cohort and then —


RYAN ESTES: Okay, great. So everyone’s talking with everybody else.

MISSY BROOKS: Yeah, everyone’s talking with everybody else. And so in my cohort, for instance, I had a C&P manager. I had some very first year teachers, this is their very first year of teaching ever. I think we had an instructional aide. We had someone who had been in the district for 25 years. So it was just very random how it all kind of came out, which was the intent. And so you get to just meet everybody with that. And then finally we did this activity. It’s called quick lineup. And basically, you line up in four lines to make a square, and you hook arms at each line, but the lines aren’t hooked together, if that makes sense. And as the person in the center turns, then they have to quick line up and get back in the formation that they need it to be.

And the whole idea behind that was, when we move, we ultimately have to move together to meet our purpose, but we might do it in different ways. You know, who was the leader in that move and why did you let that person lead? Those kind of conversations, just to get a sense of “We’re all in this together and we’re all heading on this journey together this way, and it’s okay if we get there and at different times and different pathways, because that’s what we need to do. And each school needs to have their own personality and each job has their own specific role.” So that’s kind of what we did, and we shared out those kinds of things. And I think it was really positive.

Missy wasn’t the only person to feel that way.

MISSY BROOKS: I actually had the head custodian tell me, he said, “What was amazing about that is there was such commonality within all of us.” And that’s what we wanted to them to see, is that we really are all working toward the same thing, and we all have a purpose. Dr. Barlow, our superintendent, took some custodians to lunch after that. He saw them in the parking lot and said, “Hey, why don’t you come to lunch with me? And he said when they got in his car, they sat and talked about how amazing it was, and how they were so excited to be included in this particular endeavor, that they really felt like they were special — and they are special. He said it was really neat, and it was very powerful. And we’ve had a lot of comments like that, “That was so awesome, everybody was included. It was fun. We got to meet people.” One person who is an instructional aide, fairly new to the district, and she said, “I’m so excited because now when we have big meetings like this, I have someone to sit with,” which is pretty powerful.

DONALD CLAYTON: Yeah. And I can add to that too. We have that conversation of input, and I have seen — I think it’s really neat, people look for input in different ways. And you know, leaders can ask great questions to get input, but having opportunities like this to input your personality, input who you are, into the whole organization and find connections within it, that’s an input that I probably didn’t see. I thought those things just happen naturally. But you know, being intentional about it, like Missy said, it’s a great way to get a different layer of input. I think the one leaders are trained to do in getting ownership is asking the right questions and pulling thoughts and ideas about where value is from your people. But having opportunities for people to offer themselves as input, that’s something I hadn’t really seen before, but I can tell there’s a lot of fruit from that.

I asked Missy and Donald what the catalyst was for focusing on ownership and leadership at Mountain Brook. What made them say, “Here’s an area we really need to devote some time and resources to”? And Missy said as they began having conversations about their strategic direction, they not only realized that they needed greater staff cohesion, but they also needed to involve students more in the mission of the school.

MISSY BROOKS: We had no idea that we didn’t listen to our students at the level that we thought we were listening to our students. And having students in the room, that became abundantly clear that focusing on student voice and student ownership of their work with something that we needed to work on.

The activity that we did, we had someone from the Schlechty Center come in and lead this for us. If you’re familiar with Phil Schlechty’s work, he has this chart, and it says all of the different people that have a part in the school, from the community to the parents to the students, teachers, administrators, central office, all of that. And then it’s kind of a rubric, in that he gives a description of where you fall and he talks a lot about being a bureaucracy versus being a learning organization. And we want to be a learning organization. We had talked a lot about that over the last five, six, seven years, of the learning organization part. What came out in this conversation was, it was a group of 80-something people, and we were each in tables and each group had to put where they thought they were. Where did we fit on this rubric with all of these different groups of people?

There were students in the room for this exercise, and it emerged that the leadership considered Mountain Brook more of a learning organization, with regard to student input, than the students did.

MISSY BROOKS: Our students considered themselves tokens, like you have this [meeting] and so yeah, you’re going to invite a student, but you’re not really going to pay attention to us.

It was a turning point for student voice at Mountain Brook.

MISSY BROOKS: You know, that’s kind of what they thought, and that was a big “Aha” for us. We got a lot of insight from the students in the room. It was really interesting because Dr. Barlow spoke to one of the young ladies who was in the room and at the state of the district in February, I guess this is two years ago, he brought her on stage and interviewed her about her experience with the group for the whole district. And she said, “I felt like I was the most important person in the room. I mean, you guys listened to what we had to say,” and it was a very powerful moment. And I think we realized at that point by just listening to them, that we weren’t really listening to them. We thought we knew what was best in their educational career. And we do, we are the experts in it. But students can be more engaged if we listen and we give them those ownership pieces.

As Mountain Brook worked to give students and staff more ownership of the district, they also began to revisit the district goals, taking a fresh look at the vision.

DONALD CLAYTON: I think we wanted goals that really we could grow in as opposed to things that had kind of become expectations for us, like “recruit and retain.” That’s an expectation that we’re going to do that well. It’s something we focus on, but we wanted areas where we could turn the dial up on certain knobs here and there and actually grow in them and put a unified focus on them. That’s what this process gave us, some pretty clear things that we could turn the dial up on and see growth in, and what I love about them is they’re also things that require everybody. We’re talking about getting ownership — when you have goals that require everybody’s involvement and their input, you’re going to get a whole lot more growth out of that.

I asked Missy what this all looked like at the district level. What was their overall methodology? What were the broad strokes they tackled before getting specific at the building level? And first, she said she needed to grow in her own learning about what they were trying to do with student voice and ownership. One of the staff development specialists at the junior high school, Holly Martin, brought a bunch of great information back from a conference, and together Missy and Holly went to every single school to cast a vision.

MISSY BROOKS: The hard part for a lot of the teachers was, we didn’t come in with a definition, you know? And some teachers are like, “Well, how do we know if we’re working toward this if we don’t have a definition?” And I was like, “Well, if you look, if you Google that, there are numerous definitions. So we need to contextualize this and make it Mountain Brook. When we say student voice, what do we mean?” And so the whole year was really information gathering from all the schools. And at the end of the year last year, I asked every single school, “If you could define student voice right now, what would you say it was?”

They collected input at every school, then got a group together over the summer to look at the commonalities and define what this would look like at Mountain Brook.

MISSY BROOKS: And then at the beginning of the year, I went to every school and said, “Here’s the definition.” But before we did that, I gave them all the comments from the year before, from all the teachers in all the schools. And I said, “Here, go highlight the common words and phrases.” As they saw the common words and phrases, then we put the definition up and we said, “What common words and phrases do you see up here?” And they were all reflected in the definition. And I was like, “This is our definition and we all had a part to play in it. We all had a piece.”

They also collected student input, and they’re working through that data right now. And at the school level, they’re working with teachers to set goals that include student voice. A lot of teachers are really jumping right into it.

DONALD CLAYTON: I’ve had teachers that want to survey their students, whether that be something in class with what they’re doing, or [whether] it’s a conversation with a pullout of a group of kids, and do it a regularly and track the trends and see what are the types of things they’re saying would be best interests for everyone’s learning or their learning in the class. And so we get a chance to have conversations all throughout the year about where they are in their goal as far as what they’re wanting to do.

It’s like any goal, you have successes and then you have some that just didn’t go the way you want it. But regardless, it’s not a failure — feedback is our friend. And so regardless of what step we’re in in the process or how it goes, it’s telling us something because we’re in the sandbox of what works, what’s meeting our kids’ needs, how do we engage them and how do we use this piece of student voice to do that in the classroom? And so it’s been something that has been very good and that’s really permeated through the building because of the things that Missy has been able to do. But also, because it’s a school goal, and so everyone has an individual goal or a team goal within it that they’re working on specifically as to where they are.

The junior high has two school-wide goals, one of which is around student voice, and another is looking at balanced assessment. People tackle them in different ways. And Donald said they use learning walks to measure where they are in reaching their school goals.

DONALD CLAYTON: Which is really great, because it’s the people who have agreed on what the definition of student voice is and what those pillars are going in, and looking for signs of those and then sitting down, pulling back and talking about it. And while they’re doing that, they’re getting more ideas of how they can do things in their classroom across disciplines, across grade levels. Again, it’s a process, and it’s one we’re in the middle of, but have already seen exciting marked steps along the way that are in the best interest of our students.

RYAN ESTES: I wonder if there are specific classrooms or teachers or even students or groups of students that you could tell me what it’s looked like in a concrete way. Are there any stories you can tell, even just picking one, of how this has played out?

MISSY BROOKS: I can think of one at your school. Anne Carter Finch… I actually did a blog, I was asked to be a guest blogger for Alabama best practices. And I used Anne Carter’s. They did a book of choice, and they had all these different things to do with it, and then she basically had students complete an evaluation of that. And they got to input why it worked and why it didn’t, what she could change the next time they did something like this. There was also a group of seventh grade teachers who said, “Hey, you know what, let’s teach this book differently.” And so they asked the students, “What do you need to do this book?” And some of the students said, “Well, I already read this book on my own and so could we read another dystopian novel and do a comparison between the two?” Some people said, “We really need you to read this with us.” And then some people said, “We want to do a book study on our own and then ask you to come in when we have questions.” And of course, everybody had the end game of what they needed to learn about this. So the students were allowed to put themselves in just the right place and that really worked well, I think.

DONALD CLAYTON: Yeah, and I can give you another one. We had an English teacher who had done a specific process year after year as far as grammar diagnostic, and seeing where they were, because he really was strong in his beliefs on ‘How do you embed that in certain ways?’ But early in the year, through conversations with the students, he had realized that they weren’t seeing as much value in it as he had seen in the process. So he really opened up a conversation with his classes: “Let’s talk about how you need to learn this, how you can show the ones you’ve mastered, and what you need to work on.” And the students, they ended up essentially designing how they would go through grammar, and what things he would do. And so he took his process and there were pieces of it that obviously he kept, but the students ended up designing a lot of it and really got to a point where they were very excited about it because it was theirs.

RYAN ESTES: Excited about grammar!

DONALD CLAYTON: That was a really neat thing to see on two levels. One, that they were excited about it, but another, that he was comfortable enough to say to them, “What do you need? Let’s co-create this and put it together and see what we can do.” I know there are small examples of that all throughout the day and there’s more comfort with that across our entire school building.

Students have also been involved in evaluating and redesigning club structures within the school.

DONALD CLAYTON: And I’ll tell you, the team that was leading our structure for clubs, we pretty much let the kids design that. You know, what the club structure is going to look like? How do we get a list of clubs kids are going be involved in? When do they meet, how often do they meet, when’s the best time for them to meet? We really had them involved in building that structure. We also have an activity period time during our school day. It’s a common time for kids to get intervention or study more or work with groups or get some more help from teachers.

We had found out from talking to our kids and then putting that particular period under the spotlight, that they thought it was too early in the day, that they wanted it pushed back a little bit. And so they pretty much drove that conversation about moving it back, which we did this year. And it’s been probably one of the best things we’ve done. And so there’s a micro level, but there’s also a macro level of that conversation, too, about the structures with our building that they feel like they can be a part of and have conversations about, “Hey, this would be best for us holistically.”

RYAN ESTES: This is the kind of thing that sounds great, but I know it’s not necessarily what people tend to default to, right? This takes intentionality and work and purpose, like you said. What kind of leadership training did you give to teachers? I know that you want this to spread from teacher to teacher, so how did you equip your teachers to spread this throughout every building?

MISSY BROOKS: Well, I think them hearing the same message at every single school. And I think, the teachers, when we created the definition and they saw the process of how we created the definition, and then looking back, they can see how everything that we did that first year in exploration contributed to the definition. And some of them very specifically had things that they said were in our definition and descriptions of the pillars and things like that. So I think just building that sense of, “Oh my gosh, we all did this definition. This is not something that’s being pushed down from the district. These are our words.” And I think that gave some ownership to them too. That’s the other thing: in order for teachers to be able to give students this kind of voice and this kind of ownership, we have to listen to schools, and we have to listen to teachers, and they have to know that they’ve been heard.

And I think that’s what happened with that. And the teachers really did feel heard, and when they saw those common phrases and common words appear in the definition and how common those things were across the district in every school, I think they felt empowered and they really felt like, “You know what? This definition is ours. It’s not something that somebody has given us.” And so when you build that kind of ownership, then they tend to take it and there’ve been a lot of rich discussions about it at every single school that I’ve gone to, which is all of them. That part has been neat. And just to open up and hear, you know, I’m not going into your school for a Gotcha or to check on this to make sure that you’re doing it, I’m there asking questions and listening to stories and saying, “Hey, I found this research and I want to share this with you.

 “Let’s go through this and then let’s have a conversation about, what does this mean for you?” And that has been really neat because it’s not me coming in as a Gotcha. It is a collaborative experience. And so that’s where the individual professional development, the differentiated professional development comes in. Because while I’m saying the same things and the same message is getting across to all of our schools, it’s done in a very different way. And I work with the school administrators to make sure that it fits in with what they are already doing in their building, so it doesn’t seem like an added extra from the central office.

RYAN ESTES: Looking back, what would you say all of this has meant for Mountain Brook Schools? Can you give me a before and after picture of, how is the district different today from before you began this work?

MISSY BROOKS: What I think that this has done is given us something to say, “It’s not just about the test score, it’s about the whole kid. It is about investment, it is about all these other things. And we need to look at that as well.”

So what it has done for me is, it really created this shift of, “We have to do this, and we’re looking at test scores all the time to make sure that we are doing what we need to do.” We still do that. Don’t hear me say we don’t — that is a part of what we do. But the focus has really become on the students and on that cohesion of this district. And so it creates a different atmosphere when you go into the schools. As far as my interaction with the schools, it has totally taken down that whole central office / school kind of thing. You know what I’m saying? Like, “Oh, central office is here, oh my gosh!” It’s not. And I have teachers that will email me saying, “Hey, I’m doing this in my classroom, would you come see?”

And I’m like, absolutely. And that’s really cool. That barrier has been broken down. And I also think the schools are more… we’re all on this pathway, and I use the idea of a highway. You’ve got the sides there, and where are the guard rails: we’re not going to go outside of this, which is what the district kind of sets. But in the middle of that, they can get there how they need to get there with their faculties and with all the people in their buildings.

DONALD CLAYTON: We’re more connected than we’ve ever been, and I don’t mean that just in our buildings. There are a lot of different strands of that. I know we’re more connected with our students. We’re more connected to one another, because there’s power in working on the same thing together, but on a goal where you have to lean on one another and each other’s strengths. I think we’re also more aware of the talents and the skills that are in our district and in particular in our building. And that’s not just with our adults, but with our students. And seeing our students as individuals who can help the learning process, who have ideas about what this looks like, that’s a big step and that’s a neat place to be at, where everybody looks at students as resources as well, and data points to help figure out, how do we get to the next goal, how do we get to the next place?

I mean, it doesn’t matter who I run into a across the district or who anybody runs into, we all have a pretty common thing that we’re working on, and we can launch into a conversation at that point. And the same thing around our entire building, you know, we like to hire professionals that do their craft really well, and put them to work, and they go do some amazing things. It’s really neat when all of those professionals are great at their craft and are pulling on the same goal, because we we grow so much faster and so much better.

Okay, all of this sounds great… but it’s a lot to bite off. Where do you even begin?

MISSY BROOKS: You’ve got to have a point person, and that person has to learn, but not learn by themselves. It can’t rest on the shoulders of one person. Ultimately, people kind of see me as the student voice person, but I can tell you that I couldn’t have done the work without so many other people. Even with the cohesion goal, I mean, I picked a design team because one person can’t do it on— and I think that would be my biggest takeaway is yes, it’s a huge ordeal and yes, it’s a lot of work, but you can’t do it by herself and you shouldn’t do it by yourself. And that’s the key: it’s not a one man show and it’s not something that is handed down from the district. You have to build the capacity on that grassroots level and almost let it flow upward, if that makes sense.

DONALD CLAYTON: Yeah. I think you have to start with everybody at the table talking about what you believe. And that can be what you believe about student voice, about ownership or what we believe about what we do at the school. When you’re looking for somewhere to start, the first place, to me, to start is, who all needs to be at the table? And then let’s open this up and let’s start talking. To me, when you bring something to people with a skill set and different vantage points in your building, pretty amazing things happen.

RYAN ESTES: We have been speaking with Missy Brooks and Donald Clayton of Mountain Brook Schools in Birmingham, Alabama. I’d like to thank both of you for joining me today.

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For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.