School Elections: Teaching Students About American Government
Schools have a deep-rooted and often unspoken mandate to instill the virtues of democracy in students. Student government teaches children that their voices can make a difference, and voting for our government’s leaders is one of the rights guaranteed to citizens in the U.S. Constitution. Without a political education, students will reach adulthood without the necessary skills and knowledge to further our government.
In the press of day-to-day teaching demands, how can educators engender the attitudes of civility, goal-setting, and the responsibility of thinking before making choices? The most direct way is through student government and school-based elections.
Benefits of Student Elections
While we may recall having student government in high school, elementary and middle school students can also develop and participate in this essential practice of democracy. Consider the benefits for students who participate in student government.
Students who want to run for office in a school government will need to research the issues that other students care about, and then develop a plan to address those issues. This leads to students developing research and interview skills, and in turn will foster their skills of empathy and understanding of multiple viewpoints.
It is likely students will participate in a debate, where they will gain practice in public speaking and learn express their views in ways that can be understood. They will also learn how to listen to other points of view and respond in a respectful manner.
Michelle Obama served as treasurer in student council as a high school student in Chicago and later became a successful lawyer before becoming First Lady of the United States.
Bruce Willis was president of his high school student body before becoming an actor.
Oprah Winfrey also served in student government.
Throughout the process, students will need to strategize and create campaign posters, which is an excellent introduction to marketing and advertising. If elected, the students will continue to develop expertise in planning, communication, and collaboration.
There are plenty of benefits for students who aren’t running for office, too. They will learn to follow the election cycle, parse through the publicity flyers to understand the real issues stated by the candidates, and follow up on the efforts of student government in advocating for student interests. The voting students must understand that choosing the students for the council is not a popularity contest.
Student government takes time and commitment. Being on the council requires dedication to the role of the council and to representing the students who elected the student leaders. Elected students should demonstrate effective time management, the ability to balance multiple roles, and need to maintain their interest in government after the election.
Your Role in Student Elections
If acting as the advisor for a student council, you’ll have several roles to fulfill as you guide your elected leaders. Below are some of those functions, according to an article by Concordia University, Portland.
Students should feel comfortable coming to you in many situations, from resolving disputes to brainstorming ideas. This can be a difficult role for some because a mentor shouldn’t give the answers to the students, and instead let them come to a resolution on their own. As an advisor, you should listen carefully and offer advice while allowing your students to take the lead of their government.
Because the students should be the ones running the student government, it may seem strange that you’d need to strategize. As advisor, you should help students plan and organize when necessary. Fundraisers, school dances, and sponsored events can be overwhelming projects, especially for a newly elected student. You should be able to assist your students without taking over.
Advisors should be the best marketing tool for the student government, and you should promote participation in its events and projects. Not just with your other students, but with faculty and staff, too. Recruit future student members, publicize activities, and ensure the student government is making its presence known.
It’s important to maintain your teacher’s mindset while working with your student officers, as you watch for teachable moments to use in building civic skills in your students and to create enthusiasm for activities.
Take the lead in a discussion with your students on the success of events. How do they think it went? What can we do better next time? It’s important that you provide constructive criticism and fair feedback so that students can continue to improve through student government.
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Incorporating School Elections into Your Lessons
For lessons on incorporating school elections into your curriculum, Teaching Tolerance, Growing Voters, and The Close Up Foundation have multiple resources from elementary- to high school-aged students.
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Diane Coffman has worked as a course writer and course facilitator for Advancement Courses, an adjunct education instructor at the University of Kansas and Haskell Nations University, and as an online instructor for Ottawa University in addition to a long career as an elementary and middle school teacher and preschool to college age tutor. She earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Kansas and an M.S. in Curriculum and Instruction from Kansas State University with additional certification in gifted education and middle school education. Diane’s research interests lie in discovering innovative techniques to improve students’ ability to learn skills and content, exploring views of critical thinking and creativity, and the transmission of skills and knowledge from preservice teacher to expert teacher. She has written passages and test items for various student assessment programs. Additionally, her writing has been published in the BAIP Online Science program, Intermediate Mailbox Teacher, and a chapter in The Encyclopedia of School Psychology.