Consensus: The New School Election
The school election has become a popular trope in American culture, inspiring everything from feature films like Election to Grace for President, a children’s book turned into a musical. Most find it easy to imagine school hallways covered in election posters and banners, campaigning for various candidates running on platforms that typically include more vending machines and shorter school days. But what if your school chose its leadership a different way? What if there were no buttons or promises, no ballots at all? Perhaps students could choose their representatives in an open forum that invites each person to voice their beliefs and, as a community, reach a final decision. This might seem like an idealistic dream to some, but is actually quite common at Quaker schools like Greene Street Friends. Typically referred to as “consensus”, each year Middle School students engage in this process rooted deep in the Quaker tradition to choose their leadership.
TORCH, which stands for Togetherness, Open-mindedness, Respect, Compassion, and Heart, serves as the Middle School student governing body at Greene Street Friends. Each year, all Middle School students select one or two 8th Grade Clerks, one or two 7th Grade Clerks, and Class Representatives for the next academic year. During each term, representatives collect student input about school experiences and share their input with school leadership. TORCH is an important way for our students to develop leadership skills and learn to work together with others to achieve common goals. This student input also makes the school a better place for future Greene Street Friends students.
In May, the TORCH leadership selection process began for the coming school year. All Middle School students were invited to nominate either themselves or another student, after reviewing each position’s description. Moving beyond, “She’s nice” or “I like the way he does his hair”, students are asked to seriously review ideal characteristics associated with each role. For example, the Recording Clerk should be a good listener, able to ask clarifying questions, impartial, organized, and good at summarizing information in a concise and accurate way. Co-Clerks should communicate well, open-minded, responsible, work well with all ages, and pull ideas together in a concise way. After reviewing nominations, Middle School Faculty ask nominees if they would be willing to be considered for the role. Sometimes students do not want to move forward with the process, while others happily accept their peers’ nominations.
After each student has agreed to be considered for a role, conversations begin about why each person would be a good fit for the nominated role. The nominees are asked to leave the room during this conversation and the “Meeting” (the Quaker term for the assembled group of people) shares positive statements about each person, as they are moved to speak. The current year clerks are tasked with getting a sense of the group and reflecting back what they hear. Students are instructed that coming to consensus does not mean agreement, but involves one of four options: Agreement and joining with the group’s decision, disagreement and joining with the group’s decision, disagreement and wanting objections to be noted, while moving forward with the group’s decision, or disagreement with the inability to step aside or allow group to move forward. If the last option is chosen, consensus is not achieved and the group returns to the descriptions and each nominees’ characteristics to continue conversation. Particularly as a decision is neared or if the group is at an impasse, silence is interpreted as agreement.
Kim Kraemer, 6th Grade Teacher and Quaker Ways Committee Member summarizes, “The whole point of consensus is not to get uniform agreement on a topic. Consensus allows us to hear from more voices and critically examine choices. It also provides students with practical skills they’ll use after Graduation, like: Open communication, collaboration, and compromise within a group. It’s also an important part of our Quaker identity here at Greene Street Friends.”
Former Clerk, Michaela Jaeger '18, agrees, “TORCH has been an amazing experience for me. I have learned so much from it. Because of TORCH, I have gotten more comfortable with public speaking, I have improved my leadership skills, and it has helped me figure out my passion for activism. Those things will stay with me into high school, college, and my entire life. I hope to continue to be an activist, to take on leadership roles, and to stand up for what is right. I am so grateful that I got the chance to be a part of TORCH and learn so many things from it.”