Empowering students to lead and share their experiences

Making students feel valued and empowered is a daily goal for Landen Parkin.

The St. Cloud State University alumnus is an English language arts teacher and affinity group coordinator for Burnsville High School. Originally teaching ninth grade classes on English, acting and film studies when he first started with the school district, Parkin said his current role is the perfect fit.

“That’s where I really found my calling, as far as what I really wanted to do. I love teaching and I love working with kids and I love doing all that stuff,” he said. “But I was sitting in meetings with some of our student leaders, and hearing them being able to call out things they didn’t like about the school and have their voices amplified and listened to was really powerful for me. I really wanted to work hard to get more and more involved. So over the years I’ve taken on more and more responsibilities with that — helping that program grow and thrive.”

He said it’s important for all students to feel supported and safe while at school, and that student mental health and wellbeing is an area that has faced more hurdles since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Landen Parkin“I think COVID has left a huge gap when it comes to mental health and kids needing to find spaces where they feel appreciated and accepted. My district is a school that is 80 percent students of color and 95 percent white teachers, so I think a lot of kids even just in that — seeing all of your teachers are white — they need spaces where they can just be surrounded by people who look like them and have had experiences similar to them and can feel comfortable during that day,” Parkin said. “When we look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, how can they be expected to do calculus if they don’t feel like they are valued or understood or heard based on who they are or what they look like or what their gender is or all of these different things? I think that’s what my work is devoted to: is helping to bridge that gap, helping to give them spaces where they feel loved, they feel cared for, they feel safe at this school. Now they can go and learn because they feel comfortable in this environment, whereas they might not have felt comfortable before.”

Burnsville High School now has nine different student affinity groups, including a Black Student Union and an Asian Student Association, among others. Parkin has seen the positive changes in students who participate in the groups in a number of ways, including through their social and leadership skills.

“We are very, very, very proud of them. A lot of the student leaders that have participated in them have gone on to do great things,” he said. “It’s been amazing to be able to work with these kids and see what they do and give them a voice that they might not normally have had, and help them advocate for themselves and grow as leaders and as people. It’s awesome.”

Landen Parkin standing with studentsParkin credits much of his approach in working with different affinity groups to the professors and students he worked with while pursing his degree in communication arts and literature from SCSU, which he completed in 2020. A transfer student from Minnesota State University-Mankato who originally was pursuing film studies, he decided to shift to teaching after talking with a number of influential people in his life. Most of the memorable teachers or principals he had known to that point were all St. Cloud State alumni, which made the choice of where to transfer an easy one. Once on campus, Parkin said the connections he made through the CAL cohort still remain strong today. He even met his partner of five years through the cohort. Another connection he made through the program was with Dr. Mike Dando, associate professor of English, communication arts and literature at SCSU.

“I would be a very different teacher, and I don’t think I would be in the same position that I’m in — working with these groups — if it hadn’t been for Michael Dando. He was such a push for me to get involved with our equity programs and think about not just how I was teaching, but what I was teaching and who I was teaching to,” Parkin said. “I think that very equity-focused mindset has helped me dramatically grow as a teacher. Giving students space to be themselves, making sure they feel heard and celebrated for who they are; that was something he always pushed — really making sure you’re doing the work to get to know your students and their struggles and help them grow as people as well as just students.”

Parkin hopes to provide a similar atmosphere for his own students.

“My biggest goal is that I’m able to help these leaders continue to grow as people, and for them to be able to take those skills and move into their own post-high school lives and change the world,” he said. “To take the things they’ve learned from me, and take the fact that people do care and do listen to them and do value them and don’t think they are frustrating because they’re kids and that their voice matters, and help them take those things and transition into adult life and be able to have an impact in whatever that looks like. That’s my best wish and my goal, is to help empower them to take the things they’ve learned from me and from these groups and from each other and from having space to process these things, and be able to apply that to their lives.”


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