The Empowerment Factor: Who Has It and Who Needs It
Student Empowerment; that’s the new catchphrase for educators today. It’s not really new, but it’s been repurposed so many times in so many different ways that it just seems to be the “phrase du jour.” “Student empowerment can be raised with relevant technology.” That statement is true, but it’s far from complete. “Student empowerment is on the rise now that they can visualize themselves in the new/refurbished (fill in the blank here with some campus facility.) It’s a great step forward, but it’s not the whole picture. And the winner in my book is still the ever popular “Student empowerment can be affected by (fill in your favorite here) curriculum.” Good or bad, right or wrong, curriculum seems to be the touchstone of “student empowerment,” the silver bullet that will fix all our problems and dry all our tears.
Is it, though? In my humble opinion, student empowerment, important as it is, cannot be attained without something much more elementary, and that is teacher empowerment. How can we expect teachers to take the lead in empowering students when they themselves feel powerless? The scope and sequence of their curriculum is basically dictated; they get to say WHAT they want, but only WHEN they are told to do so, and only in a format that kids can recognize. It’s no wonder that sometimes they throw up their hands in frustration. I can’t blame them; been there, done that myself.
Students of today can be a handful; we’ve all heard the stories. Of course, they have to make sure that the educational goals of all of the students in their care are being met, whatever those goals might be. Teachers are bound by confidentiality laws, special education laws, district policy, and campus procedures. They are charged with the care and learning of hundreds of students in the span of their career, and they are judged harshly when they fall short of the expectations of any one of those hundreds of students or their parents. This is not an empowering situation, either.
So what then CAN be done to empower teachers? It’s a good question, and the answer—at least one of the answers—is to give them the tools to teach effectively and collaboratively. Facilitate staff developments from which teachers can learn from their shared experiences, and talk amongst themselves about common situations before they become common problems. Let them talk openly and honestly about what they think does and doesn’t work in their classrooms. Give them a teacher-guide that will watch them in the classroom and give them feedback afterward, or even teach the students a lesson themselves to give the teacher an example to go by. All of these things can go a long way towards mitigating the negative feelings that a lack of control can give a professional educator from time to time.
Teacher empowerment isn’t easy, though. It comes at a cost, as do all good things. All that collaboration means that teachers aren’t in the classroom with the kids at all times. Teachers need administrators that will assure them they can do what has been asked of them. Student empowerment can never be modeled by a powerless teacher, so let’s try to strengthen and assure them. Giving teachers the autonomy they need to do their job is much harder than trying to buy the latest empowerment program from some buzzword-quoting vendor, but ultimately it is the only thing that will truly affect student attitude and performance.