In classroom, educators exert power through the class materials they select, the learning activities they design, and the ways in which they include students in classroom discussions. Educators can exert power over students—or they can create an environment where students feel energized. Power is defined as the capacity to direct or influence the behaviour of others. When we abuse our power in the classroom or school, it causes students to experience stress, anxiety, shame, and even poor health and these are the signs of powerlessness. So educators should consciously use their power. When problems loom large, they can undermine students’ sense of self and capacity to engage in class. No doubt students who feel hopeless generally aren’t going to be excited about learning. If we want our students to see themselves as potential leaders, we should take a strength-based approach. We should know how to identify their strengths, aptitudes, and interests. A focus on students’ assets celebrates resilience, resources, and solutions.
We may ask our students to focus on one personal strength each day for a week, and choose a different way to experience that strength. For example, if curiosity is strength, they might choose one new activity or idea. We can invite students to dream about their future relating to school, career, and relationships and write about it each day for two weeks. An authentic, strengths-based approach to teaching and learning isn’t really possible unless teacher-leaders are committed to addressing their biases. Any biasness we harbour against groups of students can manifest in our behaviour, giving some students more power and opportunities than others. Of course, the tricky business with biases is that they are often unconscious. However, we can use practical tools to help us unearth them. Invite a few trusted colleagues to visit and observe in your classroom. Ask your colleagues to watch your interactions with students and record their findings and give feedback.
Numerous studies suggest when adults have high expectations for students, students increase their motivation and achieve more. Our expectations may be the most powerful force in the classroom. If you walk into your classroom believing that every student has the capacity for growth, then your students begin to believe it, too. Students read and respond to perceived expectations and biases. Stereotype threat is alive and well—students are at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their respective social groups if they sense you hold them. “Teachers have to care so much about ethnically diverse students and their achievement that they accept nothing less than high-level success from them and work diligently to accomplish it. This is a very different conception of caring than the often-cited notion of ‘gentle nurturing and altruistic concern,’ which can lead to benign neglect,” says researcher Geneva Gay.
If we want students to feel empowered to take charge of their own learning, then student-centered learning experiences are essential. How do we create classroom environments that honour students’ voices and encourage active collaboration in the classroom? Although highly structured, teacher-controlled lessons can be effective in helping all students meet a learning target, these types of lessons don’t always allow for rich and meaningful student participation.
Several other instructional approaches can be used to foster this kind of participation, including project-based learning, cooperative learning, and service learning. All three of these methods can be thoughtfully structured to create an environment where students are engaging as a community, taking on meaningful roles, and striving for real-world, performance-based outcomes. In another way students can direct their own educational experience—and end up learning more—is by establishing personally relevant learning goals and actively engaging in ongoing self-assessment. There are several concrete ways that students can take the reins in monitoring and reflecting on their learning. When students assemble portfolios of their work, problem solve around their challenges, and assess their growth relative to personal learning goals, they are more empowered in the learning process.
If we want students to feel empowered in the classrooms, we must hear them, care their anxieties and help them how to succeed in life. Students often feel more personally empowered if they are reflecting on their individual learning Yet power grows and thrives or not in the social world of school. Across dormitories, camps, schools, businesses, and more, individuals who demonstrate the “Big Five social tendencies”—enthusiasm, kindness, focus, calmness, and openness—are considered more powerful by those in their social circle. Enduring power comes from a focus on others. If we translate this research to the classroom, teachers should not simply model these five ways of acting in the world, but provide opportunities for their students to experience and cherish the “Big Five” themselves:
Greeting students with enthusiasm makes them confident, powerful and friendly. It will make your day. We should share an energetic, fun, and personalised handshake with every child in the classroom. We should also practice to energise our students to connect with each other. It will definitely make them empowered. Research demonstrates that it is easier to be kind to people we know well than to those outside of our immediate social circle. So, we must use this “shared identity” exercise in class to help our students move beyond their differences to seek out their commonalities. We should discuss and identify shared values at the start of the year and then list the classroom expectations that will bring those values into focus throughout the year. A classroom constitution can be developed. Students should be helped to slow down and reduce stress by engaging in brief periods of mindful breathing in the classroom.
We as teachers should incorporate active listening activities to encourage students and yourself to attune to each other’s thoughts and feelings. There may not be a better time to pause and examine how we use our power in classrooms and schools. Ultimately, a more democratic, empowered classroom is one where all members feel that they belong, they are valued, and they are capable of achieving their learning goals.
The writer works as a specialist in BRAC Education Programme