Recently, a high school teacher and friend of mine started thinking more carefully about the power dynamics in her classroom. With the current political situation in mind, she was worried that she was exerting too much control over what students were learning and when. Instead, her vision was to empower them to take charge of their own educational experience, better preparing them for school and beyond.

“How can you get students to identify what they need and want to discuss rather than summarizing it for them?” a colleague had asked her.

Power is defined as the capacity to direct or influence the behavior of others. In the 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.

In The Power Paradox, GGSC founding director Dacher Keltner reminds us that when we abuse our power, those around us can experience stress, anxiety, shame, and even poor health, which are all signs of powerlessness. So how can educators consciously use their power for the good?

This teacher and I explored some things she could do to shift the power dynamics in her classroom. The following suggestions may help your students to feel powerful at school.

1. Use a strengths-based approach to learning

One surefire way to make students feel powerless is to focus on everything they are weak and failing at. When problems loom large, they can undermine your 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 you want your students to see themselves as potential leaders, take a strengths-based approach: Start by supporting them in identifying their strengths, aptitudes, and interests. A focus on students’ assets celebrates resilience, resources, and solutions.

Here are several activities that you might consider using in the classroom to capitalize on students’ strengths:

  • The VIA Survey of Character Strengths. Take time in class to have your students (ages 10 and above) complete this survey. It will help them to identify character strengths they have, such as hope, humility, honesty, kindness, and perseverance.
  • Use Your Strengths practice. Ask them 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 a strength, they might choose one new activity or idea to explore each day.
  • Best Possible Self practice. Invite your students to dream about their future (relative to school, career, relationships) and write about it each day for two weeks.

2. Identify your biases

An authentic, strengths-based approach to teaching and learning isn’t really possible unless teacher-leaders are committed to addressing their biases. Any biases we harbor against groups of students can manifest in our behavior, 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.

Consider tracking the following over time:

  • Who do you call on (based on gender, ethnicity, etc.)?
  • What is the tone of your responses (i.e., the ratio of positively to negatively worded comments)?
  • What is the content of your feedback (i.e., specific and concrete responses vs. general and/or dismissive responses)?

An honest look at this data could spark rich conversations with your colleagues and your own “aha” moments of learning and personal growth.

3. Be a warm demander

Apart from the ongoing work of acknowledging our negative biases, genuine care for our students means holding high positive expectations for all of them—and believing in their potential for growth. Numerous studies suggest that 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.

Perhaps just as dangerous is a kind yet neutral approach to students that leans toward dismissiveness. Quiet concern is not enough.

“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. This is a quote I often share with new teachers, and it may be the most important message in this article.

4. Create student-centered learning experiences

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 honor 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.

Finally, rather than defaulting to lectures and individual seat work, teachers can consciously weave in opportunities for students to share their day-to-day thinking with one another in a variety of classroom participant structures such as a think-pair-share or a fishbowl discussion. Students can also regularly use think alouds in pairs or small groups as they attempt to solve problems or understand texts.

5. Foster ongoing and active student reflection on learning

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.

  • Portfolios. 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.
  • Multiple intelligences. If we help students to identify their capacities relative to multiple intelligences, we can collaborate with them to design personalized assessments that capture their performance and learning.
  • Conferences. Students can facilitate formal conferences with their teacher and family members (or portions of conferences) where they share their learning goals and progress toward meeting those goals.

6. Focus on modeling and practicing the “Big Five”

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.

In The Power Paradox, Keltner helps us to understand how power plays out in our daily lives. 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,” he concludes.

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:

  • Enthusiasm. Take a look at this clip of a teacher greeting his students before class. It will make your day. He shares an energetic, fun, and personalized handshake with every child in his classroom. Do you have rituals or practices that energize your students and connect them to you and each other?
  • Kindness. Research demonstrates that it is easier to be kind to people we know well than to those outside of our immediate social circle. Use this “shared identity” exercise in class to help your students move beyond their differences to seek out their commonalities. 
  • Focus. Discuss and identify shared values at the start of the year. Then list the classroom expectations that will bring those values into focus throughout the year. Create a classroom constitution.
  • Calmness. Help yourself and your students slow down and reduce stress by engaging in brief periods of mindful breathing in the classroom.
  • Openness. 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. 

As my teacher-friend shared last week during our brainstorm: “The only answer to all of this craziness is to really know each other.” I think she is right on target.

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