Saturday, April 14, 2018

Kim Frencken: How much student empowerment is too much?

Student Empowerment. Ranks right up there with entitlement. Certainly this is not something a teacher devised. Had to be a non-educator to come up with such a ridiculous idea. Someone had an idea that kids needed a larger voice so they wrote an article and the phrase went like wildfire in the educational community. Empowering students became the goal of schools, administrators, and, sadly, some teachers. Sadly I say, because empowering students isn't teaching them responsibility. It is giving kids a false sense of power over things that are well beyond their years or ability to handle.

Student Empowerment. Let's give our kids the ability to choose the assignments they want to complete, the teacher that they want, and even give them the ability to weigh in on a teacher's rehire. Yeah, that's how far it has gone. We've taken empowerment to a new level.

I'll never forget a faculty meeting where the results of a student empowerment survey were revealed. To the entire staff. At once. Get the picture? Everyone had access to the information. Everyone. It was even available digitally.

First, there was silence. Then tears. Then a dull roar. Thankfully, I was seated to my common sense friend who points out that the comment, "She's mean because she makes me do my assignments," is not a bad thing. "You are teaching," she said, "and that is your job." Nor was my 8 out of 10 point for the 'my teacher cares' category, or the 7 out of 10 in the contacting parents category. "These are middle school kids who don't like doing assignments, so if you make them, you don't care about what they want. Most are not communicating with their parents so they never know how many phone calls you've made or emails you've sent." Her words of wisdom pointed me to reason in an epic administrative failure.

Then I looked around and took in the scene. My heart went out to the new teacher crying because the students had 'fired' her. A veteran teacher had big tears rolling down her cheeks because she had been deemed inadequate by her jury. The once-smug-administrators were looking for a rock to crawl under. Suddenly their idea of implementing student empowerment didn't seem so good. Maybe, just maybe, they shouldn't have sent out a survey to middle school kids that not only allowed, but also encouraged, them to bash their teachers. Maybe they shouldn't have made the information public. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

Students were also shaken by the results. What sounded brave with the crowd left them embarrassed when they were standing alone with their comments. There was no longer safety in numbers or anonymity. They were exposed. And the results made them look petty and mean. They didn't know what to do with their newfound power. It went from their hearts to their heads in less than 10 seconds. There was little thought about the power of their words. Or the end result. There was a huge staff turnover that year. This should come as no surprise.

Of course, this is an example where things were taken too far, but we have to ask ourselves how much empowerment should students have? Should students be empowered? If so, what can they handle?

Students should learn responsibility before they are put in control of anything or put in a position of authority. They need to learn how to be accountable for their own actions before they try to control the actions of the adults in their lives. They need to learn and practice respect. And adults need to understand what is age appropriate. Kids should never be allowed to weigh in on whether or not a teacher is rehired. There is only one time when kids should have any input in a teacher's job performance. Abuse. Teachers that abuse kids do not deserve respect.

Let's start by teaching our kids to be good citizens. Polite and respectful. Responsible. Then they can begin to practice empowerment by being responsible for themselves and their actions. No one wins when kids are given too much power without structure or guidance. The large voice that was supposed to be the end result of empowerment is lost in the chaos of a bad program.

I wish that before the next educational buzzword becomes all-the-rage someone would ask a teacher and see if the idea actually has merit. After all, no one knows our kids better than we do.

(For more of Kim Frencken's writing and information about her educational products, check out her blog Chocolate For the Teacher.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a teacher, Kim Frencken is way off base. The worst teachers are incapable of getting off script and cling to curriculum. They justify the fact they can't build relationships with students with the excuse, "I make them work." It's you.