Commentary, Teaching

Empowering Students

I recently heard someone say that the opposite of happiness isn’t unhappiness, but apathy. Those words ring so true to me personally, as well as in terms of education. What is the point of filling students’ heads with equations when they don’t feel any sort of responsibility to use them for good in the larger world?

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 8.51.28 AM

More than anything measurable on a test, a teacher’s goal should be to teach students to feel empowered. In their education, in their family lives, in their larger community. Here are a few ways to model that in your classroom.


I have found that the more choice I give students in a unit plan, the better and more memorable it is. I have always structured my unit plans around the culminating assignment, but that culminating assignment almost always involves a choice. The trick is to make sure that each choice meets the standards you are trying to teach. In English, a simple choice between two different essay prompts can create a sense of responsibility within the student to choose wisely.

(It is also possible to give students the choice of a book to read, the power to create their own rubric, the ability to peer-edit their friends’ work.)


I obviously feel pretty passionately about this one. Books that encourage larger discussions about the world, books that can be related to the current state of affairs, are always more successful.I don’t necessarily mean that all books need to be modern (every student should be required to study Hamlet before graduation, in my opinion). I mean that books should be springboards for students to make larger, wider connections, both personally and within the classroom.

(A few I love at the high school level: Into the Wild, Bel Canto, When Breath Becomes Air, Merchant of Venice, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, To Kill a Mockingbird)


Classroom management is tough– any teacher will tell you that. But you are not teaching kids anything by having them re-write and re-write late essays just so they can get a passing grade. Every student and every situation is different, but I have often found that for the apathetic kid (or parent) who comes to me asking “how they can bring up their grade”, it is best to ask them what THEY think they should do to improve their situation. Sometimes this ends up with a student throwing their hands up in the air and saying oh well, they tried, but their teacher wouldn’t do anything for them. But more often is ends up with students taking a close look at what they’re missing, and coming up with a reasonable solution to the problem. This is an important life skill to have!

(Important note: at the high school level, I get to be very honest with students. I tell them that no, I will not be coming up with a new assignment or using my weekend time to grade an essay that they should have turned in two months ago. That is not fair to me. But I’ll be willing to brainstorm ideas with them to improve their situation, if they would like.)



You have to model the behavior you want to see from your students, of course. But no matter how incredible you are as a teacher, you are but one person. Reach out into your community for guest speakers relevant to your subject. Have them come in and talk about their career paths, their ups and downs, their experience with history. Guest speakers are a wonderful way for students to understand REAL life experience; that success is not something that magically falls into a person’s lap. In a world where we are constantly complaining about entitlement, I can’t think of a more important lesson for educators to teach.

(Podcasts can also serve this purpose! Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History comes to mind)

Leave a Reply