Empowering Students Starts with Empowering Teachers
In the paper Dimensions of Teacher Empowerment, self-efficacy is described as a teacher’s belief in oneself to positively impact student outcomes. Positive outcomes of self-efficacy include higher expectations for students, a belief that all students can grow and learn, and an emphasis on student responsibility instead of control as a classroom management technique. It’s no surprise then that a positive sense of self-efficacy helps teachers to thrive, however, coaching approaches that are top down and designed to “fix teacher problems” can and do diminish teachers’ self-efficacy and disempower them.
Take for example, Ms. Brown who was in her 17th year of teaching English. By all appearances, Ms. Brown seemed to be a confident, comfortable teacher who was in control of her classroom and was ready to engage her students. But like many in her profession today, Ms. Brown found herself in a bit of power struggle with one of her best students. Ms. Brown described the student to her coach as smart, hardworking, outgoing, and popular — by all measures, a leader — but she had taken to talking over Ms. Brown during class and encouraging other students to also be disruptive.
As education consultants and instructional coaches, we’ve seen this scenario before. Seemingly good students with high academic performance and competent social-emotional skills acting out when they perceive their role in the classroom is falling short of their expectations. And the source of angst is usually the same: a desire to be heard and a chance to lead. While young people want to be heard and hope to lead in the classroom, teachers are often wary of giving more control to their students. They worry that students won’t do what they need to do or learn what they need to learn. They worry that if students are given more control of their own learning, students won’t focus on the standards and won’t make it through the curriculum. They worry that if they give control to students, classroom management will devolve. Additionally, teachers like Ms. Brown, who don’t typically have classroom management issues and who believe in their own ability to maintain order in their classrooms through strategies that control students, can be surprised when those strategies suddenly don’t work. They can begin to lose their sense of self-efficacy and begin to feel disempowered in their own classrooms.
As teachers everywhere know, gaining respect and order in a classroom is about far more than knowing your subject matter. Teachers must exude confidence, trust their students, and provide an open learning environment where young adults can take risks and fail. Part of that equation, however, is the teachers themselves feeling empowered to do the same. No suggestion to the teacher to increase student ownership from a coach, administrator, or other leader will empower a teacher to make a change. Instead, the change must come from within and from a place of self-efficacy.
As coaches who believe in the ability of teachers to lead their own learning and draw their own conclusions to support their successes, problems and needs, we engage teachers in deep reflective thinking. Our role is to help teachers like Ms. Brown maintain a focus on what is within her control, ask powerful, reflective questions to guide her thinking and boost her feelings of efficacy. To achieve that end, one key message of our coaching approach has always been this: There are no failures from which a teacher cannot learn something to improve outcomes the next time. When Ms. Brown began considering the subconscious motivation of her challenging student in response to the coaching questions, such as “What are the strengths of this student?” “What strategies does this student use to persuade others to engage in disruptive behaviors?” “How have you seen the student use the same strategies used for other goals?” she began to see that the student was in competition for attention and leadership in the classroom. Through guided reflection, Ms. Brown came to realize that providing the student with leadership opportunities might mitigate the student’s behavior. She felt empowered to begin planning lessons with this goal in mind and felt that she was completely capable of planning lessons that integrated student leadership opportunities. Through her own empowerment, she realized that she had been disempowering a student leader by making assumptions about her motives.
When the empowerment of teachers has this powerful an impact on students in classrooms, we can’t afford to coach in any other way. Much like the case of Ms. Brown’s difficult student, teachers need challenging and meaningful work, as well as feedback that can help them tweak their approaches to teaching and learning and find solutions to their own challenges.