I remember the first time I was called to the principal’s office as an adult. The sweaty palms, my mind racing with questions, my heart in my throat. Questions about what I had done to spark a one-on-one meeting taunted me the whole way there, and it wasn’t until I sat down in the chair and my principal smiled at me that I actually took a breath. I don’t remember now what the conversation was about, probably something about my students, but the experience of being called into an unannounced meeting, of entering into someone else’s territory left a deep impression. It left me feeling powerless as I walked into a situation I knew nothing about. It also prompted me to think of what I did to my students whenever I held them back from recess silently admonishing them to stay behind, or asked to speak with them outside of my classroom. How they must have felt their adrenaline spike; how they must have wondered what they had done wrong.
That feeling of powerlessness and fear of what’s to come is a feeling I don’t want to give to children or school staff unless it is warranted. Yet, most of our schools are set up with a very clear hierarchy of power. The principal or lead administrator holds most of the control and delegates morsels of it to chosen people, much like in our classrooms where the teacher holds the rein of power and only briefly lets students take control. This type of structure works by feeding itself—all important decisions are made by those in power and one must be given power to have any importance. It is a structure that has not been questioned for a long time, but I feel it is time to spread the control. It is time to give schools back to the staff, to give classrooms back to the students, and to empower others.
The empowered school is one where all voices are heard, dissenting opinions are valued, and staff is trusted. The principal is not simply the leader, but a voice in the discussion—just not THE voice. Empowered teachers feel they have control over their work environment, that their voice is heard, and that their experience matters. Empowered students know that their opinion matters, that they have control over their learning journey, and that school is worth their time. All of this leads to an environment based on community and trust, where everyone knows they matter. Sound utopian? Perhaps, but it is not. The steps toward a better functioning school are easily started and integrated.
The first step is to reflect on who has the power within your environment? Who makes decisions? How is the power given? Acknowledging our weaknesses is always our first step in the road to change. We cannot change what we refuse to face.
The next step is to actually spread the power. How can staff meetings or meetings with students signal a power change? How can decisions be made where more voices are heard? How can all of the stakeholders be more involved in the decisions that are made that affect everyone?
The third step on your way to change is to actually change. We spend an awful lot of time discussing new initiatives, planning for them, and even figuring out the best way to implement them, but then we never actually change. This is where our time should be spent, where our focus should be.
I wrote my new book, Empowered School, Empowered Students hoping to inspire others to shift the power held within their schools and classrooms; to start a discussion on who has the power within our school and what does that power structure mean for the entire community of learners. The book is intended to be a practical how-to guide to empower staff and students, to create a community where everyone has a voice, and to use that voice for the betterment of all. It can be done, and it should be done. Empowering staff and students to change the way we teach and learn is an urgent need in our educational society, and those changes don’t have to be big to make an impact.