Stage 1: The Honeymoon
This is terrific; finally somebody cares what we students think. This school is nothing like what I’m used to you have freedom and you can do whatever you want.
Do not be lulled by the students’ euphoria. This will not be easy; their joy will not last without some hard work in setting goals and parameters together. Students give input, but the hard job of designing the curriculum still mainly belongs to the teachers (even if it aims to have students design curriculum). Listening to all voices is not the same as giving all voices equal weight. Discuss together what consensus means??a constant search for a win-win solution. Voting is never useful; it leads to unhappiness, and often to the teacher being outvoted.
Stage 2: I Want You to Take Control
Consensus is sloppy; I need more clarity and control. This doesn’t look like school is supposed to look and you aren’t doing what teachers are supposed to do. I want to get my way but I’m not sure I want all these other people to take up class time getting their way. You’re the teacher; just give us assignments and homework and let’s get on with it. Just make sure that you are doing the things I want you to do.
The teacher has to be neither wishy-washy nor autocratic at this stage, instead helping students get comfortable with new feelings and new values: discomfort as a good sign; risk-taking as good; not knowing the answers as a sign of intellectual integrity; being left with new questions as a positive state of affairs. We cannot revert into taking control because we are embarrassed or challenged by the students’ expectations. Neither can we revert to passive behavior: It’s up to you, not me; what do you want to do? Nor can we try to manipulate or talk the students into what we want them to do. Our best strategy is the curriculum. Designing curriculum that engages students, gives them regular feedback and a sense of accomplishment, and gives them real choice (as opposed to variety) is the teacher’s strongest, most powerful tool.
Stage 3: I’m Feeling My Cheerios
You can’t teach us that we don’t want it. We want to learn about things important and relevant to us, but who are you to teach them you’re so old, so middle-class, so white, so out of it. We want to do what we want to do and you told us this is our school, so . . . And why don’t we have more math, more this, more that?
The teacher can get really confused right about now. It is essential to be centered and filled with conviction about our direction. This makes it easier to be flexible enough to respond to student reactions, yet not keep wavering so students feel we are not in control. We need to be not controlling, but in control; kids pick up the difference right away. Remain calm; be willing to modify plans; but don’t get sucked into endless discussions about what’s wrong with this class. Better to get kids involved in thinking and working, and engaged intellectually. When we pay attention to all the cues, we are ahead of the game. If we insist that we know best, well then . . .
Stage 4: Distrust
Sure, you say you want my input, but you hold all the cards. You never follow through on what we want, so why should we bother? Why did you ask us in the first place?
The teacher has to really work at being trustworthy and following through. Don’t ask for input if you have no intention of following through. Students much prefer your telling them clearly up front what is genuinely theirs to negotiate. If these parameters come too late, they feel good reason for insurrection. Of course, giving kids only what they want, not what they need, is not the answer. We must insist upon the win-win solution what they want and need. Another major cause for mistrust is the “loaded” curriculum, essential question, or class discussion, in which the teacher already knows the “right” answers or approaches; students know when we don’t trust them to construct their own knowledge.
Stage 5: Don’t Blame Me; I’m a Kid
I like to be heard and participate in making decisions, but don’t blame me if I don’t follow through, get the assignment done, do a good job. After all, I have problems at home, have been sick, didn’t know what I was supposed to do, couldn’t find anything in the library, lost it, and it was boring. Anyway, it’s scary.
However tempting it is here to point out students’ lack of logic and responsibility, it is not very useful. Kids start out without habits of responsibility and we have to build these habits in, keep good track of them, and keep encouraging students to make progress. As they get in touch with their fear of empowerment, they come closer to attaining it. The teacher’s job is help them through regular feedback and reinforcement, not by doing for them, excusing them, and enabling them.
Stage 6: Finally, Genuine Empowerment
I finally feel like I have control over my own learning. I know I can’t do it alone; I need teachers to coach and guide me, but I don’t need them to give me value. I know I have value; I can think for myself. And when I am out on my own, I know I will be able to make smart decisions, use good judgment, and use my mind well. I also know that I can take what others think and use it and learn from it, not reject it. I am ready to go on learning more . . . it’s even fun.
The teacher cannot stop being vigilant; these stages do not move in orderly, predictable ways. Students will cycle through them; each student in a group will be at a different stage. The teacher will always be diagnosing what is going on, then prescribing. We will have a “sense of the group,” and within that a sense of where each individual is. This may be difficult, but its rewards are great; this is why we became teachers. When students are genuinely empowered, no one is happier than we are. Then we know we have done our job well.