The Enemy of Empowerment is Compliance

A recent experience with a student of mine has reminded me that the enemy of empowerment is compliance.  I reflected on some of the policies in my own classroom.  I considered which ones were designed to empower students and which ones were designed for compliance.  If this post causes you to reflect, I want you to consider the students who traditionally struggle to comply with traditional school rules.  I’m talking about the students who don’t eat dinner every night or those who ride the bus to an empty home every evening.  Every teacher has the student who never does homework or won’t return that letter signed by a parent.  This post is for them.

I wonder how often school leaders consider empowerment vs compliance when structuring school policies.  Common consequences for homework not turned in on time or at all include reminders, after-school D-hall, lunch D-hall, or a zero.  I’m not advocating against those measures necessarily, but I’m asking, which of those measures empowers the student?  It’s been my experience that the students who these policies are generally written for, the most common offenders, are the ones who need empowered the most.  Most schools have a tiered system of consequences that accompanies one or all of these measures of compliance: exceed X days of D-hall and student will receive a day of in-school suspension, exceed X number of reminders and student will earn a letter sent home, no recess for the students that didn’t come prepared for class.  At what point does the student receive anything empowering him/her?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I have secretly boycotted these measures in my own school.  I’ve tried really hard to design a class where all students can succeed, specifically the students for whom this post is written.  That’s extremely hard in a public school system where time is the constant and learning is the variable.  And success doesn’t come without failures, reflection, and my professional learning network.  I value the impact of conversations in my relationships with students.  I recently dealt with foul language coming from a student in my class.  Initially, I wanted to demonstrate my zero tolerance attitude towards foul language being used in my room, but instead opted for a short conversation in the hallway.  The conversation concluded with a surprising and unprompted apology coming from the student.  Afterwards, I felt I saved the relationship between the student and I, while also empowering the student to be more cautious of his/her language while in my classroom.  No D-hall was issued.

The issue of compliance has proven to be a touchy subject around many educators.  The thought is that without these measures of compliance, how are we teaching responsibility?  Unless we punish irresponsible behavior, students will never learn to be responsible.
So how can attitudes change from compliance/punishment to empowerment?  Because I feel that if we can begin to empower these students to realize their potential, value the attempts their teacher is making in the classroom, and respect themselves, perhaps we can see real change.  Perhaps we can begin to remove the impact that socio-economic status plays on student achievement.  Unfortunately, I believe many policies that exist in schools today only widen the achievement gap, rather than narrow it.

The following are some decisions I’ve made this year to help empower the common offenders, rather than punish them:

  • I chose a long time ago that I would teach students, not tests.  Learning is first and foremost and that philosophy is woven into every fabric of planning, curriculum, assessment, and management.  This is important and applies directly to the culture of the classroom.
  • I never take homework for a grade.  I’ve reflected on the purpose of homework a lot, and at no time can I justify a homework assignment being evidence of learning that is sufficient enough for me to input as a grade.  My students work persistently on work that is rarely graded.  This is perhaps more related to the blended and paperless classroom.
  • Incorporating standards-based grading principals have allowed me to teach responsibility, empathy, tolerance, etc but not reflect those as part of their grade.
  • Retakes are a big part of my course.  Students feel a measure of ownership in their grade when they know they have the entire year to demonstrate their learning.  They used to ask me for more grades, but now they know they may have to try different versions of the same assessment 4-5 times before they can demonstrate learning at a level of mastery.  I don’t assess all students on the same day.  This post isn’t about assessment, but I believe these practices contribute to the culture of the classroom.
  • Slow down.  This is still my weakest area.  Allowing the students to dictate the pace is touchy.  You still have to push them as much as possible, but they are always watching with a keen eye to see if you care enough to provide them more time.  Most often, they’ve been pushed through concept after concept with no regard to whether they’ve learned it or not.  This had to change.
  • I’ve increased my efforts to communicate with the homes most difficult to reach.  Joe Mazza, moderator of #ptchat, the parent-teacher chat on Twitter, responded to my frustrations about not getting parents to attend academic functions at my school with “when was the last time you went to them?  Sometimes we have to go to them.”  Don’t expect those homes to come to you if you haven’t made any attempt to go to them.
  • I have to constantly remind myself to be cautious of the norms and behaviors of students from poverty.  It requires that I redirect language, make realistic goals, and accept the gray areas often.
  • Communication should always come after this thought: Is what I’m about to say going to bring me closer or pull me away from this person?


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