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What We Must Do to Empower Students

More and more teachers today make a distinction between student engagement and student empowerment. It makes sense to me.

Julie Diaz is the principal of Travis High School near Houston, Texas. She’s building young leaders within that student body—and discovered surprising things happen when educators do this. Two years ago, some of her students told her they felt their school building looked drab and wanted to give it a facelift. It needed painting. When Julie looked into it, she discovered it would cost too much, and had no budget for painting the school. She was sorry.

That’s when her students surprised her.

They decided to make this setback a “tollbooth” not a “roadblock.” They asked if they could take the project on. When administrators agreed to let them, those students approached Sherwin Williams and were able to get $1,500 worth of paint donated. Next, they raised the money for the rest of the paint. Then, the students collaborated with teachers to find a Saturday to get the job done—and recruited over a hundred classmates to volunteer their time to paint. It was stunning. I toured that building last year and it looks spectacular.

Travis High School didn’t just engage their students, they empowered them.

Engagement means we get students interested in:

  • Our subjects
  • Our curriculum
  • Our outcomes

Empowerment means we provide students with:

  • Skills that are practical
  • Insight that is relevant
  • Opportunities to practice their ideas and vision

The sad truth is, we don’t hear stories like this one at Travis High School enough. In a world that quite literally places limitless information at their fingertips, millions of students just don’t feel or act empowered. Which begs an important question.

How come students today usually don’t feel or act empowered at school?

The Connection Between Empowerment and Anxiety

Dr. Jean Twenge released the results of a study on student anxiety and depression levels. Her study was based on the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) and has been given to teens and young adults since 1938. She reveals that levels of anxiety and depression among students continued to rise every decade over the last fifty plus years. Psychologist Peter Gray suggests, “We would like to think of history as progress, but if progress is measured by the mental health and happiness of young people, then we’ve been going backward at least since the early 1950s.”

One of the connections Dr. Twenge discovered was between anxiety/depression levels and a student’s sense of control over their own life. People who believe they are in charge of their own fate are less likely to become anxious or depressed than those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control.

Here’s what’s most interesting to me.

It would be easy to assume that a student’s sense of personal control would have increased over the last number of decades. We’ve made profound progress in our:

  • Ability to offer choices for careers;
  • Capacity to prevent and treat diseases;
  • Antiquated prejudices about race and gender;
  • Opportunity to make money and enjoy options in life.

Yet the data “indicates that young people’s belief that they have control over their own destinies has declined sharply over decades.”

What We Must Do to Empower Kids

If today’s students are going to beat anxiety and act empowered, it boils down to a significant decision on our part:

We must turn them loose to control their own decisions.

Julie Diaz discovered what happens when students run their own show and feel they have some “power” to do something that actually matters. Not a pop quiz. Not an essay. Not an exam. It should not feel like our assignment for them—but rather our invitation to do something real and significant. Like paint a school. Or raise some money for a sister school in Tanzania. Or build a house with Habitat For Humanity. You get the idea. Students see anxiety decrease and empowerment increase when it feels like it’s their call. Their resources. Their ingenuity. Their outcomes.

More on this tomorrow.


Order Now: Marching Off the Map
Inspire Students to Navigate a Brand New World

Leading today’s students often feels like being in a new country with old maps that don’t work. Understanding and connecting with the generation in this land is often times frustrating and draining. We need new strategies on how to march off our old maps and create new ones.

From decades of research and hands-on experience, Dr. Tim Elmore and Andrew McPeak collate their conclusions into one resource that helps adults:

  • Inspire students to own their education and their future
  • Lead students from an attitude of apathy to one of passion through metacognition
  • Enable students to push back from the constant digital distractions and practice mindfulness
  • Raise kids who make healthy progress, both emotionally and mentally, through their teenage years
  • Give students the tools to handle the complexities of an ever-changing world
  • Understand and practically apply the latest research on Generation Z

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What We Must Do to Empower Students