When Student Empowerment Results in Teacher Empowerment

I have been an advocate for student agency since my first experience working in education. You could say that I believed in student agency before it was cool. My lesson planning has always been driven by how I can create an environment where kids will learn content. This meant that I had to provide experiences for students rather than deliver content to them directly. My goal of speaking no more than 25% of class time helped me to use those precious moments more effectively. If I was taking time away from students’ work time then I had to be sure that it was worth it. At the time, 10 years ago, this was not the norm at my school and not everyone had a positive impression of my teaching practice. Nevertheless, I persisted because this is what I knew was right for my students.

Then, I saw this line written by Alan November, a respected leader in education: “What are you doing in your classroom now, that you could turn over to your students to do?”


Almost immediately, I felt less alone and more empowered.


That was all I needed - I was off and running. I devoured all professional development and reading that I could find and vowed to decrease my direct instruction to 10% and increase the variety of ways that kids acquire knowledge. No more stand and deliver instruction; I have always suspected and my experience showed, that meaningful learning comes through experiences. Increasing student independence meant increasing formative assessment opportunities to daily and with immediate feedback. This way, I could ensure that students were on track. It also meant that I had to be prepared to immediately correct misconceptions and misunderstandings with limited interruption to their personal learning processes.

The student experience in my classroom, by design, is far different than any that they have inside the school building. It requires students to be patient and to put their trust in this unfamiliar process. There are times that it feels like an uphill battle; lecture & worksheets would be so much simpler for everyone. But I am not in this profession for simple. I am here because I know the feeling of being a struggling student who wanted nothing more than to be seen. I have sat through countless wasted days of listening to lectures that helped me retain none of their contents. The end result for my students is more fulfillment and empowerment. These kids know what works for them and now they have experience being successful on their own terms.


My journey to empower students to acquire and demonstrate knowledge in ways that are meaningful to them continually evolves as I read and learn from people who are brave enough to share their stories. This is why I share my story.


What was the reason why you became an educator? When I ask this question, I get a variety of responses; none of them have anything to do with the schedule or the money and everything to do with being a change-agent. We are in the world-changing business. You will make an impression on the students that you interact with; even when you are not paying attention. Alfie Kohn once said:

“Very few things are as dangerous as a bunch of incentive-driven individuals trying to play it safe.”


How many choices do students have in the course of a school day?


What do you do just to play it safe and how can you change that tomorrow?




Bonnie Nieves teaches high school biology and anatomy and physiology Massachusetts. She is passionate about engaging students in immersive and authentic activities that fuel student curiosity and leveraging technology to empower students to make an impact on their community. She is always eager to connect with educators through social media, and Twitter chats. She has presented a variety of topics from science content to agency and alternative grading at numerous local and national conferences.


You can follow Bonnie on Twitter @biologygoddess, on Voxer @bonnienieves, and via her WordPress blog.


Bonnie’s upcoming EduMatch book will be comprised of reflective activities to help teachers implement more purposeful lesson design by identifying and building upon their strengths.

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