An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog

An educator blogging….novel idea.

I don’t empower students.

with 19 comments

Last Friday, I met Donaldo Macedo (friend and collaborator of Freire) and listened to him give a talk about racial, ethnic, and class identities; xenophobia, and suffering in the United States. There were many things that struck me in the talk, but these words helped me understand myself and my role as a teacher:

It is dangerous when teachers say they empower others. If I have the power to empower you, I have the power to take away your power….We should give students enough critical tools to empower themselves. Through their own power they can come to voice. Empowerment involves pain and struggle.

Macedo put into words a feeling I have had for awhile. In terms of social justice, I am not responsible for the empowerment of my students. The very notion implies a flow of power that is not consistent with socioeconomic/political realities or social justice. As my science ed teacher says, “I can tell a student information, but I cannot tell them learning”. The same distinction is true of empowerment: I can give the students information, build mentor relationship that extends beyond their year in my classroom, and help them gain critical thinking skills, but I cannot give them power in our society. Learning and empowerment are both student constructions. If I try to take on my student’s process of empowerment,  I will burn out. It is impossible for me to lift children out of poverty, racism, classism, xenophobia, and the many other forms of prejudice and oppression that exist in too many realities. What can I do? I can think about the path my empowerment took and what paths theirs could take as young adults. I can create a classroom community that functions like a caring, student-centered learning lab, where students can experiment with their own power and learn how to “come to voice”. Just like learning, empowerment is a process of self and community-driven deconstruction and reconstruction. I think we need to stop using the term empowerment so lightly. It’s a life-sustaining process.

What do you think? Do you use the word “empower” to describe what you do in the classroom and/or why you do it? Am I being too heavy-handed here?


19 Responses

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  1. I use and will continue to use the word empower. I think when taken literally, you are correct in everything you wrote. If you can give, you can take away.

    When I use it, and I use it a lot, I am referring to the fact that since they have been in school they have constantly been overpowered by adults. By the time they get to me they feel as though they have no power, and cannot control anything–their life is simply in the hands of the people “in-charge.” I “empower” by putting them in situations that prove to them that they have power, they have control, they can make a difference and add value to our world.

    It’s kind of like reaching out and taking the hand of someone who has fallen to help them up. I may provide some extra confidence to help them up, and then they can slowly start walking, but they always knew how to walk–and once they are walking slowly I am there to help them up again if they fall, not hold them up or carry them.

    Maybe teachers are using the word empower just because there isn’t another word available, and just like “21st Century Skills” I think it is simply an easy word to use to generally describe what goes on in a class.

    I think whether you take the word literally, or symbolically, being a teacher who empowers their students is still better than one that does not.

    paul bogush

    29 April 2009 at 4:12 am

    • I completely agree with the way in which you are empowering students. Motivation of course is also a critical element in all this as well. I really believe that everyone has something that they are excpetional and natural at. I am of the opinion that the gifted teachers are the ones that can motivate and empower students with the ability to discover what their strengths and talents are. Agree?


      8 May 2010 at 10:36 pm

    • Awesome response! Don’t think I need to add anything more!!! You may be interested in my work on student empowerment. Please check me out at or follow me on Twitter (@ejuc8or). I would love to dialogue more with you!!

      Angela Dye

      28 January 2012 at 5:16 am

  2. I’m divided in my response to this, on the one hand I firmly believe in the importance of providing people with the tools with which to empower themselves and to purport that we are required for them to be empowered is in itself disempowering. However I also feel that educators can act as, in a sense, gatekeepers to peoples capacity to empower themselves and while I don’t know that we necessarily have the power to take away someone’s power but to a certain extent we have the capacity to deny them access to it, or at least make it harder for them to access it. I think here the gatekeeper metaphor remains valid in that they may be able to get around the gate but it requires a greater struggle. I agree also with the notion of empowerment as a life sustaining force. Thanks so much for your thoughts, I’ve missed that sort of thinking since leaving uni, a different sort of mental challenge than I engage in each day. Oh and I’m a big fan of freire and by association his collaborators.


    29 April 2009 at 4:48 am

  3. Good thoughts! Thanks. Using your own logic, I would modify your conclusion. “Empowerment is a process of self and community-driven deconstruction and reconstruction” By this argument, as part of the students’ community, you are at least a part of the process of empowering your students.

    I’m in an IB PYP school, where, I would like to think, student initiated inquiry is one step towards empowerment. The aim is to facilitate a growing ability, supported achievement, and a sense of agency. Our students mostly work in small groups but it seems to me that some kids (often with learning disabilities) need to have their own learning program, where they follow their own learning passion.

    I think we are part of the process of empowering students, even though we sometimes fail for a myriad reasons.

    Leigh Newton

    29 April 2009 at 5:47 am

  4. Excellent reflection.

    What I think of as empowerment is actually a freeing of the mind from societal imposed mental binding. In the world they live in, many are implicitly taught, almost always wrongly in my opinion, that they are limited by their surroundings or circumstances.

    Empowerment over those mental shackles can be called other things – but once you give the keys to the locks (or empower them to think above the mental chains), you no longer have the ability to re-shackle!

    George Shirey

    29 April 2009 at 7:23 am

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  6. Nicely written. I don’t think I’ve ever said I empower my students for precisely this reason – I don’t. They empower themselves, with my assistance. I can talk to them about their strengths, teach them the skills they need to thrive in society, show them I believe in them, but in the end, they have to do it on their own.


    30 April 2009 at 5:14 pm

  7. I work in victim assistance, and have been a classroom teacher. Folks in victim assistance often talk about empowering victims of violence and abuse. In my mind, empowerment is a self driven process, and a victim centered approach to victim assistance would be about providing victims with the information that they need to make their own decisions, and supporting their self determination. It would involved focusing on the victim’s priorities and their perception of their own risk, and working collaboratively to assist the victim in developing plans to address risk that work for her/him, and focus on the things that the victim can change. This kind of dynamic, where you assist people who are disempowered (in this case by abuse/violence) and help them by offering information and tools to *empower themselves*, focusing planning on actions they can take to change situations, while supporting them in the decisions they make…that would be how I would support their empowerment. I agree that teachers/service providers can be gatekeepers, which is why I think it is a vital role to give the information and tools that victims need to make their own decisions and take action; it is crucial to increase access.

    Corey Alexander

    3 May 2009 at 1:32 pm

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  9. I love these thoughts! I agree with other commenters that the word “empower” probably does have a place in our vocabulary, if used carefully and clearly.

    Images of scaffolding and support might take its place? It would need a concerted effort to make that change, though.


    Hadass Eviatar

    12 May 2009 at 10:35 am

  10. I thought that information is power. When students learn, when we give them tools to deal with the outside world, don’t we empower them?

    Mohammed Rhalmi

    3 June 2009 at 9:55 am

  11. Although I’ve never thought of myself as the one with the power in the their lives, I have thought of the teaching profession as striving to empower students.

    Listening to Pedro Noguera and Jefferey Duncan-Andrade speak at a conference last year really helped me understand our responsibility within and outside of the classroom. I don’t think we empower students, but I think education empowers students…


    14 February 2010 at 7:59 am

  12. I don’t often use the word empower to describe what I do in my 3rd grade classroom. However, I do give my students the tools necessary to begin becoming more independent learners and individuals. I challenge my students to think for themselves, to offer their own opinions, to think critically. Giving my students the tools necessary to become independent learners is giving students the power to rise above their circumstances. But, whether those students choose to use those tools is up to them. Ultimately, if they choose to use their education, they become empowered. Did I empower them?–No. Did I give them the tools necessary to become empowered?–Yes.

    Trish McKane

    27 June 2010 at 8:14 pm

  13. Empowerment is a pretty strong word.I believe with what teachin’ said that it is still the students who empower themselves, we are just their lighthouse to their seeking of the right path to wisdom and knowledge.We are just a guide.

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    23 December 2010 at 12:05 am

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  16. I believe you misunderstand the premise to empowerment and the work of educating disadvantaged students. I plan to engage with others about the ideas presented in this post. I look forward to you joining me at

    Angela Dye

    28 January 2012 at 5:23 am

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