Most principals would agree that we should empower teachers. But what does teacher empowerment really mean? Furthermore, why should we empower teachers? And how do we do it? Below we’ve taken a shot at answering these three questions.
What does teacher empowerment mean?
While educational gurus like Bolin (1989), Lucas, Brown & Makus (1991) and Lee (1991) all use different language to describe teacher empowerment, their definitions all share common tenants:
- Rejecting hierarchy built upon control and fear
- Enabling teachers to have a voice
- Encouraging teachers to use their professional judgment to make major decisions about the curriculum and how it is presented
- Providing teachers with a means to make decisions that have, in traditional systems, been made for them
Why should we empower teachers?
- Teachers are already making decisions
Research suggests that teachers make 30 non-trivial work related decisions every hour in a classroom context where an estimated 1,500 interactions may take place between teacher and pupils each day (Burke, 1992). Not only are teachers making big decisions—and making them often—their decisions are impacting a huge network of people including students, parents, colleagues and administrators.
If teachers are already making high-impact decisions, it only seems logical that we equip them with the tools, freedom and support to make the best decisions they can.
- Empowering teachers will make them more receptive to growth
Teaching is complex for a variety of reasons, but a major one has to do with the fact that, as B.S.V. Dutt suggests, “Knowledge is always incomplete, subject to change, and always open to improvement.”
Should we find that a teacher’s knowledge base is incomplete or in need of improvement, we will have a much easier time helping them grow if we have already established meaningful, trusting relationships with them.
- Empowered teachers are more likely to respond well to the demands of the profession
Teachers have an overwhelming set of demands placed on them. But these demands become far more manageable when teachers know we see them as competent and reliable professionals.
The list of reasons for why we should empower teachers could continue, but let’s move on to how administrators can empower teachers.
How can we empower teachers?
- Listen and react to feedback
Teachers need to know their voice matters. One way to prove that it does is by soliciting their feedback and collaborating with them to solve issues. Collaboration is not always easy, nor is it always “efficient” in the short term—but the results usually speak for themselves.
- Create a unified vision
Most businesses have a slogan or a vision statement that sums up—for both customers and employees—who the company is and the values they stand for.
Although the message of a school might seem straightforward, your community will benefit from taking a critical look at what makes your school unique. One of the best ways to ensure that you and your teachers share a common goal is by collaborating on a vision statement. Of course, you can do this on your own, but your teachers are more likely to buy-in if they are involved in the creative process.
- Empower teachers to think differently
It is important to establish a set of clear goals and responsibilities, but always remember that common goals can be achieved—and surpassed—when teachers are empowered to think differently, bring forward new ideas and even take a different approach that fails. When we fail, we (hopefully) learn. When we learn, we grow.
- Look for quiet leaders
Think back to the time you spent in the classroom. If your experience was anything like mine, I noticed that it was often the quiet students who were the best leaders.
While many students had a tendency to speak impulsively during heated in-class discussions, some of the quiet ones hung back, reflected and waited until they had fully developed their thoughts before sharing. With a little encouragement, I found that these students would open up and completely change the trajectory of the discussion.
Reach out to the quiet teachers. They are often some of the best leaders—they just need a little encouragement.
- Bolin, F.S. (1989). Empowering Leadership. Teacher College Record.
- Lucas, S., Brown, G.C., & Markus, F.W. (1991) Principals’ Perceptions of Site-Based Management and Teacher Empowerment. NAASSP Bulletin, 75. (357)
- Lee, W. (1991). Empowering Music Teachers: A Catalyst for Change. Music Educators Journal. 78 (1).