TEIS Newsletter

Empowering ourselves as we empower our students (from Summer/Fall 1990, Vol. 6, No. 1)

by User Not Found | 10/31/2011

The concept of empowerment has grown widely over the years in its impact on education spurring teachers to find ways of teaching, which promote the capabilities, resourcefulness, self-awareness, self-direction, and inner strengths of the learner. For many, however, the concept may have elusive, confusing, even threatening meaning.

Perhaps this is because becoming empowered means to change...to let go of limitations, to activate our full possibilities. And, to empower students implies that we might have to find new ways to teach...ways that more effectively allow our students to reach their "maximum potential". However, we aren't always clear about how this is accomplished. When we do get training in current "empowering" classroom strategies that are interactive, holistic, cooperative, student-centered, and experiential, we still may not find within ourselves our own inner strength, readiness, wholeness, and power to implement those strategies, making it difficult to give what we do not have.

Those of us in ESL and bilingual education share something with our linguistic and cultural minority students. We too are a minority, of sorts, in the school and in the teaching profession. We often are not understood or valued or adequately prepared for all that we must do. When we talk with our colleagues and administrators about our students' needs, our teaching strategies, our assessments, and our insights, it often seems like we are speaking a foreign language. Miscommunication confusion, discomfort, blank looks, even fear and resistance are responses we may get to our efforts. We can easily end up feeling powerless and drained.

As we strive to empower our students, we may not know how to empower ourselves and each other. It seems to me that we must first develop an awareness of our own personal empowerment, and then clarify our direction and readiness for engaging that power. We need to regain our vision, regenerate and redirect our energies, reframe the seeming limitations that thwart us, rekindle the inner flame and vision for our teaching release our teaching from the bondage we may feel caught in, and return to ourselves ... to nurture, support, observe, listen, and discover what we have within us to give.

Basic Strategies

We would do well to apply to ourselves the same basic strategies of empowerment that we are being encouraged to use with students: trusting and tapping our own strengths and identities; connecting to others to form a community that nourishes and supports us in ways we can't on our own; freeing our intuition and risk-taking skills; focusing on process as well as product; and integrating all our skills and experience.

One of the sources for my own understanding of empowerment has come from an article Jim Cummins wrote for the Harvard Educational Review, called "Empowering Minority Students: A Framework for Intervention" (Cummins, 1986). Before showing how this framework can apply to us as teachers, I will briefly summarize how Cummins applied the framework to linguistic minority students.

Cummins' framework is made up of four structural elements, which he says, "contribute to the extent to which minority students, are empowered or disabled" (Cummins, p. 24). The first element is an "ADDITIVE" rather than "Subtractive" approach to the incorporation of minority students' culture and linguistic identities. "Educators who see their role as adding a second language and cultural affiliation to their students' repertoire are likely to empower students more than those who see their role as replacing or subtracting students' primary language and culture" (Cummins, p. 25).

The third element consists of a "RICIPROCAL," interaction-oriented pedagogy, rather than the traditional "transmission-oriented" classroom practices. "Pedagogical approaches that empower students encourage them to assume greater control over setting their own learning goals and to collaborate actively with each other in achieving these goals" (Cummins, p. 28).

The fourth and final element of the framework is an "ADVOCACY-oriented" approach to the assessment of minority students, rather than assessment that "legitimizes the disabling of minority students through testing children to locate the 'problem! or 'disability.' " The advocacy-oriented alternative requires that educators scrutinize "critically the societal and educational context within which the child has developed" (Cummins p. 30).

A Framework

In using this four part framework over the past few years as a tool for training teachers in student empowerment, I have found that it parallels the elements that seem most crucial to my own empowerment ... and that of the teachers with whom I explore the process. With the adaptations and expansions I have made to each of the four elements, I have created a framework which is doubly useful to me, providing structure and guidance and strategies for my process of empowering myself as I empower my students.

1. Additive Approach: We need to incorporate who we are own cultural, linguistic, experiential identities and authentic full selves-head, heart, and spirit-into our teaching experience. We become more empowered as we teach from our inner strengths, talents, and vulnerabilities, not from a "role of authority or expert, following externally and arbitrarily devised "rules." This should not imply that we abandon our power of critical thinking and our responsibility to stay informed and updated. However, since we already tend to be active at cognitive levels, we may need to give more attention to our own intuitive and experiential levels of knowing. As we discover and tap into all the diverse resources within us, we release wisdom, playfulness, spontaneity, and creative power.

We can make the classroom an environment of joy and celebration (Enright & McCloskey, 1988), worth and respect, appreciation and acceptance, safety and success, curiosity and challenge ... in which all of us can flourish in our wholeness. We can recognize and use every- thing and every event as an opportunity for learning. We can let fun be part of our experience as well as our students'. An "integrated language teaching model" fits well with this additive approach because it integrates and adds all the elements of learning that make for wholeness and empowerment.

2. Collaborative Involvement: We not only need to bring parents and minority communities into an active and collaborative engagement in the education of their children, we also need to find other sources of collaboration and support for our task. This means linking, rather than fragmenting, our instruction and student support services, developing collaboration between all who have the students' needs at heart and who are seeking to enhance and empower the learning experience in positive ways.

We also need to connect with other teachers for mutual assistance, peer support, encouragement, teaming, coaching, sharing, and dialogue. In addition' we need to work in collaboration with our students in the process of congealing a shared classroom community that validates and multiplies the learning possibilities for all involved. We can expand our sense of community to include not only parents, colleagues, and students, but also local community, human and organizational resources and "sister classes" near and far (Sayers, 1988).

What is important to our own empowerment here is to avoid the autonomy-so typical of teaching-that breeds isolation, territoriality, stagnation and often a sense of victimization. Teachers can become just as "fossilized:" or stuck in their teaching methods, strategies and views as students can in their language learning. When we create community and collaboration, we can let go of our own fearfulness and competitiveness We can create a more fertile growth environment for our own development when we mix and feed the soil, water and nurture the seedlings of new approaches. We can share our ideas and wishes and growing edges as teachers in order to hold a clearer view of the bigger picture, the broader perspective or vision that too often is lost.

3. Reciprocal, interactive pedagogy: In this category, everything we do to let go the traditional, behavioral, transmission model of teaching and adopt an interactive, learner/learning centered approach to teaching, not only empowers our students but empowers us as well. Here, when we focus on ourselves, we need to have interaction between our spontaneous and our conscious selves, between our natural inclinations and our formal training, between the affective and cognitive parts of our personalities, between our left and right brains, and between the old and the new within us.

We need to allow ourselves to be observers, listeners, and learners of all that the students bring to the experience, as well as sharers of what we know and of what we are still in the process of learning. This means that we can no longer operate on the assumption that we must know everything and that we must direct all the learning. In fact, we can get out of the spotlight, away from the front of the room, and out of the way of the learning process. We can liberate ourselves from outdated, inappropriate and imposed practices. We can allow our methods and styles of teaching to be congruent with what we now believe sssabout education, not just with ways we've always been taught. This may require some mental and literal cleaning of our "closets"...ridding ourselves of what no longer fits our empowered view. Finally, we can create and integrate learning adventures that are real, challenging, experimental, holistic and exciting for us as well as for the students.

4. Advocacy-oriented Assessment: There is no reason why we should operate under the limiting beliefs and modes of operation that we may feel constrained to follow and by which we tend to evaluate ourselves. We often serve as our own adversaries rather than as advocates, judging ourselves by unrealistic expectations and standards we never consciously chose. In this category we have a great deal more power than we believe. We can let go of the "problem-identifying" and "disability-labeling" that leads to our feeling of helplessness and inadequacy. We can assess our own progress and abilities (as well as our students) with sensitivity and compassion and an understanding of the multiple factors that confront and confound our teaching daily.

Learning to Empower

If thought creates reality, then we need to change negative, problem-oriented thinking to positive affirmations of what we want to see manifested in ourselves and in our students. Although we may need practice at it, we can affirm our strengths and goals, turn down the inner critic, embrace our fears and inadequacies, replenish our depleted energies, dissolve the barriers we create to block our progress. We can learn to be patient. The deeper and more profound the process of learning, the slower the apparent progress. Surface learning may be faster, more efficiently managed, and more easily assessed, but it is rarely as empowering.

We can learn to empower ourselves in every experience, every imperfect lesson, every student, every moment, every awkward try at our own transformation and liberation. These are our choices. The biggest question remains: how ready are we to make the changes that will activate our personal and professional power?


Cummins, Jim (1987). Empowering minority students: A framework for intervention. Harvard Educational Review, 56,18-36.

Enright, D. Scott & McCloskey, Mary Lou (1988). Integrating English: Developing English Language and literacy in the multilingual classroom. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.

Sayer, Dennis (1988). Bilingual Sister Classes in Computer Writing Networks. In D. Johnson and D. Roen (Eds). Richness in Writing: Empowering ESL Writers, New York. Longman.

Reprinted from Teacher Development Newsletter, No. 10, 1989. Adrian Underhill and Susan Barduhn, ads International House, White Rock, Hastings, East Sussex, TN34 1JY, UK.