What does it mean to "Empower Students"?

"I don't like your message..." told me a teacher

My philosophy of compassion and the merits of Restorative Justice

While campaigning some days ago, some teachers in the District approached me to ask about the significance of my campaign message to “Empower Students.”

They said the message made them rather uncomfortable. “Their brains are developing and we can’t allow them too much power,” said one of them. I somewhat concurred but went on to explain that perhaps some of their discomfort might be rooted in the inability to manage—or better yet, to lead an “empowered student.”

I explained that empowering students is an all-encompassing concept meant to serve students’ needs.  Here’s my broader definition:

To empower students means to see the world from their perspective, to provide guidance, tools and the opportunity to learn from struggle, challenge, and mistakes—all done with patience and compassion. It’s about shifting leadership to students. It is by making them understand the impact of their actions and taking actions to repair. When students are part of the solution and decision-making process, they gain buy-in, are motivated, and feel in control. It’s about preparing them to lead a successful and balanced life—academically and beyond.

One of the teachers didn’t seem too convinced and was rather skeptical. She told me about her past experience with angry parents when their children received undesirable grades and feared retribution. As an example, she shared the story of a student who had clearly plagiarized some work and, in accordance with her own class policy, docked the student two full-letter grades for the entire course. She went on to explain that this was the student’s first violation but—the rules were the rules. For the student, unfortunately, this weighed negatively on his transcript and potentially jeopardized his college admission choices.

I questioned whether she felt the rule to be rather harsh or commensurate with the student’s offense—more so, his first. The student was given no recourse for repair whatsoever. I asked her to take a minute to reflect on the intended purpose of punishment, the consequences of her decision and the impact on the student.

She admitted that the heavy-handed rule was purposely intended at setting example and sending a strong message of deterrence to others. Unfortunately the intended “lesson” would take a heavy toll on the offending student. The student would be given no second chance. So, then I asked, what the point was for the student to put further effort in the class and keep trying? He might as well just give up. In fact, I pointed out that her actions most likely resulted in feelings of anger, resentment and discouragement. In fact, this and similar punitive methods only become a barrier that shuts down all communication between student and teacher.

Yes, the student clearly made a mistake. And yes, repeat offenses merit commensurate consequences. But let’s stop for a minute to question what it is that we’re teaching our kids. Where are the lessons of remorse, repair, forgiveness and compassion—the same lessons that perpetuate beyond the classroom and onto their lives as adults. What is the message we’re sending? The student should have been allowed to acknowledge his error, the impact of his actions, his disrespect for the teacher and other students. Finally, he should have been engaged in offering a solution to repair the error.

More importantly, students will forever remember a GREAT TEACHER—that teacher who served as mentor, coach and role model, that teacher that established a relationship of trust and confidence, that teacher that guided with love and compassion. THAT, is a teacher’s greatest reward.

The above is a great example of Restorative Justice, known otherwise as “RJ.” With RJ, success is measured not by how much punishment is given, but by how much harm has been repaired. RJ has high rates of success and tremendous benefits, including reduced re-offense, high compliance and timely resolutions, resulting in a stronger community as a whole.

Over the years, I’ve developed several methods that are aimed at empowerment—whether applied in the corporate world or in classroom education. These programs (my “SELF” method, for example) is aimed at facing adverse situations, open dialogue, the brainstorming of solutions, the making of value-based decisions, and taking action.

In summary, to “Empower Students” means to guide with compassion, to enable our children to take ownership and act responsibly.

If elected, this is the student-centered culture I plan to instill in my fellow board members.

Lea Wolf:  Integrity. Transparency. Compassion.

“ Taxpayers and students need an independent representative who will look out for their interests…
a parent of a district student…with fresh ideas.
Lea is an outspoken voice for students and their parents… one of the few that dares to speak out.
Lea has the courage, commitment, and integrity to be a student-centered trustee.”

John Salazar, SDUHSD Board Trustee

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