The Power Principle

Voices and choices, baby!

This is @edpsychprof's weekly newsletter for those interested in transforming schools to become places where children (and adults) can thrive.

Part Two of a five part series on principles that I believe are essential to creating a school culture that helps children thrive. I developed these principles to serve as the foundation for the charter school I founded, yet the principles are universal, based in robust theory and research from psychology and education. Today, we discuss the Power Principle, or what I call giving students, faculty, and staff reasonable “voices and choices” in their work and learning environments.

Tl;dr: I share two really personal stories. Then insist we give students and teachers greater “voices and choices” in schools

Last week I told you the story of Russell, and how important it is to love and nurture both the children and the adults in schools. This week, I want to share a story about one of my former principals. Let’s call him “Mack.”

Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

Once upon a time, I was a 5th grade teacher at a suburban middle school in Colorado, My first year there, the school got a new principal. She was trained in all the “right” pedagogical approaches at the time—interdisciplinary units, collaborative team planning for teachers, and project-based learning. To our misery, though, she implemented these techniques through fear, primarily through punishment and consequences. Teachers were mandated to turn in lessons that met strict criteria predetermined in advance, without our input. She conducted formal observations of our classrooms regularly: Our teaching, our clothes, our behavior were under a microscope and severely critiqued. She played favorites, bestowing favors on those who she liked, ostracizing those she didn’t. Students were yelled at for making noise in the halls. The whole atmosphere permeating the school was one of fear and resentment. She lasted a year; parent and teacher complaints led to her replacement.

The following year, I knew things were going to be different when on the first day of school, I saw the new principal doing a handstand at the front entrance welcoming kids as they walked into the building. Mack worked collaboratively with teachers, asking us where we wanted to grow and providing professional development training that fit our growth plans. He gave teachers choices. He allowed our voices to factor into school decision-making. He joked around with students, and the whole school seemed to exhale in relief. Now, it’s not like the school become a hedonistic free-for-all. Teachers still turned in lesson plans, and students were still held to the school rules. And I am not saying that principals need to be gymnasts! But with Mack in charge, the school felt like a family, and teachers were encouraged to try new things in the goal of increasing student learning.

At mid-year, Mack wondered aloud with us how we could give students even more choices in their learning. Middle school is a time when kids are seeking greater autonomy and control in their lives, and he wanted to provide that, within the limits of school regulations. We brainstormed ideas as a faculty, and eventually came up with the idea of offering a week of “mini-courses,” kind of like signing up for electives at a community college. Teachers created a catalog of things they were passionate about teaching, with final approval by Mack, and then students were allowed to sign up for whatever classes they wanted. The resulting week was a wonderful experiment of hands-on, immersive, mixed-age learning that students loved. I took kids rock climbing. Other teachers explored cooking, crafts, art, and science.

Research on self-determination theory (SDT) backs up Mack’s approach. If you ask teachers what is the the number one problem with students not learning, many would say “lack of motivation.” I even found this in my research on university faculty. SDT research shows that motivation increases when people feel a sense of autonomy or choice, when they feel competent, and when they feel a sense of belonging. Mack gave students and teachers appropriate levels of freedom to make choices about their work and learning. He provided a lot of professional development opportunities for teachers to increase their competence in teaching. And the whole school quickly developed a strong sense of belonging from his approach.

Far too many public schools do the opposite. They do not provide a sense of autonomy or choice to teachers or students. In fact, they are often quite controlling, authoritarian environments where teachers and students have little voice or choice in their day. Instead of promoting competence, schools tend to promote standardization, where instruction is targeted at some imagined “average” and individual differences in learning are often ignored or given token acknowledgment. How many schools look at EACH kid and come up with plans for EACH of them to thrive? The quiet ones, the ones failing, the absent ones, the ones who sit alone at lunch? Instead of a sense of belonging, many public schools cultivate a sense of mistrust and competition. Teachers compete for limited awards and pay raises, students compete for teachers’ attention, and all mistrust the system because they have no voice or stake in it.

The Power Principle, as you can see, is really about letting go of holding so tightly to control and authority and allowing other voices to be heard. It’s about a participatory model of schooling, where administrators and teachers may have the final say, but stakeholders get to have their voices heard and respected and are allowed autonomy to make choices that ought to be theirs. It’s like parenting kids—our job as parents is one of gradual release of responsibility to our children, allowing them to make choices that are reasonable for them, those which don’t threaten their lives, health, or well-being. So, as a parent, I may set limits for screen time and bedtime, but if my boys want to grow their hair long, that’s their choice.

It ought to be the same for schools. School administrators have control and authority in order to keep the school functioning, to keep kids safe, and to take care of behind the scenes stuff to free up their teachers and staff to take care of the children in the school. But often, this power becomes about maintaining control out of fear of letting go, instead of service to the ones for which you are responsible. The current high-stakes approach to testing just amps up that fear.

The problem of over-control in schools is not just due to school administrators trying to exert their authority. Teachers do it too, treating their classrooms as their own fiefdoms, where some rule as dictators, giving students little voices or choices in their learning.

I speak from experience. In my second year of teaching, I created clear and strict rules and procedures to make sure the class ran efficiently. That’s what I was taught to do. “Don’t let the kids see you smile until December” was the prevailing attitude. As a young, female teacher, I wanted to make sure the students knew who was in charge. And so the rules I created involved me being in control of the classroom, such that I had a lot more power than the students. I was taught to use authoritarian discipline methods, like writing students’ names on the board when they misbehaved (which still makes me shudder). If a student wanted to go to the bathroom, they had to ask me during their work time; they weren’t allowed to interrupt me in the middle of a lesson.

One day, Ursula, a small, unkempt 5th grader, interrupted my lesson by calling out that she needed to go the bathroom. I said she had to wait until the lesson was over. A few minutes later, she approached my desk and asked to go again. As I was about to remind her of the rules, she began peeing in her pants in front of me. I was mortified. I immediately splashed the contents of my water glass on her, pretending I spilled my drink and loudly apologizing for my clumsiness to provide a cover for her wet clothes. I gave everyone an assignment and got Ursula to the bathroom and some clean clothes. Fortunately no students realized what had really happened. But they could have. This experience still haunts me, as Ursula was already ostracized from her classmates. If the rest of the class had seen what had happened, it could have affected her entire time at that school. She could have been the subject of teasing and even bullying, all because I was so insistent about my rules and keeping a sense of control in the classroom. That incident was a catalyst for me as I began to deeply question the authoritarian approach to teaching.

There are many ways we can increase students’ and teachers’ authentic power and autonomy in schools, making schools more authoritative and less authoritarian—more like good parents and less like dictators. I’ll list a few; please share your ideas too! I am hoping this newsletter will inspire us to keep working towards creating learning environments where kids (and adults) can thrive. We can start by yielding some of the power we hold onto so tightly and working to create more participatory environments where everyone has a voice and everyone matters.

Here’s a list to start us out:

1. Let students choose where and how to do their classwork within reason. Provide flexible seating options.

2. Let students have input into the class rules. Let them have responsibilities in the class. Have a weekly meeting for students to present their needs and requests. Let students have a voice in classroom decision making.

3. Allow students to have some degree of choice about their assignments. It’s more motivating to invite students to “choose 5 math problems” on the page to practice, than to assign all the odd numbered problems.

4. Allow students to give input on how to make the classroom a more engaging and welcoming environment.

5. Administrators should consistently seek teacher, parent, staff, and student input and feedback on how the school is functioning and where they would like to see things improve. Galileo School does this by sending out yearly surveys to all parents, staff, and students and then actually using the results of the surveys to make changes for the next school year.

6. Allow teachers and staff a voice in their professional development trainings and in their growth plans. Administrators should seek to empower, uplift, and serve the school staff. School boards and superintendents must seek to do the same to school administrators.

7. Your turn….


I would love to hear your thoughts--they help clarify my own thinking and contribute to the larger discussion on this topic. Plus, your responses help create community around this idea of school transformation. Who knows what good we can do together?

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