Empowerment in Education Pre-K through 12: The Foundational Concept

Empowerment: Helping students visualize the finish line


Empowerment is certainly an overused word and has become a tired concept as it relates to education and social services. But the truth is, when we know what empowerment really means, it can become the foundation of everything else we do in teaching both online and in the classroom. Empowerment can facilitate greater connection and engagement.

But I can’t talk about empowerment without mentioning the first student that showed me how empowerment can create miracles. Later in this article, I’ll share a simple 3-pronged process that we can use to empower our students. But first, I need to tell you about Terrance.

In 1998, I became a part of the Gateways program, introduced at Maple Lane School, a maximum- security juvenile incarceration facility in Washington State. The program was developed by Dr. Carol Minugh at the Evergreen State College. In short, students from the college studied together with incarcerated youth. I was a student there, beginning my college education at the age of 40.

One day during class at Maple Lane School, we were reviewing a chapter from The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. The young boy sitting next to me leaned in and pointed to the page in my book. He noted that we had both highlighted the same passage.

“Look,” this kid pointed out. “We think alike.”

I smiled and asked him his name. Terrance.

I didn’t want to contradict what Terrance had said, but here were my thoughts at the time. You must be kidding me. I’m 40. You’re 16. You are a black kid, and I am a white woman. But more to the point, you’re locked up and I’m not. How could we possibly think alike? I’m glad now that I kept my mouth shut.

Terrance went on to tell me that he had written a piece about his experience having been incarcerated since he was 14. The title, Incarceration is Death.

“Wanna read it?” he asked me with a snark and threw some papers my way. He was obviously carrying his story with him. Literally.

“Maybe if you ask nicely.”

“Ok, pleeeease read it?”

So, I did read it. What a mess! A diatribe of ranting and raving intertwined with expletives all about how the system had and still was to blame for all Terrance’s troubles and for the fact that he would not be released from juvenile detention until his 18th birthday. What the heck was I going to tell him? First, I didn’t want to burst his creative bubble and second, I was a little intimidated by him. He had put a bullet into another human being, after all. But as I finished up the read, I saw this one sentence. I read it over and over. It was eloquent. It was beautiful. This kid was a writer. If he could get over himself.

The next week when I met with Terrance, I didn’t tell him that most of his story was crap. Instead, I pointed out the one sentence.

“This is beautiful. Powerful. You are a writer.” That’s what I told him.

I got permission to work with Terrance separately on his story. Being a published writer myself, I tutored him. He wrote the same story but learned how to frame it differently. We had fun. We grew together. And after the months it took to finish his project, I agreed with Terrance. Yes, Terrance, we think alike.

Terrance wrote about “the shadowy symmetrics of my 6 by 9 cell, when it’s lights out. There hasn’t been snow yet this January. Instead, the rain has formed small ponds, reminding me where I have been evaporating for the last 2 years.” And against all odds, the Maple Lane School allowed us to publish his extraordinary piece in a book called Through the Eyes of the Judged. And now, over 20 years later, Terrance has graduated from The Evergreen State College. He now lectures and advocates for juvenile justice reform, the importance of early intervention and the crucial connection between the two. Watch the video where Terrance talks about his Gateways experience HERE.

I will always be grateful for having found that one sentence to focus on with Terrance. The 3 steps to empowerment are accompaniment, active listening and responsiveness. I sat together with Terrance, I paid close attention to where there might be an opening for greater understanding, and then I focused on the one thing, if made bigger, would serve him well. I did this all by accident, frankly. But since Terrance, when I can make myself remember, I am quite deliberate and intentional on these steps, with students, with teachers, with friends and with family members.

Empowerment is not just the foundation of successful education from toddler age to high school. If we choose, this process can become the way we walk through life. And it’s how we bring love into all we do.

Want to learn more about the steps to empowerment in education? A Better Day Curriculum is designed to help us nurture kindness, creativity and humanity in our young people. Check out our A Better Day Curriculum teacher training.


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