Tapping Our Most Valuable Resource


By Jamie Meade, Managing Director of Learning and Leading


I’ve always loved the excitement, energy, and sense of renewal that accompany the start of a new school year. I’m reminded of the students whose lives will be forever changed by the positive impact of a single teacher! While teachers change lives in countless ways, I can think of no greater lifelong impact than helping students realize their personal power, their sense of agency. When students realize their personal power, we’re tapping our most valuable educational resource: the students, themselves!  

Agency can be defined as a sense of control over outcomes in our lives. According to Shane Lopez, author of Making Hope Happen, students with agency deeply believe they are the author of their life story. When obstacles and barriers arise along the pathway toward a goal, these students tap into their personal power to persevere and take action, re-routing alternative pathways toward their goals. Amy Cuddy, author of Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges, explains that when we feel personal power, we feel in control and approach goals with optimism and excitement, unthreatened, and attuned to opportunities.  

This sense of personal power impacts both the cognitive and emotional states of students in the learning environment. In other words, student agency influences how students think and feel about learning and their perceived ability to reach their goals, even in the face of challenges that require resilience. Through student agency, learner-centered (and even learner-driven) education can begin to take root. Guided by the student’s voice, choice, and leadership in learning, students feel empowered and driven to reach goals that excite them!  

How can teachers foster student agency in the classroom? Here are 5 strategies to try in the new school year:
  1. Help students become self-aware, exploring and identifying their unique strengths, interests, passions, and goals that inspire them to take action.  
  2. Create a safe environment for students to take risks (where real failure is possible) in pursuit of challenging goals. In other words, provide the dress rehearsal for real world challenges. 
  3. Acknowledge hard work ethic and resilience, especially when students encounter obstacles along their path.
  4. Elicit and empower student voice, choice, and leadership in learning path, pace, and place.
  5. Ensure students know their teacher believes they can learn, grow, overcome obstacles, and reach challenging goals. 

Fostering student agency, empowering students, and elevating their voice, choice, and leadership in learning, necessitates an essential shift in roles for teachers and students. As we begin another school year, let’s take a moment to consider how we may leverage our most valuable educational resource and begin to transfer our social power (control over the outcomes of others) to foster personal power within our students!

Jamie Meade is Managing Director of Learning and Leading at Battelle for Kids. Connect with her on Twitter at @meade_jamie