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Empowering Students to Strive for Excellence

At The YES we think a lot about student empowerment. As an organization that focuses on relational leadership and servant leadership, we believe that empowering students as co-creators in classroom communities and school culture is the best way to create belonging, self-worth, accountability and engagement. Using our strategies, students not only benefit from the healthy and positive environments we create, they also learn the tools for how to create them in the first place; social emotional learning gets embedded in classroom processes that are participatory and reflective.

What does it mean to empower students?

I want to introduce you to the model of self-esteem that we use at The YES, and why empowerment is an important part of creating a positive classroom culture. Starting with creating a shared vision, I will share some tools you can use to empower students, and will discuss the benefits of increasing student engagement including creating positive relationships with students, increased accountability, and more intuitive behaviour management.

The YES first became aware of PhD Psychologist Dr. Darien Thira in the early 2000’s when he came to help train our staff in crisis counselling techniques. Hearing about his experience and research building resiliency, developed out of his work in Indigenous youth suicide prevention in Canada, and modelled on an Indigenous Medicine Wheel, we began to see a lot of overlap in his work and The YES’ mission and values.

We were lucky to have Dr. Thira’s presence on our board of directors for a number of years, and his work is deeply enmeshed in our pedagogical practice. For Thira, self-esteem can be characterized as a balance of care and respect; in order to have healthy self-esteem youth must experience a balance of both connection (care) and empowerment (respect) from their caregivers. For example, if a child or youth experiences too much care, and relies too heavily on their caregiver or teacher to do things for them, they will feel incapable, and become dependent on the adults in their lives.

If on the other hand, they experience too much respect or independence, and not enough care, they will feel unloved, and be socially disconnected or depressed. This balance is something important for teachers to achieve in their relationships with students, adjusting for age, maturity and students’ individual contexts. Students should feel cared for, but should also feel capable, independent and self-reliant.

Just as it is important for students to have healthy self-esteem, a number of authors point to the importance of teacher self-esteem, both as an initial trait that should be sought after in the teaching profession, but also as a focus of ongoing development and inquiry (Borich, 1999, Owens & Ennis, 2005, Zehm, 1999).

When students (and teachers) have healthy self-esteem, they have the foundation necessary to engage in a healthy community. According to Thira, the way to do this is by engaging in a meaningful role, in support of a shared vision. By playing a meaningful role, students engage their unique strengths and gifts towards something they see as an important contribution.

What gives this contribution meaning is that it works in support of a mutual or shared vision that is supported by common values, beliefs or aspirations. These two components make up the rest of the medicine wheel, and complete the components that Thira calls a Well-Lived Life.

Working backwards, the best way to establish a shared vision in the classroom, is to create one in the form of a classroom agreement with the help of students. This is discussed in more detail in the post Building Community in the Classroom. However you create this poster or documents, it’s important to reinforce it over the course of the term. When done well, this will create a culture of lateral accountability within your classroom - where students will not only feel accountable to you as an authority figure, but to their peers as co-creators of the classroom community.

Under Tuckman’s stages of group development, creating the classroom agreement is the forming stage. Students then need to be held accountable to this agreement with their behaviour. In cases where this is not the case, the classroom agreement should be utilized as a reference tool. If students decided that respect was something that was necessary to have in the classroom, and someone acts disrespectfully, they should not be made to feel like they broke a classroom rule, but rather that they let down their peers by breaking their agreement. This might happen as a conversation between teacher and student(s), between students - when students are given tools for how to have such conversations, or between the entire classroom community when transformative or restorative justice practices are called for and the class has the maturity necessary to have a meaningful discussion about behaviour that undermines the strength of their classroom agreement. By engaging in these discussions, sharing tools and practising accountability, students are learning important SEL principles and techniques, and establishing strong norms that help to propel them towards Tuckman’s performing stage, where students are knowledgeable, competent, motivated and can be successful working together.

With the introduction of the First People’s Principles of Learning in BC’s school system, and a commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, adopting tools for student engagement and empowerment that values contributions from students, also honours an indigenized approach to education. Gregory Cajete describes the strength of an Indigenous approach to education as follows:

The knowledge and orientation of modern educators are changed from an expert-recipient relationship to one of mutually reciprocal learning and co-creation. … An education is engendered that frees teachers, learners, and community to become partners in a mutual learning and becoming process. (1994, p. 218)

If teachers are not seen as experts, enforcers, and the boss of the classroom, but instead participate intentionally in the creation of a classroom culture that values each individual and recognizes everyone as a learner and contributor, the classroom can be transformed into a strong community built on care and respect. You can read more about [Power and Authority] in the classroom in my post on the subject.


Borich, G. (1999). Dimension of self that influence effective teaching. In R. Lipka & T.

Brinthaupt (Eds.), The role of self in teacher development (pp. 92-117).

Albany: State University of New York Press.

Cajete, G. A. (2016). Indigenous education and the development of indigenous community

leaders. Leadership, 12(3), 364-376.

Owens, L. M., & Ennis, C. D. (2005). The ethic of care in teaching: An overview of

supportive literature. Quest, 57(4), 392-425.

Thira, D. (2014). Aboriginal youth suicide prevention: a post-colonial community-based

approach. International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, 5(1), 158-


Zehm, S. (1999). Deciding to teaching: Implications of a self-development perspective. In R.

Lipka & T. Brinthaupt (Eds.), The role of self in teacher development (pp. 36-52) Albany:

State University of New York.


About the Author:

Chelsea Lake (she/her) is the Executive Director of The Youth Excellence Society and holds a Masters of Education in Leadership Studies from the University of Victoria.

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