Opinion
Teaching Opinion

What Does It Mean to Be in Control in Education?

By Starr Sackstein — July 19, 2019 3 min read
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Control. It’s the sometimes allusive thing that many of us seek out with fervor throughout our lives. It’s the myth that we hope will somehow turn out to be true like the fountain of youth or the holy grail.

Realistically, control is a false paradigm educators use as a means to “help kids.” Unfortunately, that which we seek to control often rebels or the importance of what we are trying to do is lost.

In my early career, I believed wholeheartedly that I needed to be in control for students to learn. I needed to be in control of their behaviors, their learning, and my command of what I was teaching them.

Ironically, I have little to no control over most of that, except perhaps how well I understand what I seek to teach.

The better teacher I became, the less of a need I had to force kids to do it my way.

Fear plays a big role in perceived teacher control. We want those in our room to learn and so we find ways to threaten in order to make sure that the balance of the class doesn’t suffer for the behaviors of a few or that the perception of unequal treatment isn’t at all apparent.

Of course, in my early career, there were a lot of threats around grades in order to get the desired results out of my students. I punished those who didn’t do as they were told, taking points off for late or incomplete assignments. Those who worked well got extra points for taking their learning seriously.

It’s silly now as I look back almost two decades about how misguided I really was. Students need to be inspired, not controlled, and this only happens when we do what we fear the most: Let it go.

Once we accept that control is really just a unicorn of stories of the past, we can truly embrace the beauty of allowing students to be empowered, with us at their sides helping them to harness all that they have before them.

The one thing teachers can control are their own choices and means of teaching. We do the best job of inspiring students when we know them well, understand their needs, and work with them to develop their own personal goals. Sitting knee to knee, we have the opportunity to provide them with the most personalized toolbox of strategies to accomplish the goals they set for themselves.

Yes, we have curriculum maps to cover—the content and skills that are required by our states to ensure they are ready to move on, but the how of what that looks like is truly up to the practitioner.

If we can allow ourselves to be comfortable with a little chaos, the learning is exponential in our spaces. Project-based learning and/or station learning where students get choice and voice in how and what they learn and at what pace and with whom, and then have the opportunity to share learning and then reflect on the overall experience.

The best way for educators to encourage an atmosphere of learning is to work from a strengths model, understanding our learners and then working with them to enhance what they know already and where they need to go.

Here are some things teachers who are uncomfortable letting go of the reins can do to give more students more control over their own learning:


  • Co-create assignments with students and if that is not possible, offer choices inside of assignments, not just in content but also in how they will complete it.
  • Make sure students are involved in the creation of success criteria.
  • Embed standards in classroom learning in kid-friendly language so they know what and why they are learning.
  • Listen to student suggestions in terms of the way class is conducted.
  • Build a list of classroom non-negotiables together avoiding lengthy rules, which are unrealistic and hard to enforce consistently.
  • Make your classroom a safe place for students to take risks where failure or mistakes aren’t criticized but supported and embraced as a means to future learning.
  • Provide feedback as often as possible and as specifically as possible.
  • Allow students to provide feedback to each other and to you.
  • Stay clear and consistent.
  • Be transparent and honest ... appropriately.
  • Do what is best for kids always, not what is best for you ... this learning is about them, not about the teacher.

Learning is a complex and time-consuming experience. Different learners need different things, and therefore our spaces must reflect that. Having unfair expectations for all will only result in disappointment for you and the kids.

Try to be flexible as much as possible and remember that we all have room to grow. Letting go of control can be scary, but that can also be exhilarating.

How do you let go of control in your spaces to empower the learners around you? Please share

*photo made using Pablo.com

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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