Starting a Conversation

The benefit to young people having a voice in my classroom, for me as a teacher is I know who I’m teaching, I know my learners. I can reach them better when I know them and the only way to know them is to let them talk and have a chance to say who they are and how they’re feeling.

– High school teacher

Character can neither be taught in the abstract, nor as a course of study. Students develop character through their interactions with others in their diverse classrooms and communities. Qualities such as empathy are best nurtured through relationships that cross the lines that often divide people in society.

Finding Common Ground, p. 17

For many teachers, sharing power with our students and honouring their capacity to shape and direct their own lives is integral to our practise. Providing students with opportunities for empowerment in the context of our classrooms is powerful. We may nonetheless have a sense that if there were greater awareness about the benefits of an empowerment-based approach to education, the positive effects of our efforts would be greatly compounded.

We can take advantage of relevant resources or related situations that arise in daily life to stimulate discussion aimed at raising or increasing awareness about youth empowerment within your classroom or school. In all of these or other situations in which we strive to facilitate discussion on youth empowerment and related topics, care needs to be taken to ensure that everyone’s (adults’ and young people’s) rights to be safe, strong and free are fully respected and protected.

Guidelines for Facilitating Safe and Inclusive Discussion

Discussions about youth empowerment inevitably raise questions about power—its use and its misuse—often in the context of a power imbalance. As discussed, this is a necessary conversation and important to encourage if we are to promote character development. Whether we are raising these issues with a group of students or adults—be they school staff, parents or caregivers—such discussions may be difficult, delicate and even painful for some participants.

When raising the issue of youth empowerment with students, we have a particular responsibility to ensure that they engage in a positive and constructive discussion. While we may not be aware that some students are experiencing difficulty, we need to assume that this is always a possibility. Furthermore, in this context, our own use of power will send a particularly potent message. We can be aware of the ways we are modelling positive and constructive uses of power.

The following guidelines may be helpful in the process of fostering a safe, strong and free discussion and environment. While they are framed for discussions with students, many of these guidelines will be useful in facilitating discussions with adults as well.