Students Are Suffering From Low Academic Self-Esteem. Democratizing the Classroom Can Save Them.

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I will never forget sitting down with Elijah when school began last year. As a 5th-grader, he didn’t understand the concept of multiplication.

I started at the beginning, teaching him that any number multiplied by zero is zero. Then, I taught him that any number multiplied by one is that number, one group of five or five groups of one is five, and so on. I made no judgments. I never made him feel like it was his fault. Eventually, he started to get it. He knew I invested in his learning, so he became invested, too. Pretty soon, Elijah was bragging to other teachers, “I know multiplication!”

That is when it hit me: Too many of our students suffer from low academic self-esteem, which has been made exponentially worse by the experience of the past two years. We have students in 5th grade who have never had a project where they got to choose a topic or subject that excited them. I’m not interested in pointing fingers or placing blame, but I’m not willing to accept that.

This phenomenon isn’t just a byproduct of the pandemic. It’s a more significant issue with how we choose to engage students in underserved communities. Access to high-quality instruction can change the trajectory of these students. Still, we cannot continue to operate from a deficit model where we believe they’ll achieve if the students just work harder. If they aren’t succeeding, we need to reexamine “the work,” not just the student. We have to start by finding ways to build up their confidence in themselves.

The Roots of Low Academic Self-Esteem

I’m a 5th-grade instructional coach in a Title 1 school. Our student population is 78% Black and 21% Hispanic. Even before the pandemic, our students were struggling; fewer than 10% of our incoming kindergarteners demonstrated the skills expected, including Social-Emotional Development, Language Development, and Communication. This is the starting point from which our educators begin their instructional support for students.

As an instructional coach, I work with all the teachers across the grade level to improve practices that will help our students grow. When the pandemic forced us to close our school buildings, we offered distance learning, but we were often teaching to black screens. I don’t like the term “learning loss” because it fails to capture the reality that students can’t lose something they never had. Due to the pandemic, students were not exposed to the academic concepts they would typically learn during a regular school year. Many of our 5th-grade students haven’t received uninterrupted classroom instruction since third grade. We can’t focus our efforts on reteaching. We need to find new and better ways to accelerate learning, but one person can’t accomplish this alone. We all have a role, including the students.

The Power of Student Voice

Students who need the most care and support are often not given the agency and authority required to connect to their learning in meaningful ways to improve their academic achievement. A democratic teaching framework offers justice-minded educators a path to engage these students—despite all other challenges—by creating a more inclusive space with shared authority.

If there ever has been a time to embrace shared authority in our classrooms, that time is now. Teachers are overburdened: 77% of educators work more today than a year ago, while 60% say they enjoy their jobs less. At the same time, students are out of practice at negotiating social situations with their peers. Sharing authority and encouraging students to help others learn can be an excellent way to build those skills up more quickly—and has the added benefit of strengthening the connection to the learning.

For example, every classroom needs rules and procedures; otherwise, the class can become disruptive and void of academic discourse, discussion, and discovery. Unfortunately, many teachers are hesitant to give students a voice or share their authority, particularly in classroom management. But using STEM Ed Innovator’s Democratic STEM Teaching framework, we might ask the students to create the classroom’s culture. What are the rules, and how do we develop a structure of accountability? Now, if an issue arises, we can say to the students, “You made the rules, and you broke the rules. What are the consequences of that action?”

By trusting students to create and self-enforce those rules, we give them permission to take ownership over their actions and behavior. And in my experience, ownership over their behavior directly correlates to ownership of their learning.

Shifting Mindsets

Students need more than shared authority in the classroom. They need the opportunity to connect their learning to their lives. It’s not the presentation of information but the application of knowledge that leads to real learning and growth. For example, we can tell students about the science behind weather, but there is no guarantee they are learning the content. But suppose we introduce them to weather tools, have them choose one that interests them, and allow them to create their own model. In that case, they can make meaning of the tool, identify areas around them where it would be helpful, and determine how it benefits weather prediction. Then the learning becomes an active, rather than passive, event.

The move to democratize classrooms is more than a shift in practice; it’s a shift in mindset. It takes time, practice, and support to perfect, but it yields benefits. And those benefits aren’t abstract; they correlate to the immediate challenges we are all facing. Democratizing classrooms creates capacity for teachers, leading to more meaningful connections between students and staff; most importantly, it builds the students’ academic self-esteem. Students—like Elijah—who are confident and connected to their learning and their teachers will be prepared for the challenges ahead.

Now is the time to give them a voice in how and what they learn by democratizing classrooms.