Empowerment and Learning


When brainstorming about how to use empowerment as the basis of curriculum development it seemed like the only thing left to do was to put the pieces together on paper.  To me, the norms for empowering students to learn made sense.  My teaching experience and educational research led me to believe that no students wanted to fail. As a human, I certainly did not want to fail; but, I did in a very big way. My failure motivated me to research empowerment as a theoretical approach to teach the type of learning that can lead to sustained success.

Before I explain how empowerment saved my life and motivated me to research it as a teaching theory, please allow me to provide some context.

In 2000, after 4.5 years of college, I graduated with a BA in History, a teaching certificate, and an honor’s college certificate of completion.  I routinely enrolled in over 15 semester credits.  My accumulative grade point average during my undergraduate at Washington State University was just above a 3.50, school seemed easy to me.

I was hired while still student-teaching.  By 2004, I earned a Master of Arts in Teaching through Grand Canyon University and completed my Washington State Professional Teaching Certification shortly thereafter.  By 2008, I was an educational leader at my school and a pretty good football coach.

My life changed in 2009. I began to drink alcohol more heavily which included routinely "blacking out".  By 2011, my mental and emotional capabilities began to fail and in 2014, I was asked to resign from teaching.

In the summer of 2015, I went to the emergency room with an almost certain prognosis of death.  My liver and kidneys had failed due to alcohol abuse.  Several weeks later, I left the hospital for the last time, with a high probability of survival despite numerous unresolved medical problems.  I dropped from 240 lbs to 145 lbs in two years.  I was also broke.

I needed motivation to believe in myself again, not as I was but as I thought I could be.  I needed to actualize who I became and aspire to be someone greater; but, I needed urgency and initiative. I needed a catalyst.

A short time after my last hospital stay, one of my best-friends,  paid me a visit. He informed me that Sophia (his daughter and my goddaughter) came to see me in the hospital.  He explained to me that Sophia did not know the meaning of a final goodbye; gently, he encouraged her to wish me well and told her that she may never see me again.  Sophia confusingly responded, "But, Uncle Pat is my friend."

That story and that moment made me realize that I needed to empower myself to live healthily.

I want to share my story with anyone willing to listen. If it inspires you, that’s awesome. If my journey motivates you to do something similar, that’s great too.  If my experience encourages you to help others, that’s an excellent take-away as well.  There are a lot of people who inspired, motivated, and helped me to become healthy – my family, my friends, my doctors, my goddaughter, but most important was and continues to be me.  I believe it is entirely possible for educators to inspire, motivate, and help students by empowering them to aspire for success but be unafraid of failure.

Maybe my journey can help educators make sense of less severe student-perceptions of failure in their classroom or school.  It is entirely possible for an educator to construct an original approach to cultivate achievement in their unique educational setting and that’s okay.  Teaching through empowerment is designed to be personalized.

First, I want to encourage educators to view empowerment as more than a catch-phrase or theme.  Empowerment needs to be consistently focused upon and taught in a variety of ways. It cannot be simply hung on the wall or a theme for the daily bulletin.

Further, empowerment is a theory-based approach that encourages the student to do the best for themselves because the student judges it is best for themselves.  This includes overcoming planned and unplanned failures and honestly reflecting upon empty successes and seemingly impossible victories.  Failure and success are different for everyone.

Empowerment takes trial and error.  Some students and parents may not see its worth at first.  The goal of an educator is to help a student become college, career, or choice ready (or simply “life ready”), the student must be empowered to make the decisions needed to sustain personal successes or grow from valuable failures.

In fact, empowerment is full of failures, not because Thomas Edison says they are valuable or because Abraham Lincoln overcame them, but because when framed skillfully, failures often have positive effects on the humans that experience them.  Failure is a reality in life and in school.  Accountability for failing is necessary for empowerment to succeed.

Viewing empowerment as a failure-based approach, however, only considers half of the theory. There are victories in empowerment, numerous moments where a sense of achievement or accomplishment is felt by one or more members of a group of students (classroom, grade, team, or school).  Recognition of achievement is important for empowerment too.

Make no mistake, empowerment is not a stand-alone unit.  Building meaning of such an abstract concept takes time, creativity, and  dynamic learning experiences.  A constant approach will help the student adopt empowerment as a character-trait and it will eventually become ingrained in their layers of culture.  Empowerment takes time to nurture so it can persist and lead to achievement.

Finally, accidental empowerment can sometimes influence people to act, think, or behave in negative ways. Therefore, empowerment embraces certain expectations and limitations that encourage success while challenging expectations and limitations that intentionally or incidentally normalize negative outcomes.  Empowerment includes goal-setting with the greatest goal being realization of one’s own integrity.

As part of my Master's of Science in Education completed in 2017 through the University of Kansas, I built a theory-based framework to continue to synthesize my understanding of empowerment both as a student of education and a recovering, "non-practicing" alcoholic.  This year, I plan to contribute to conversations about teaching through empowerment by sharing this theoretical framework, discussing perspectives of the theory and supporting research, and to help others improve their instructional "toolkits" when it comes to empowering students to learn.


Follow Patrick on Twitter (@mymindmypower)

Visit: www.mymindmypower.com for free empowerment-inspired classroom activities.

Visit: www.patzuniga.com for more information about the research behind the theory.

For inquiries please e-mail: patrick@mymindmypower.com,