We have all seen when a young child cries when his mother leaves. This is called separation anxiety. In a baby, this is actually a positive sign of their development. He has learned that his mother still “exists”, even when he cannot see her. He has learned what Paiget called object permanence. He thinks his mother will hear his cries and he trusts she will come back. A wonderful sign of development and the relationship his mother has formed with him.
Sometimes, students can exhibit something similar to separation anxiety when we begin to empower them in their own learning. We can call this empowerment anxiety. Just as separation anxiety is a positive sign in the baby’s learning of object permanence, empowerment anxiety is a positive sign of teacher permanence. They trust that the teacher will always be there for them. The problem is that they have an old image of the role of the teacher and the role of the student. Even though the teacher is there for them, now in a new role of facilitator, they feel abandoned. They are calling for their old teacher as teller to come back. Their cries to come back manifests as protests, shutting down, shrugging their shoulders, or goofing off. What is perceived as disengagement are really student strategies to hold the teacher accountable to an old role and to get their need for security met.
Empowerment anxiety is part of the transition to empower learning in some classrooms. It is a mistake to see this as the inability of students to make their own decisions. The job now is to help students understand their new roles. To help them step into their new identities as self-directed learners. To help them let go of the past. To help students feel safe to make decisions and mistakes. To guide them through the process of learning. This phase is only temporary and you can navigate your classroom through it. Stay on the course and you will soon experience the joy of a classroom bustling with self-directed learners. Every journey worth pursuing will have its challenges. Embracing and overcoming these challenges is how we grow.