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Swirling Leaves, Student Agency, and Believing (Part 1)

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
February 16, 2021

“…by making it possible for people to enter the historical process as responsible Subjects (subjects denotes those who know and act, in contrast to objects, which are known or acted upon)…enrolls them in the search for self-affirmation…”

Paulo Freire 

Subjects vs. Objects

Growing up I rarely felt comfortable at school or in the classroom. I can distinctly recall lacking certainty. Similar to the feeling of not being in control. I now have the terminology to define my experience - I lacked agency. I could get through the school day and even maintain passing grades, but school (my education) seemed to be happening all around me. It was like I was standing still and the leaves of my education were swirling all around me, just as a gust of wind does in the fall. I could see my education happening and I could definitely feel it. I was present, but I didn't know how to participate. I was an object rather than a subject in my own education; a passive participant rather than an active one. Thank goodness I had a love for soccer, and a very large dad, both of which intrinsically motivated me to earn passing grades. 

Things Can Change

One sunny afternoon things changed. It was in my physics class when a student who sat at the desk in front of me turned around and exclaimed, “You know, you are really smart!” Then, she turned back around to her work. I will never forget her words. I was often a tutor, of sorts, for many students in this class. I found myself explaining topics after Mr. Hodge's lectures to students who were struggling. I remember physics making sense to me. I would just “get it” when the teacher explained things and I never really felt that before in most of my other classes.

I think the reason my classmate's remark changed me was that I considered her, and her friends, to be "smart kids". They were the high achieving students in every class. I, of course, have no evidence to support this but such is the classroom - there is a ranking that may occur among students. I think teachers need to work to dismantle this ranking if we're to foster an equitable and welcoming learning community. Ranking or no ranking, one thing changed for me that day...I believed her. 

I can still remember which desk I was sitting in, which side of that classroom, and the afternoon light that filled the room. For some reason, when she told me I was smart, I took her word for it. It has taken me the better part of my life since that day to hold tight to this belief. To truly believe in my bones that I am smart enough and capable enough to be successful in what I put my mind to. But I can say with great pride, starting that day in my physics class, I started out on a the journey to know what it's like to be an active participant in my education. 

Student Agency and Teaching

Tomorrow I will explain how this experience has impacted my teaching practice . Until then, I am curious how you, or your school, work to develop agency in students. It really matters. I've watched as students who have experienced a history of academic failure begin to achieve because they one, started believing they could succeed, and two, they developed the skills and habits to approach their education with confidence, and agency.

Be well,


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