Matthew Kincaid (photo by Ian J. Solomon)

In his new book, Freedom Teaching, Matthew Kincaid tells teachers how to empower their students to take control of their learning. “Control is an illusion,” he writes. “Creating a classroom culture in which you are the only source of knowledge is like being a personal trainer who just lifts weights in front of his clients.”

Starting in 2011, Kincaid worked in New Orleans schools for several years, as a social studies teacher for seventh and eighth graders at KIPP Believe College Prep for four years and as assistant principal at KIPP Believe for two additional years, where he worked to reduce out-of-school suspensions by 75 percent and led race and equity trainings for staff. 

Eight years ago, Kincaid founded Overcoming Racism, that provides intensive race and equity training to schools and other organizations, including tools to address “the reality of systemic racism both inside and outside of the classroom.” He now serves as the organization’s director.

In an interview with The Lens, Kincaid talked about levels of pushback to anti-racist teachings and curricula, experienced by parents and educators and even by school administrators, who may face opposition from school-board members, funders or other people they report to.

“There’s always going to be a system above us asserting force that is not in alignment with the forces of antiracism,” said Kincaid, who counsels teachers and parents not to be discouraged. “All we can do is what is in our locus of our control,” he said.

To give students ownership, responsibility and buy-in within their classrooms, Kincaid breaks out a variety of strategies. He advises educators to be open and approachable, able to apologize and admit to students when they are wrong. Students learn best in environments where they feel comfortable to disagree and ask questions, he says.

Kincaid’s ideal classroom does not reflect those he grew up in. “I did not have a Black core subject classroom teacher until I was a senior in high school,” he said in an interview with Black Enterprise. “I had numerous white teachers who were nice, kind, and caring but had little experience and no training on how to engage with my needs as a Black student. Everything from not learning the history of the intellectual accomplishments of people who looked like me to learning inaccurate narratives of Black history.”

Frequently, his teachers didn’t know how to handle racialized conflict, he said. At times, he felt singled out for discipline because he was Black.

That personal history explains why his strategies and the way they empower students are particularly important for Black and brown students. The strategies are also important to White students, who otherwise can become indifferent to racism, unable to experience empathy and appreciation for people who are different than themselves.

The strategies he outlines in his book are concepts he developed as he entered his classroom and saw what worked best to ensure that his students were engaged and learning. 

He ended up setting aside many traditional classroom-management strategies, which are often focused on what not to do. “I think it’s harder to come into a classroom and say, ‘Don’t do this’ if the classroom is running in a way where students feel safe, valued and secure — and they are learning,” he said.

The excerpt below is adapted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Freedom Teaching: Overcoming Racism in Education to Create Classrooms Where All Students Succeed by Matthew Kincaid. Copyright © 2024 by Matthew Kincaid. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.

Strategies That Cede Power to Students

Control is an illusion. The more we try to control students, the more we create conditions that will alienate some of them. The goal should be to create classrooms that empower students to take ownership over their learning.

Promote intellectual empowerment over “smarts.” I commonly hear teachers speaking about students based on their skill level in the classroom. Student A is high skilled, student B is low skilled. Furthermore, school systems typically are set up to reward students who are “smart.” I personally believe that all students are “smart.” The question is whether we can tap into their intellectual potential. Students whose identity is wrapped up in the notion that they are “smart” might be less likely to take risks because of fear that wrong answers might shift a teacher’s opinion of them. 

They might not ask as many questions, fearing that curiosity might be viewed as ignorance. “Smart” students might rush through assignments as if there is a prize for finishing first. Reflect for a moment on the qualities that you might associate with an intellectually empowered student. Intellectually empowered students are more likely to question their learning for deeper understanding. They ask questions because they want to know how to get to the right answer rather than simply knowing what the right answer is. An intellectually empowered student is more likely to disagree or question authority when appropriate. Intellectually empowered students become lifelong learners, and that is what we want to inspire in our students. 

Allow students to disagree. We should normalize for our students that it is okay to disagree. We should also support our students in their ability to seek out, provide evidence, and back up their arguments. Creating a classroom culture in which you are the only source of knowledge is like being a personal trainer who just lifts weights in front of their clients. Helping students to practice disagreeing with the teacher and with one another respectfully can cut down on disruptive forms of disagreement in the classroom.

Apologize to students when you are wrong. Normalize it and normalize students apologizing to one another when they cause harm to one another. Recognize that intent and impact are two different things. You might engage in a practice with the sincere commitment to leave a student feeling empowered and the impact of that practice leaves a student feeling disempowered. When our intent and the impact are misaligned it is okay to apologize to students and to model behavior change. If we are asking students to apologize when they make mistakes, we should be prepared to model that behavior.

Students are learners and teachers. Students should not be viewed simply as empty vessels waiting for us to fill them with knowledge. Students should be engaged intentionally in the process of knowledge creation in the classroom. Students should see themselves and their classmates as sources of knowledge like they see the teacher as a source of knowledge. Students are expected to draw upon prior knowledge and make connections using that knowledge to learning objectives. Doing this well takes time and skill. So understand when and where you want to employ constructivism as a strategy. Some objectives might be better suited for more direct instruction but there are still ways to engage students in making meaning of their learning in ways that connect back to their lived experiences. 

Ask students for feedback. Being receptive to feedback is one of the best ways to grow as an educator. If we are willing to seek feedback from adults, we should also be soliciting feedback from students. Learning to give good feedback is a skill that can be taught in the classroom.

Talk to students about their lives outside of school. The more we know about our students, the easier it is for us to make meaningful connections with them. This signals that we care about them as an entire person. Understanding a student’s homelife can help us understand the choices that they make in school and respond in an appropriate way.

Empower students to make decisions on rules, expectations, and policies. The more that students feel like they have ownership over their education, the more invested they will be in it. Students want to attend schools that are safe, predictable, and consistent. Students like structure when it makes sense to them. Whenever possible, we should include students in decision-making. Students will likely react differently to a set of classroom rules that are imposed on them rather than rules that they helped to craft.

Listen to students. This one feels intuitive but we should really make it intentional. We make time for questions as long as they push the learning in class, but how often is it that we actually make time to simply listen to students to better understand them individually and collectively?

Consider alternative assessment/grading systems. Successful teachers know that they have to switch up their teaching style and approach throughout the year to keep students engaged. Furthermore, different students learn in different ways, so it’s helpful to engage students in lessons informed by multiple different learning modalities. The goal of embracing alternate assessment is to give students assessments that are in alignment with their learning styles—while also exposing students to assessments that might push them out of their comfort zone.

Give students meaningful jobs and roles in the classroom. The classroom belongs to the students when teachers are at their best; they are facilitating learning rather than being the sole driver of it. Classroom jobs should be about students taking ownership and responsibility over the classroom. As much as possible, students should have meaningful classroom jobs that have a real impact on how the classroom functions.

These roles and responsibilities should give students opportunities to lean into their strengths and experience success in the classroom. Jobs can also be a great intervention for students who struggle with sitting still for long periods of time without something to break up the monotony of classroom routines. A job that is meaningful and can build that student’s self-esteem in the classroom in other areas. Giving a student a job just to keep them “busy” can detract from their learning and lower their self-esteem.

Allow students to retake assessments. The purpose of assessment is to understand where students are in relation to the content. Giving students the ability to retake assessments not only gives us a more accurate picture of their learning, it also gives students more power over their grades. If we want students to develop a healthier relationship with assessment, we should treat assessment like a checkpoint on a journey rather than the destination. Giving students opportunities to review material that they missed and to study and perform better reinforces students building strong academic habits.

Rather than looking at power in our classrooms through a scarcity lens, we should consider it through a lens of abundance. One of the reasons teaching is so draining is because so many educators have been told that they are the one and only source of power and authority in the classroom. If you have ever plugged multiple devices into an external charger you know that the more things you have plugged into one power source, the faster it gets drained. Power is something to be shared rather than something to be hoarded. Empowered students are more autonomous and adaptive. Empowered students are typically more empathetic, respectful of others, and open minded. Empowered students tend to be better problem solvers and are more resilient.

When I was a new teacher I felt the pressure to prove my “might” to my students, and it seemed like the tighter I closed my fist, the more students felt alienated and resisted my expectations. At my strongest, most of the baseline functions of my classroom functioned without me. Rather than coming to me with every need or problem, students sought to find ways to figure it out with themselves and their peers. My students were open minded about trying new things and trusted that we were going in the right direction together. If need be I could leave my room, address an issue in the hallway, and my students could continue on without me. 

When I started to give power to students and relinquished my desire for control, my students became a source of energy rather than a drain on energy. When I was tired, underplanned, under the weather, or otherwise not at my best, my students were able to pick up the slack. Teaching is like directing a choir. The only way beautiful and harmonious sounds are produced is if we trust our students to carry their part. Too many teachers are killing themselves trying to direct the choir and also sing the solo. I can assure you, like David Ruffin in the Temptations movie, “Ain’t nobody coming to see you, Otis.”

Our students are the stars. It is our job to put them in the position to shine.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...