I Can’t Give That to You. No One Can.

This post lived in the depths of my drafts folder. I brought it out tonight because it seemed the right time.

Too often lately, I’ve read statements from teachers that sound something like this: “We have to give students voice” or “We have to give our students control over their learning.”

Sure. Students should have voice. And control. And agency. And plenty of things.

But, well, a student’s voice just isn’t mine to give.

By that, I mean that there’s a big problem with “giving somebody” their voice. As a teacher, I can’t give you much of anything that you don’t already have. Nourish it? Cultivate it? Help develop or refine it? Sure.

But give? No. Because that would mean that someone took it away in the first place. And that’s not okay. Further – that would assume that such a thing was mine to take.

And any time we assume that we must give our students those things, or that teachers, too, must be given those things, we make it that much more difficult for the exchange to happen. We get the entire power dynamic backwards when we are handing out voices. Or power. Or control. Human beings have those things, anyway. With or without our permission. We would do well to remember that in the classroom. And plenty of other places.

Teachers, and students, have voices. And agency. It’s up to them, to all of us, to use those things in the service of what’s important ((And, yeah. You’ve got to decide what counts as “important,” too. No free lunches here.)).

Don’t work to “give” students voices. Help them find the ones they already have.

35 thoughts on “I Can’t Give That to You. No One Can.

  1. Tracy Rosen says:

    I like this post. I’m wondering if when people say ‘giving someone a voice’ they really mean what you are writing here. That they actually mean allow a student voice to shine through. Because very often it isn’t allowed, or hasn’t been allowed. In this case, the term ‘give’ is problematic because in the name of student centerdness we are being quite patronizing – here, you’re allowed to have a voice, let me give it to you.

    On another vein, how many teachers don’t encourage student voice in the name of ‘best practices’? When we hand a student a rubric for an assignment we are telling them what voice to use to get a good mark.

    Lots to ponder here…

  2. Thanks for sharing and with the return to school coming around soon (if not already) I think the timing is correct. I think you are absolutely right in that we can’t give students and teachers anything, but all too often I see teachers and administrators not giving the freedom needed for one to find anything. To me, its about trust and empowerment, not just “giving”. If we empower our students, teachers, and administrators find their voice (instead of giving it to them) I think they use those things in the service of what’s important.

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      Certainly, empowerment. And yet – “empowerment” can be a tricky word – and sometimes, a fancy way to say “give.” The language of schools and schooling is often power and control language. That’s tricky business.

  3. I do think to empower is to give… give the freedom, time and space to engage and meaningful learning that could lead to the development of voice, control and ownership. You’re right though, we spend a heck of a lot of time figuring out how to contain and control learning.

  4. Amanda says:

    I couldn’t agree with this post more. I am an English teacher and have been dragged to countless seminars that boast about their program giving the students their voice. We can’t GIVE students a voice. You have to create the opportunity for it to show up on its own.

  5. Amanda,
    I really like how you word this: create the opportunity for it to show up on its own.

    I think that was what I was trying to get to when I wrote of empowerment.

  6. stumpteacher says:


    I agree with the sentiment of the post but am wondering if it is not an issue of giving, empowering, of helping finding but something more. Yes, kids have voices and ultimate control of their learning. However, how many schools, classrooms, and teachers take that away from them? As a 6th grade teacher I can tell which kids were “given” a voice and those that were stifled in previous years. I find myself having to “brainwash” them out of old habits.

    Yes, we need to help kids find the voices they already have but in some cases the culture of a classroom needs to change for that happen. We may not give them a voice, but we can certainly give them a suitable environment for finding theirs.

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      @Stumpteacher (And others, who’ve made for an interesting conversation. Thank you.)

      Sure. Folks have done wrong by children. And we can do right by them. But don’t get confused in thinking that we’re “giving” students the things that others took. We don’t have them. They live with the children. The point I was trying, and may have failed, to make in this piece is that when we use language of power to suggest that we are bringing salvation or liberation to children – well, it sounds a little colonial. And that sort of thinking hurts everybody involved.
      By all means, create spaces where students can find their agency. And by all means, they are children, who may well need guidance and help and structure and boundaries and someone to point out options and opportunities.
      And, maybe, even when others “took” agency and voice from children in earlier times, they didn’t actually get anything. Maybe.
      And perhaps this comment further clouds the issue, but I’m going to hit submit anyway. Thanks.

      1. stumpteacher says:

        I don’t think you muddied the waters at all. If we “give” something, then there is an assumption of ownership or power. In my opinion those two words have little use in a classroom. I don’t own my students nor their ideas or voices. However, is some situations I have seen students need to be reminded that they have those “things” they thought they lost or had taken. In addition, saying we are saving kids by giving them voice or power makes as much sense as saying I am saving the environment by turning off a light bulb. Yes, these things help but should be things we should be doing regardless.

  7. virginia Yonkers says:

    I never thought of this but you bring up a point. “Giving voice” also implies one way communication in that you allow a student to take over and “give their voice” rather than enter into a dialog/negotiate understanding, making communication two way between the student AND the teacher. Both have a role in the learning process.

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      Very, very true. Thanks for the reminder.

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