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A Taboo Education Topic: The Power Dynamic Between Teachers and Students

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I’ve been back in the classroom for over a month now after being out of it for three years, when I worked as a high-school instructional coach. I’m absolutely loving the freedom and creativity of classroom teaching again and have never been so motivated to go to work. I’ve been using Spider Web Discussion nearly every day in class and really enjoying watching the students grapple with the challenge of student-led discussion that requires balanced discussions with equal talk time, deep intellectual rigor, insightful questioning, and empathy.

I’m such a fan of this collaborative inquiry method that I wrote a whole book on it! Here’s a teaser excerpt from The Best Class You Never Taught, just out this week.¬†This passage gets at the heart of one of the reasons I think Spider Web Discussion is so effective, which is a bit of a taboo topic in education: power dynamics. Let me know your thoughts, experience or pushback in the comments section…

Excerpt from The Best Class You Never Taught, Chapter 6: Assessment Is a Tool, Not a Weapon:

First lets talk about power, an even bigger elephant in the education room than group grades. At the root of the anxiety students and their parents feel about grades is the power dynamic. Rightly or not, most students view the teacher as having the power to help or hurt them on their path to success through the grades the teacher “gives” them. While most of us teachers view grading as something students earn fair and square, many students do not feel this way, particularly in classes like English or history, where there seem to be fewer right or wrong answers as there are in math. This can lead to students who feel that the teacher “just doesn’t like her” or will give her writing a C every time “just because it’s her.” I used to be very unsympathetic to this line of thinking when I was in my first ten years of teaching, but one event in particular really changed this for me.

That event was a series of days I spent shadowing students based on the recommendation of my principal. At my father’s urging, I blogged about the experience for his education blog. The post hit a nerve and went viral and wound up being reprinted around the world in various newspapers and magazines. You can see a clear summary and the original post in the Washington Post¬†(Strauss).

One of the big takeaways I had from that eye-opening experience was how much students feel like cattle. It probably isn’t intentional from the adults or the institution, but over four days of shadowing, I felt as if the adults in the community were rushing us around, annoyed by our questions, and constantly asking us to sit down and be quiet. Let me be clear — there wasn’t a single inappropriate teacher I observed during that day. Everyone was doing their job as they were expected to and as I had done up to that point: get the students into class, get them settled, get them to work, keep them on task, get them out the door to their next engagement when the bell rings.

But when you are actually one of those students, the feeling is totally different. You feel the power dynamic much more clearly. The teacher stands, you sit. The teacher talks, you listen. The teacher instructs or hands out an assessment, you take notes or take the test. If we needed to go to the bathroom, we asked for permission. If we needed another pencil during a test, we asked for permission. If we had a question when the teacher had already moved on from the point, we asked our tablemate at the risk of seeming off task and getting called out for it. I was very conscious that this was an entirely different side of the power dynamic, and I had not been on it for many, many years.

That first day shadowing a student I understood that I needed to change the way I related to students in order to reach them more effectively. For example, I would make an effort to treat them with greater kindness, with more respect, and as less of an authority figure. As a parent, I’m constantly telling my own children yes or no all day long, guiding them towards what they can and can’t do based on my husband’s and my long-term goals for their safety and learning. Most parents do the same, which means that most of our students are spending nearly all their waking hours being told what to do and when and how to do it by the adults in their life. This is just a reality of life as a young person, but I realized through my experience that if my end goal was to create engaged, autonomous learners, then I would immediately need to shift the power dynamic so it felt much more equal to the students. If they feel bossed around at home and school all day, they lose intrinsic motivation and engagement. They tune out. They feel left out of the system in which they spend most of their waking hours.

One thing I changed as a result of my wanting to consciously shift the power dynamic was through sitting and standing time. When I am sitting with the students, at the oval table, and we can all see each other’s faces, I am equal with them. I’m communicating to them that we are all on the same level intellectually. It’s OK that that might not be entirely true (I almost certainly know more about the subject I teach than they do), but I am giving them the impression that I think of them as intellectual equals and earning their trust. I’m showing them through my body language that I don’t think myself above them, that I am part of the team effort.

A second change I made as a result of shadowing is that I go out of my way to be as kind, warm, and smiling as I can during class time. Sometimes I lose my patience. Sometimes a stern talking-to is called for. But on most days, I try to make every single student who walks through my door feel that they are welcome and wanted there in our classroom. I know many middle- and high-school teachers like myself who grow frustrated with the apathy, the grade-grubbing, the cheating or the classroom behavior we experience. But I have seen some of the “worst” students in schools transform into engaged, respectful peers during discussions or other classroom activities when teachers approach them with genuine kindness. My philosophy: when in doubt, be kind. We all have students who annoy us and get under our skin. Quite often it can be because they remind us of ourselves when we were students, and we are impatient for them to learn the lessons that we learned the hard way. Sometimes it’s a student who is out of control and cannot see how her own impulses are affecting the rest of the class, or she does see it and enjoys the power. This student may have a history and needs we are unaware of, and we can never reach her or help her reach her potential if we shut her out.

We all have those students who push our buttons; the trick is that we need to be so good at our job that not only do these difficult students not know it, in fact, they actually feel cared for and respected by us. Kindness goes a long way in this regard, and so I urge you to smile and exude warmth, to sit and stand mindfully, and to err on the side of empathy, especially when it comes to feedback and assessment. It is, after all, the very behavior we are looking to produce, and we ourselves must consistently model it for our students or they will see right through the game.


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