Power Struggles

It seems that every conversation I’ve been involved with online lately boils down to a common theme of power. First it was a British blog that described a school-wide behavior plan to achieve “impeccable behavior.” Another time it was a twitter exchange with a middle school principal who kept asking why his teachers abandoned his reforms so quickly, and seemed confused when I asked whether his teachers had been involved with the decisions or suggested that his research-based directives might not work in his school, with his teachers and students? Then there was a passionate exchange about a video (which has since been deleted from Vimeo) which showed a young teacher from one of the Uncommon Schools demonstrating classroom management techniques that looked a lot like a puppeteer controlling a team of marionettes, which led to blog posts by those for and against.

Why do I bother? I’m 48 years old. Too old to still fight the power. I should have accepted that the world works by each tier holding power over the one below. We teachers hold power over our students. School administrators hold power over teachers. Politicians hold power over school administration. Billionaires hold power over politicians. That is how it is, and how it shall be for time everlasting.

Haven’t I matured enough by now to quit trying to empower students to take responsibility for their own education? It is, after all, the pursuit of short term increases on standardized tests that defines student achievement, not the growth of young people into capable and curious intellectuals.

My job is to carefully orchestrate my classroom so that I exert power and control over all aspects of my students’ behavior and make my classroom run like a practiced championship game or performance. Then my administrative observers will see this performance and reward me with outstanding marks on my teacher observations. I can close the door of my classroom, knowing that I am officially approved by the powers above. This is the end I should pursue. I should not expect administrators to reply to my emails, listen to my ideas, or ask my opinion about changes that directly effect my program. This is not my place in the world. I am a teacher. Just a teacher.

It’s time I grow up, away from that punk rocker who wanted to change the world. I should be happy to have a job that earns slightly above the standard of a living wage. I should be happy to have powerful administrators who make the difficult decisions. I should be happy to have the ultra-rich paying for their vision of reform in my school and community. My students should be happy that the world has taught them their place at a young age. Perhaps they won’t waste their years trying to fight the power.

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9 thoughts on “Power Struggles

  1. Hi. It’s interesting that you’ve read my blog and seen it simply as an expression of authority-power. Actually, our approach to ‘impeccable behaviour’ is all about empowerment. Students who can’t exercise the self discipline needed to study, to commit to sport or music or to thrive in any professional environment are being massively let down. They have less power than those who can exercise self-discipline. However, they can’t just make that switch – they need a structure that shows them what it looks like, trains them and then let’s them explore their limits. Already, we’re seeing a massive change. It’s going to set them free from the cage of low expectations and low aspirations.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Tom. I have followed your blog for a while now and appreciate your positive tone when writing about students and teachers. I did find the descriptions of your new behavior initiative troubling and have struggled with why I immediately felt that I would not be happy on your staff and would not allow my own children to attend a school with such an intense focus on behavior or with such rigid structures for compliance.
      Although my post above is obviously an emotional and personal response, I do see a logical, evidence-based flaw in your approach based on the research comparing authoritative vs. authoritarian discipline styles. I read a tweet from Andrew Old suggesting that many of us use the term “authoritarian” as a knee-jerk criticism. However, the term is well described in the literature, eg:
      VanWerkhoven, vanLonden, & Stevens, L. (2001) Teaching and parenting styles related to children’s achievement motivation and leaning outcomes. In Efklides, Kuhl & Sorrentino (Eds.) Trends and prospects in motivation research (pp 85-99). Boston: Kluwer
      Most researchers have found that authoritative styles that allow student input in the development of behavioral expectations and consequences, allow flexibility in adapting behavioral expectations to students’ individual needs, allow more opportunities for autonomy and choice, and provide fair and clear rationales for rules are more effective than authoritarian structures that impose strict, top-down rules and systems of consequences that you describe as “non-negotiable” along with asserting that insistence on a top button is analogous to insistence on a high standard of classroom work.
      In the end, though, I think there is a larger picture here. One that asks what sort of adults we want these young people to become. I want students who express themselves as individuals and who question the power structures that are causing the inequality rather than blindly following the leader into more of the same. It probably reflects our different levels of satisfaction with existing power structures.

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      • Thanks for the detailed response. To be honest, I don’t really accept the line of reasoning in your last paragraph. It sounds great -all the ‘power to the people’ stuff – but in reality learning in schools is a social activity; social groups need rules to function for maximum mutual gain. Kids are too young to decide the rules but, through becoming well educated, they gain meaningful power. Self-expression through clothing and negotiating boundaries is pretty shallow whereas when children learn to be self-disciplined and to respect the boundaries that allow others to flourish, they get a better education and the self-expression through the sharing of intellectual and creative ideas is far more powerful. Come and see- our very strict behaviour system is liberating. Not least of the factors is that it becomes a school where teachers flourish and stay, not one that is really tough to work in so that they leave.

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      • If I get back to UK I’ll pay you a visit. and if you are ever in the wilds of Tennessee, come see my nearly lawless group of special education needs former drop-outs and those who have returned from alternative schools (what are called PRU’s in the UK) who have been coming to my class for years to set and achieve their own goals for academic success and transition into higher education, training and work. I’ll stay, flourish, and keep bringing power to the people in my own, tiny way.

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  2. Enjoyed your exchange. I think each of you here presents a viewpoint on the nature of education as the special concern of school teachers but also. as Becca mentioned, each of you also see it in its more comprehensive human significance. If that indeed be the case perhaps you’ll allow third-person comment. I’m not a school teacher myself but a cousin of one (Becca Leech), the father of a teacher/administrator (Thomas) and an inveterate if not always adequately informed student of the human condition. Your dialogue brings into sharp focus the truism that freedom and discipline are related to each other in a special and way; each is a concept whose meaning can be fully understood only by reference to the other. In the individual, freedom without discipline (i.e. internalized discipline, or self-control, or learned habits of making certain kinds of choices) is personal chaos—or insanity— and discipline without freedom (defined as a kind of openness to potentiality) is bondage. Likewise in society: Liberty without discipline, as a social phenomenon, leads to chaos and subsequent reactionary tyranny; but discipline without liberty stifles our humanity, or attempts to do so. In such cases —–as can be seen fairly clearly in the rise and fall of tyrannical regimes in the 20th & 21st centuries—-the spark remains alive that may again give warmth and light, not chaos and destruction—–but only if tended and nurtured with care. This tending and nurturing in the smaller context is called Education, in the larger, perhaps, Civilization.

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  3. While I can sympathize with you, I don’t think you should give up the fight. Maybe you’re saying in another way something I occasionally say–that parents and teachers need to insert an alternative into the school system process. Like you said, it is unlikely to change or improve. Mavericks are the only hope of students.

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  4. Tom, I find your approach disheartening and a contributing reason to the decline of education. No one wants to be controlled. That’s the reason I left teaching after 23 years- lack of autonomy. In this age of micromanagement, I bailed. It’s the reason public education is imploding and I can’t wait to return to teaching to rebuild.

    Becca, in response to your thoughts…. “My job is to carefully orchestrate my classroom …… Just a teacher.” NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    You KNOW in your heart that education is a disaster. We’ve been in it too long to not see the day by day, incremental destruction that’s happening. Teachers see it, think they can stay and change it, and every day lose a little bit more integrity. There’s no hope of changing it from within. Surviving, making a difference in the life of a few children, but not change. It’s going to take more of the alternative schools to show there’s hope for education in the future. Learning has become a bad word and it’s time we give learning the respect it deserves.

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