Friday, March 21, 2014

Year 4: Week 26 – Power

There is an undeniable power dynamic between teachers and their students. It’s a unique relationship, not quite like a parent, mentor or friend but some mix of all of those things. I’ve talked to many teachers about the nuances of the student teacher relationship. It’s a challenge to balance out all of these facets.  The approach to this relationship and how it's defined depends on the teacher and the age level of the student.

One aspect of this relationship that people don’t seem to talk a lot about is power. It’s probably because this word connotes something dark, something less caring but power is part of the teacher-student relationship and when wielded effectively, a teacher's power can really help students. 

Students walk into a classroom knowing that the teacher has been given institutional power. Teachers can tell students what to do and students are supposed to comply. For some students this is enough. Whether its the fear of consequences or authority itself, some people including myself are intimidated by titles and people that society tells us have power.

There’s also a lot of students who this doesn’t work for. We live in America, a country that pride itself on calling out authority figures and speaking truth to power. While this can be annoying as a teacher, it is one of the most important parts of our democracy. So for people for whom institutionally given power doesn’t engender compliance, there’s a very different approach that needs to happen.

You can go with the social responsibility route and help students understand that their actions affect other people. It is up to them to have a positive or negative influence on their peers which comes right back to them. It’s a mix of peer pressure and helping them understand the consequences of their own actions. This approach will get you some kids, but some will pretend or in reality, not care about other students in the class, so other times you have to make it about you.

My Introduction to Christianity professor explained the power Jesus had over his followers this way: Jews followed theirs leaders during Jesus’ time because if they didn’t they were punished. The Jews gave power to the authorities because of fear. In this way obedience and power was demanded.

Jesus took a different approach. People followed him because of how much he gave to them. Everything he gave including his life was for others. When a person gives that much of themselves to another person, the receiving person gives authority and allows that person to have power over them willingly. It’s not about guilt, but rather faith and trusts.

I’m not saying that teachers should try to be like Jesus, but what I do know that gaining authority through giving of care, time and attention is the most effective way to get a class student to comply when you tell them what to do.

More often than not, students walk into a class and will give teachers authority initially.  Teachers have a window to show kids how much they care and build relationships so that the student freely gives power to the teacher.

Some kids will never get to that point and without black and white consequences that produce a level fear and stress, those students will never comply. Not every student will see how much you give him or her as a teacher. Assume those kids are in the minority and don’t take that approach with a whole class.

We have to earn the power that our students give us. When this is given willingly it opens students up to learn, to take chances and be present. Our power as teachers is not about making them do what we say.  It's about the opportunity that students give us to serve them and help them grow.

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