Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Power in the Classroom

Today, as we were discussing "a climate that fosters writing," a theme that stood out to me was the theme of power in the classroom. Now, bear with me for a moment as I explain the connection between power and writing instruction. I sometimes take circuitous routes in my writing and speaking, but I promise I "get there" eventually.

I know of some teachers who are absolutely power hungry. As an undergraduate, I had a history professor who stated an incorrect fact about the 60s. An older student in the class, who had lived through the 60s, corrected her. The professor's response was, "Who has the Ph.D.?" In other words, instead of admitting she was wrong, she pulled out her credentials.

As a second example, when we questioned the validity of a question on our 10th grade English teacher's exam, he said, "This is not a democracy; this is a theocracy, and I am god."

Don't get me wrong here. I am not against teachers having power. In fact, I think that institutional structures are designed to give teachers power. Teachers have the power to give you grades; the power to send you to detention; and so forth. On the flip side of the power spectrum, I have also seen teachers who act so "buddy buddy" with their students that they ignore their institutional role as teacher all together. They pretend like they have NO power; like they are just "one of the gang." However, in some ways I think this "buddy buddy" approach is dishonest: (a) because it can establish unhealthy boundaries between teachers and students; and (b) teachers have to give students grades, so they can't just pretend that they don't hold SOME power over students' futures.

I read an article once about how teachers should try to "flatten hierarchies." I agree with that. What does that mean to me? It means that teachers actively seek out students' ideas and recognize them as valid and important, even when students disagree with the teacher. It means that the teacher has a sense of humility and recognizes his or her fallibility. In other words, the humble teacher can even recognize the possibility that s/he is wrong and a student is right.

How does this topic relate to writing? In my experience, the most power-hungry teachers are the worst graders. They think that their opinion is the ultimate authority, without recognizing that writing is always a subjective act, and without recognizing that another teacher who graded the same paper might give it a higher grade. I think power-hungry teachers are also the worst to write for because they might not consider alternative opinions or paper formats to be "right" if it doesn't fit THEIR views.

In all, then, I guess my message is that any teacher holds power in his/her classroom. Teachers have to be careful how they use that power, and not be punitive, because how they wield power influences whether or not students are motivated to write for them.

I will also conclude with Foucault's comment that "power circulates." That teachers who misuse power often have students who defy that power. For instance, I worked with a math teacher who was truly mean to his students (I heard him talk to them before). In retaliation, one time, his students planned to all drop their textbooks right at the same moment on the clock. As this example illustrates, when teachers misuse power, students often resist. Teachers' use of power probably influences every aspect of the classroom, from classroom management to writing instruction.