Wednesday, August 11, 2010

power dynamics in the classroom

In an online forum, a young teacher asked for advice. She was upset because some of her (adult) students were surfing the web instead of listening to her. My response:

I've been teaching for almost 25 years. I've taught all ages, from two-year-olds through people in the nineties. It took me a few years, but I found that the best way to teach is to rid the classroom of power dynamics. By "the best way," I mean two things: least stressful and most conducive to learning.

There really is a recommendation at the end of this. Sorry that what follows is so long, but I think the issues involved are more complex than they might seem on the surface.

I'll explain why I think power-dynamics have no place in the classroom, but before I do, I'll go over the four reasons why it's hard to get rid of them:

1) Because sometimes you need them for safety and/or stopping chaos. Safety is really only a problem when you're teaching children, so I'll say no more about it here. Chaos stops people from learning. So I would never allow anyone to play a computer game in my classroom, if that game involved keyboard pounding and sounds, because the "chaos" from that would hinder other students from learning and distract me from teaching.

So I DO allow power-dynamics in this case and this case only. I forbid people from disturbing others. I am 100% up-front (with myself and my students) about my dictatorial stance on this matter. I explain why I'm doing it and I do it. But I understand it's the exception to the rule.

2) Because my ego doesn't want to let go. If I drop all power dynamics, I am no longer special. That's hard to give up.

3) Because students expect it. Most students are young. They grew up with mommy and daddy in charge; then their school teachers were in charge; and they transfer that expectation to me.

Even older students do this, because they've been taught that when you go to school, the teacher is the boss. I've had students who are twenty years older than me ask my permission to go to the bathroom. It's embarrassing as hell. I don't ever want anyone to ask my permission to pee. But such is the power of life-long conditioning.

4) It's just the way school traditionally works. Traditionally, teachers are in charge and students are subordinate to them. Almost no one questions this overtly (there's plenty of passive-aggressive questioning of it. See this: , which is one of the most sane things I've ever seen about teaching and parenting). It needs to be questioned, because the traditional mode, especially when combined with 21st-Century values about personal freedom and independence, leads to tension and students not learning. But it's hard to fight traditions -- even bad ones.

A sub-issue to tradition is the Should Syndrome. It occurs when teachers say things like, "yes, well, students SHOULD pay attention" or "students SHOULD show respect." I'm not going to argue with those statements, but shoulds are meaningless. Some students DON'T pay attention, and some students DON'T respect the teacher. It's so easy to get indignant about what people SHOULD do rather than trying to solve the problem.

Here's why power dynamics are bad:

1) They distract the class away from the subject, which is whatever the class is about. The class, instead, becomes about a teacher trying to enforce rules and students trying to follow them, thwart them or get around them. Of course, that's not always the case. Sometimes you get lucky and the students have no problem with the rules. Then you can move forward as if the rules didn't even exist. But you can't count on this.

(Note: there's a "positive" version of a rule-breaker. It's a rule-follower. When a classroom is about rules, some students thrive by being "little angels." They learn less about the subject than they do about pleasing-the-teacher, and they get positive reinforcements for doing so.)

2) You, as a teacher, have constant stress (as made apparent by your question) about enforcing the rules.

3) Students have constant stress about rules they don't like or about classmates who are breaking the rules.

4) Have you ever read any Transactional Analysis (TA). It's a dated, flawed form of psychotherapy that contains some interesting, useful ideas. At it's core, it posits that humans have three core states or personas: parent, adult and child. A parent is a boss (maybe a benign one; maybe not); an adult is a individual human being who isn't in charge of anyone else or under anyone else's sway; a child is a subordinate who may or may not chafe against his boss.

In TA, a single person can take on all these roles at different times, depending on the situation.

Many relationships fail, because people relate to each other in an imbalanced way. This sort of relationship is doomed to be pathological:

YOU             STUDENT
Parent-\ Parent
Adult \ Adult
Child \----- Child

By setting yourself up as a boss with rules, you are saying "I am the parent and you are the child. And, as the child, you will get in trouble if you break the rules." Once you cast people as children, they will act like children. They will resent being bossed around and act-out. If you think "they should be more mature" or "they should respect authority," see The Should Syndrome, above.

This also doesn't work:

YOU             STUDENT
Parent-\ Parent
Adult \------ Adult
Child Child

In fact, it's worse. It's a sort of "we're all grown ups here" lie, in which one of the grown ups is more powerful than the others. It's unstable and the students either switch to parent mode (unlikely), which means that two parents (student and teacher) will overtly duke it out for authority, or (more likely) they fall back into child mode, and act out passive-aggressively.

Here's the goal you should shoot for:

YOU             STUDENT
Parent Parent
Adult --------- Adult
Child Child

Only then can REAL learning happen. When an adult talks to another adult, it's a real conversation. Time is not wasted on power dynamics, ego, stress and resentment.

Left to their own devices, most students will not opt for this sort of relationship (see above, when I mention 60-year-olds who ask permission to pee). They don't come to class expecting to be treated like adults, because none of their teachers in the past treated them that way. So even if you're an adult teacher, they come in primed for you to be a parent and immediately go into child mode.

As a teacher, it's your job to be an adult and treat your students as adults (whether they act like adults or not). It's your job, because adult-to-adult communication is what leads to learning. Other modes lead to rule-following and rule-breaking.

I refused to give my elderly student permission to go the bathroom. That's not my permission to give. Adults get to go to the bathroom when they want to. Using non-condescending language, I told him that.

Note that you will encounter a few students who think of themselves as adults. As far as they are concerned, they paid to take your class. They have the right to listen to what they want to listen to and ignore what they want to ignore. It's fine if you don't share that value, but acknowledge that it is a real value some people have, even if you think it's wrong. You can't prove to them it's wrong. You can accept that they have it or you can fight with them.

And it's not so odd -- even if it's not traditional in a school setting. Most people feel that way when they go to a restaurant. When I pay for a dinner, I'm going to eat what I want to eat and leave other food on my plate, even if that offends the chef. If I read a book, I may skip a chapter than bores me, even if that pisses off the author. Some people approach school that way. Maybe (to you) they shouldn't. (See The Should Syndrome, above.)

"But if they don't listen, they won't learn!" Okay, but if they are adults, they have the right to choose whether or not they learn.

Understand that you are just one of a long line of teachers these students have had by the time they got to your class. They are used to having boss after boss after boss. They expect you to be a boss. Some of their bosses have treated them unfairly in the past. They naturally resent that. They will take that resentment out on you if you let them. They way to stop them from doing so is to not be a boss. Don't try to be a "cool boss." They will see through that. There's no difference between a cool boss and a boss. Both are bosses. The cool boss is a boss that is also needy for attention. (See "The Office.")

Having said all that, I'm not going to tell you to just let them surf the web, even though, were it my class, that's what I'd do. (I've done it in plenty of classes. I've even suggested it to students. Sometimes I say, "I can't promise to be interesting all the time. If I veer into a topic that isn't important to you or that you already know, feel free to surf the web and rejoin the class when it is meaningful to you." I often check in with students about this. "Hey, if you've tuned out, you might want to tune back in now, because I'm going to change the subject...")

If it really bothers you, be an adult about it and treat the students like adults. How does one adult ask another adult to refrain from some sort of behavior? By asking. You ask, you explain your reasons, and -- because you're talking to an adult -- you accept the fact that they are autonomous and may, after hearing your desire, fail to do what you want. If they fail to do it, you can express your disappointment and reassert your desire. Also, it REALLY helps to not treat them like perverts -- as if their desire to surf the wen is obscene. Surely, there's part of you that can relate. (Have you ever been bored in class? Maybe you have, but you didn't act on it the way they do, but at least you can relate to the feeling.)

When a parent asks a child to stop doing something, the explanation is "because it's wrong" or "because it's disrespectful." When an adult asks another adult to stop doing something, it's because "what you're doing is causing this specific real-world problem" or because "it really bothers me." It's fine if you want them to stop because what they're doing just bothers you. Just be honest about that. That's YOUR issue, and you're asking them a favor -- to help you with your issue. Don't make them feel like they are bad. (Don't do this even if you think they are bad. It will backfire on you. When you tell people they are bad, they get defensive and act out, usually passive-aggressively. And they certainly don't learn.)

One of the best teachers I've ever had hated it when people came late to class. He had the respect for us to express his needs to us in an adult-to-adult manner:

"Hey, I know it's hard to always be on time. Believe me, even though I hate lateness, sometimes something comes up in my life, and I'm late to important things. But I think it's really disruptive when people walk in late. It distracts everyone else as the latecomer makes noise, finds a seat, etc. It definitely distracts me, and I have a hard time teaching when I'm distracted.

"So I'm going to ask you not to come to class late. Clocks aren't exact, so five-minutes-late is okay, but please don't come later than that. If you find you're running later than that, just don't come. I promise I will not get mad at you. If it happens over and over, I might have to lower your grade, but I won't get mad. Things happen. But don't come late, okay? Thanks."

It was amazing! There was never a problem with lateness. Whereas in most of my other classes, people walked in late all the time and the teachers would just get pissed off and chastise the latecomers. The chastisements didn't work. People still came late. But simply by treating his students like adults, that great teacher got what he wanted.

No comments: