Organizational charts generally have a vertical structure, with powerful people at the top and powerless people at the bottom. Communities, however, don’t have a vertical structure — your classroom shouldn’t have one either. Take another look at the two diagrams in sections 1.2 and 1.9 of the last chapter. They show the difference between classrooms based on the Curriculum Transfer Model and the Student Agency Model; the type of power structure built into each of them is obvious.
Avoiding a vertical, autocratic power structure doesn’t mean abdicating your power as a teacher — you still control the classroom, shape the organization of what students are doing, and deal with inappropriate behavior. The issue is how to use that power without making students feel powerless.
Good management requires having a candid working relationship with the people who are being managed. It means listening to them for input before making decisions that will affect them, and listening to feedback about how well those decisions are working after they are implemented. In your classroom, it means paying close attention to your students’ reality as you steer the class. It means giving them a voice and listening to what they have to say. When a student is thus empowered, it changes his level of engagement. It is also good training in citizenship.
Another unspoken aspect of power in the classroom is how grades are used. In many traditional classrooms, grades are a tool to motivate students. They are used as rewards for desired behavior, like completing homework or participating in class, and as punishments for unwanted behavior. Grades are clearly a form of power, and they have an unintended corrosive effect on self-directed learning. Their role in the classroom, and how they can be redefined to serve self-directed learning, is discussed in full in the chapter “Grades Reconsidered”.
A balance of power. For many teachers first exploring this approach, one of the most challenging tasks is reframing their use of power in the classroom. It requires a subtle sense of balance, navigating through conflicting priorities. On the one hand, part of the sense of feeling safe that students need comes from a clear set of rules they can rely on. Some students, especially those whom school has treated badly, will inevitably push against those rules to test their teacher’s resolve. At these moments, a clear, dispassionate, but firm response is needed. “I’m sorry, but we don’t do that here.” Every student needs to understand that there is a bottom line when it comes to behavior.
On the other hand, the use of power, like everything else, must serve the Prime Directive. If we want to prepare students for life, to teach them how to be self-directed, to teach them the skills of citizenship, they, too, must have power in the classroom.
Finding the appropriate posture that lets a teacher weave his way through the tension between these priorities is difficult. For many teachers, the trust required in releasing control of the power teachers have in traditional classrooms is extremely difficult. Giving students the freedom to choose, and, inevitably, to choose badly, can feel out of control and counterproductive. Relinquishing the role of handing out grades to reward and punish requires trusting that students can find an alternative, internal motivation to learn. Making these changes requires a leap of faith, and that requires courage and the willingness to make mistakes and learn from them.
For other teachers, giving up the traditional autocratic role is a relief. The problem for them can be recognizing and enforcing the limits of student behavior. Too much power can be as counterproductive for students as too little. A classroom that feels anarchic is not conducive to learning and is certainly poor training for the natural constraints of good citizenship.
Furthermore, for students whose personal lives are chaotic, whose home life and life on the street feel out of control, school is where an understanding of the rule of law, the appropriate use of power for the good of the group, is learned, possibly for the first time.