Model the responsible use of power and authority
Teachers are legally invested with authority over our students. As adults, teachers intrinsically occupy a position of power over children and teens which is necessary and positive when it is focused on their healthy development. However, power always has the potential for harm or good.
As professionals, we take the responsibility of our power and authority seriously. Nonetheless, discussing equity issues from a position of power can pose certain challenges. Teachers want to encourage authentic dialogue and frank exchange among students, and between students and ourselves. However, we may need to use our power and authority to interrupt sexist, racist and homophobic comments or actions and ensure the safety of our students. Furthermore, our inherent position of power may impede students’ desire and ability to be fully open.
It is also true that power dynamics in a classroom can be complicated. Teachers may at times find ourselves being bullied or abused by students. When a teacher is a member of a marginalized group – for example, a woman, a LGBTQ person or a member of a racialized group – students may at times use this in an attempt to gain power.
While there are no easy answers to managing the power dynamics in a classroom, here is how teachers can be and often are role models for the responsible use of power.
- Demonstrate transparency: Teachers can achieve buy-in from their students when we explain our use of power and authority. Students are more likely to accept power and authority that they understand.
- Share power where possible and appropriate: Though it is not always possible or appropriate to share power with students in all situations, students can learn to trust a teacher who shares power and authority in appropriate situations.
- Provide learning opportunities through natural consequences: When students understand that an internal logic justifies the consequences for their actions, they are often more able to accept those consequences. Punishment, in contrast, is often arbitrary and aims to inflict suffering or humiliation on the student.
- Enable healthy development through respectful interactions: Teachers can always find a way to protect students’ dignity and express our respect for students’ basic humanity through our mode of communication. We can demonstrate that even anger can be expressed in a respectful way.
- Demonstrate assertiveness: Teachers transmit an extremely important message when we constructively assert ourselves with students. Through non-aggressive self-assertion, teachers communicate that everyone has the right to respect, and that it is possible to stand up for oneself without taking away someone else’s right (see Escalating and De-Escalating Bullying).