There’s a way of interacting with students that’s part of democratizing education. I don’t ever expect kids to do what I say just because I say so. I’m always prepared at any stage to give a reason for anything I ask a kid to do. It’s a way of interacting that is less hierarchical.
We’ve all observed moments when students shut down in response to adult authority. While students may comply with adult demands, they are disengaged from the process. At the same time, adopting a permissive orientation by denying or relinquishing our authority is equally unhelpful and can even be harmful to students in some circumstances.
There are times when we need to use our power as adults to set limits or establish a necessary rule. Using our power in positive ways means being respectful, accountable, transparent and authentic. It means transferring as much of our own power as possible to students (knowing that ultimately we always retain our power as adults). When we seek to share our power as teachers with students who identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, it is particularly important to ensure we are working as partners in education, not as authority figures. In this way, we take small steps to gradually offset the many long years of oppression and abuse that is their collective experience.
If you want students to feel empowered they need to know that they can have an influence. The only way you can go about that is if you first collaboratively—adults and students in your school—define what does that look like for us. If we want a just, safe, fair, supportive and democratic school community, then what does that look like. We need to decide together what are the things we stand for.
Genuine power sharing requires great clarity and self-awareness on the part of adults. There are many indirect and invisible ways to wield power, and young people are alert to any hint of adult hypocrisy or manipulation.
Power sharing is an ethical stance and a professional standard we set for ourselves. It arises from a genuine belief in young people’s capacity and from the sincere value we place on their opinions and perceptions. It requires that we merge the personal with the professional (while maintaining appropriate boundaries), bringing our whole selves to our work. Only then can we perceive our students as whole people, respecting their dignity and their humanity.