Two people in a library, learning from each other

How power dynamics can undermine effective learning

Instructors need to try to give students agency in the classroom

Could you teach without notes?

The teacher has to be willing to question as well. It’s easy and comforting to hide behind your thunderbolts and routine if you are perceived as a god. Power can be used to hide insecurities in front of a crowd. One of the scariest things about the way I teach my class now is that I cannot work from notes. I have to be prepared at all times to meet my students where they are and not to be afraid of saying, “I don’t know; let’s figure it out together.”

The most important thing we bring into the classroom is not our knowledge (although being well-versed in your subject matter is critical), but our modeling of the skills and traits of effective learning. We should both model and be humble about the journey of learning and that involves walking the path with our students. By disempowering ourselves, we empower our students relative to us. By showing our humanity, we model what it means to be a human learner.

The students have to do a certain amount of work, show up to class, and preserve order in the class. This is the teacher’s responsibility. Furthermore, there is no way around the fact that you are the person with the hand on the assessment lever (although this can be mitigated) and that, in and of itself, is the ultimate power in any classroom. Having to deal with students who seem incapable of showing up to class regularly, follow simple directions, or do their work in a responsible manner requires you to exercise power and, at the end of the day, this can eclipse all of the other good work you have put in to level the classroom.

I have spent a lot of time and effort trying to give my students purpose and agency in the classroom. There are many levels to this, and every time I feel like I’ve come to some sort of stopping point I find another layer. These efforts have all been directed toward one goal: the empowerment of my students. I have had to un-deify myself at every turn and, like Zeus disguising himself as a mortal, I have often failed to convince my students that we are on this journey together. That doesn’t stop me from trying, but it has made me keenly aware of the invisible lines of power that travel through every learning environment (some from the teacher, some from the school) and to be sensitive to the arbitrary strikes of lightning that demotivate and disempower them.

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