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A Covid school lesson: Teachers don't have the power they think they do

The idea that educators can bend students to their will is a misunderstanding of teaching and learning. Students must consent to learn.
Illustration shows a child raising his hand.
Teachers must learn to trust their students, to listen to student concerns and involve them in decision-making.NBC News; Getty Images

In their training, teachers are taught to control the classroom. The ability to maintain this control, in turn, is often used as a make-or-break factor in determining whether, in the eyes of their principals and peers, teachers succeed or fail. As a result, unable to force students to do what they say, many teachers conclude they lack what it takes.

While teachers have the power to fail students, they can’t make them absorb knowledge.

In reality, however, the idea that teachers hold power over students and can bend them to their will is a misunderstanding of the nature of power in schools, as well as teaching and learning. As the school year ends and teachers reflect on what they gleaned from a year spent connecting to students mostly at a distance, what are the takeaways? For many, it’s a new perspective on the power dynamics of the classroom.

The testimony of teachers who have been asked about pandemic learning demonstrates that surviving remote education required unprecedented collaboration, solid relationships between teachers and learners and students stepping up as problem-solvers. Teachers primed to seek those outcomes felt much more successful than those who relied on traditional assumptions about power and control.

Indeed, while teachers have the power to fail students, they can’t make them absorb knowledge. Just as democracy relies on the consent of the governed, students must consent to learn. Teachers cannot simply shovel knowledge into students’ brains. In fact, the powers teachers have to shape curriculum, evaluate students and assign grades create a mystique of teacher control that in some cases actually undermines the goal of learning. After all, learning requires students to step up and take responsibility, not simply follow instructions.

Ultimately, while many factors influence schooling, including politics and poverty, learning depends on relationships. And relationships that matter, that have the staying power to motivate students (or workers) to perform, require mutual trust.

Learners perform for teachers they respect and believe care about them. They internalize and remember what matters to their lives, not what they fear forgetting on a test. Even when they don’t perceive value in their teachers’ lessons, students who trust their teachers keep an open mind and give them the benefit of the doubt. Teachers must similarly learn to trust their students, to listen to student concerns and involve them in decision-making.

In high-functioning classrooms, learning happens when power is shared among teachers and students. Teachers recognize the importance of engaging students, and students acknowledge their duty to open themselves to learning. Teachers work to persuade students to collaborate, helping them become contributing members of the team.

During the pandemic, teachers had to invent ways of getting to know their students from a distance and using that knowledge to lure students to participate, to complete schoolwork, to join the team when many traditional methods for teachers to exert control weren’t available.

Even in regular classrooms, teachers struggle to engage unmotivated students distracted by phones, computers and each other. The rules require students to put away devices when they’re not being used for instruction, though many students ignore them. In remote classrooms, however, students exert even more power. Only they control their cameras; they decide whether to appear or disappear. This visual reminder of teachers’ powerlessness was especially painful for instructors struggling to persuade students to do what they asked.

Early in this pandemic school year, I attended a virtual seminar in which a well-known teacher educator told participants to insist that students in virtual classrooms keep their cameras on. Replicating expectations in the classroom, teachers needed to see their students in order to verify their presence and confirm their attention.

But engagement was a constant struggle. Students muted themselves to silence background noise at home and turned off their cameras, leaving teachers unsure about whether they were actually present. High school teachers with whom I spoke said they often only saw their students’ names on screen as they stubbornly refused to turn on their cameras. Out of respect for student privacy, as well as feelings of helplessness, many teachers simply soldiered on.

They were reluctant to dump the mandated curriculum, but, dealing with the reality of interrupted ordinary life and fragmented learning time, many chose more engaging lessons and activities over standard classroom fare. For some teachers it was a perfect opportunity to focus on student well-being and to introduce or emphasize student-centered learning and projects that enabled students to choose topics of interest to them. Uncertain about how well their lessons were received, teachers also introduced student surveys and paid attention to what students reported was working for them, giving students more say in how class was conducted.

Unfortunately, maintaining those relationships and creating a balance of power with students does not come easily to teachers trained to control. The message about collaborating and sharing power has converted some teachers to a more student-centered classroom paradigm. But back in the physical classroom, will these practices endure? Giving students their proper role to play would relieve teachers of huge pressures for learning outcomes, which they have reluctantly endured. Power-sharing could bring relief for everyone involved.