I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Here I was staring at Room 209 once again, wishing for something, anything, to happen. I can’t imagine the hours, perhaps days, my wife and I had sat on this narrow wooden bench in the second-floor hallway of the Klaipeda Migration Office, hoping that our application for our one-year visa was going to be approved. We had been told that our forms were incorrect despite the fact we had received it from this very office. We had been told of ‘new’ fees that needed to be paid immediately, only to be told the next day that we no longer need to pay this fee, so we could fill out a new form and bring it to Vilnius, a five-hour drive from Klaipeda, to get our money back, even though it would cost twice that to get there and back. Begrudgingly, we sign the money over to some mysterious recipient, likely in that office. Slowly, but surely, we had ‘played the game’ enough without giving into what we felt was unethical behaviour to the point where we were now the ones who had their names called out of the vast crowd, even though others had been waiting there much longer than us. We had finally ‘made it’!

Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Hamlet – William Shakespeare

Power is a strange thing. By itself, power is neither good nor bad, but the possessor can use it to assault or to assist. We all have influence over someone or something. At the same time, there are those who lay claim to power over you. How we allow power to guide us says a great deal about our character. Being attentive to power and how it influences us and those around us allows us to make informed decisions and how we are going to act and react to situations that accentuate that power difference.

Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.

The Politics of Education – Paulo Freire

When it comes to our students, we as teachers are sitting in a position of power, even if we don’t appreciate or recognize it as such. Parents, administrators, and even students know it is there and have probably compounded the problem through external decisions we had no part in, but some teachers fail to recognize the bearing this has on almost every decision we make. When we put students in groups, or we tell them to sign up for a website, or give them homework, we are making decisions that the students do not have the power to change. Only we as educators do, but we often abuse this power without even being aware we are doing it.

My biggest problem is with the area of personal data. When we ‘ask’ students to register for a cloud-based tool, we are putting students in a situation where they feel they need to abide or they will face consequences for their actions. We may try with all our might to let students know that they can disagree with us and there will be no penalty for their actions, but in the back of their minds, there is likely some lingering doubt that this is true. This is compounded by situations such as cultural differences in education coming from international families, gender and age differences, and the desire not to ‘rock the boat’ too much. Pleasing the teacher, especially if they are well liked, can be a powerful motivator for students.

“Don’t worry,” you say, “I use these sites all of the time and there is nothing to worry about.” True, I do the same, but this is not our choice to make for them. The things students create on these sites, the data they are giving these companies and organizations should be theirs and theirs alone and it should be up to them to decide what they are willing to give over in exchange for services. The power needs to be in the hands of the students in these situations.

So how do we do that? How do we provide a space where the power can be possessed by those who should have it? We need to make informed decisions about what we need to use in the classroom, and that which is only helpful and could be done differently. Use your influence, your power, to find ways that still assist learning, but keeps the power of ownership in the hands of the students.

Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.

Where do we go from here? – Martin Luther King, Jr.

What we do with our power informs others about our character. Our role as teacher needs to be that of advocate for our students, speaking justice through love. Another area that really bothers me is the use of behaviouristic tools to control the actions of our students. This is at best only marginally acceptable, but when used incorrectly, it is a tool of power that is tightly controlled by the teacher. There are a number of online tools that do this, but the most popular is Class Dojo. I have talked about it before in a previous post, but changes since that time have caused me to become even more concerned. It is now possible to share this information with other teachers. Think about this for one second. What if the roles were reversed and students were able to share what they felt about their teacher with other teachers, students, or administrators. Actually, they do. Students have been using sites such as Rate my Professor for years, much to the chagrin of teachers. Why? They are making judgement calls based on highly subjective information and personal biases. How is sharing data amongst teachers about student behaviour any different? Sure, there are some reasons to do this when there is a danger to students and teachers, but we already do that in those situations. Don’t do this. Don’t cause other teachers to start off with a bias towards a student before even meeting them. Speak justice in love by keeping it between the student and yourself.

To destroy abuses is not enough; Habits must also be changed. The windmill has gone, but the wind is still there.

Les Misérables – Victor Hugo

In order to change the system of power before we become like Ozymandias, we need to become aware of our language, actions, and thinking that reeks of power and control. We need as education professionals to be willing to stop handing over power to those who demand it and we need to be willing to give over power when it is not ours to have. Lately, there has been this trend to call people education ‘experts’, ‘gurus’, or ‘superheros’. We are elevating those people into positions of power over others when this is really unnecessary. I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe teaching is a superpower, nor is being an advocate for our students; It is simply right. It is what should be done, not seen as an anomaly or miraculous exception of power. No. Just no. You may be a teacher who is doing  things well, but you are not a ‘hero’, let alone one endowed with superpowers. You are human and this is what humans should do for one another. Just because a teacher is noticed for their hard work and dedication does not mean we place them on a pedestal, setting them up for a fall. No matter what power you have or has been given to you, in time   it will be gone, under the sands of time. What we need to be doing is changing our habits, limiting the amount of power that we have and using what remains to make positive changes in the lives of those around us.

A stable society is achieved not by balancing opposing forces but by conscious self-limitation: by the principle that we are always duty-bound to defer to the sense of moral justice.

Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

3 thoughts on “Falling

  1. I love your post, but I find myself disagreeing on your interpretation of super hero teachers. Perhaps I am in my own boat here, but let me explain what I think. I don’t think a super hero teacher is someone on a pedestal (in fact, I’d be more inclined to think of a mentor that way), but someone who is undeniably human. I think such a person doesn’t have special power OVER others. In fact a teacher who, no matter how well intentioned, became a tyrant over their students or colleagues would not fit my definition of a super hero. A teacher has the power TO open doors, advocate for students, provide a space where learning is encouraged without directing what that learning should be. Reading back, I guess what I’m saying is that what you claim all humans *should do is what I think teachers *do do. Does that make sense? I’d like to hear your thoughts on what I’ve written here.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Anne. I love it when people share their thoughts, even (especially?) when they disagree with me. In this case, I think we disagree on the terminology, but not the outcome. My issue is the name ‘super’ since it is often associated and even illustrated with the comic book style superhero. We see teachers with Superman logos on their shirts, capes, whatever, which can only be associated with the obvious connection of superpowers. When we do this, those who don’t feel they meet up with these standards can become disappointed in their work. The reality is that we don’t need any superpowers to do this job, it comes from hard work, continual learning, compassion, and everything else that other people do in other careers. No superpowers, but good old hard work and respect.

      I hope that makes sense and clears up what I was attempting to say. Thanks again for commenting! 🙂

  2. Thank you for clarifying and allowing the discussion to continue. I’m not sure if this relates, but I saw an article online recently (which I didn’t read) titled “Why teachers have a tougher job than doctors” (http://www.vox.com/2014/8/4/5959389/building-better-teacher-elizabeth-green-japan-teaching-math)
    One quote from the article is: ‘Teachers have to be mind readers at the same time as they have to be incredibly interpersonally sophisticated. They have to be masters of emotional intelligence. And at the same they’re supposed to be teaching academic content.’*
    I think this is the sort of attitude you might be referring to. I would say that these teachers are fighting a (probably losing) battle against politics. When I read that quote, I could only think – well, I definitely am not a good teacher, then. But I have to remember that in its context these superheroes ARE humans doing their job, who love their job and their students just as much as we do, and screw up just as often, and sometimes experiences successes that have more to do with their students and other factors than their teaching. No special magic. *Learning* is a bit magic, but teaching? I don’t think so.

    * In all fairness, the rest of the article seems to be about training superheroes, rather than expecting them to be born that way. 🙂

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