Although “power” can be defined differently depending on the person and the circumstance, I will define power here in terms of having the ability or the tools to affect change (either in yourself or in others). I agree with Foucault’s idea that power is not a separate entity or “thing” waiting to be grabbed from a box, but rather it is a construct that we as a society decide upon and follow. Still, even though I agree with this premise, I also feel that in order to affect change, the individual has to recognize his or her own power and exercise it regardless of how it affects others. Once the person gives up their inner power for whatever reason, there is a shift in perception and that is where the “powerful” or “powerless” assumed realities come into play.
Throughout college I studied the issue of power from a political, international sense in which countries contribute to and command authority from each other on the basis of military, economic, technological and dogmatic means. Reading books such as “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond have continued to solidify my idea that in human history power has rarely been held for long just by having “intelligence” or “wise” perspectives. Rather, societies that have survived, have done so because either they were lucky (through weather, natural resources such as iron, immunity, or lack of disasters) to actively pursuing hegemony and domination of others (such as Europe’s colonization of most of the world). In that sense, although every individual in a society, whether powerful or not holds “equal” personal power, not everyone has equal external power (some had better weapons, some had developed immunity to smallpox and others had not). Most unfortunately, it seems to me that power has rarely been held for long by those who profess harmony or peace on a grand scale, which is probably a reason why power is usually associated with oppression.
It has always been my interest to pursue theories of human and natural power, but nowhere in my actual experience has the issue of power become as tangible as in the context of teaching and school. The explicit and implicit rules that afford or deny the “teacher” respect in the classroom became my first focus in the study of power in education. As a child, I had been educated in a system where the teacher’s power was not questioned by the students. When I immigrated to the United States at the age of fourteen, the first shocking images were of kids throwing papers around, and talking while the teacher was trying to teach. I did not participate in this power struggle relationship while at school, but rather continued to respect the teachers’ authority while enjoying the increased personal power I felt as a good student. I was as people might say in my school a “teacher’s pet” because many teachers came to appreciate my respectful attitude and therefore liked me. I gained relative power over other students. As a member of the Honor Society for example, I was allowed to be in the hallway during my unscheduled period when other students were not. As a result I must also say that many students did not like me because to them I was an outsider that gained too much too soon (specially as a Hispanic girl in a white-collar, professional neighborhood where minority residents were very few).
When I first entered the classroom as a teacher, I did so in the Japanese educational system where I taught ESL to high school girls in Kyoto for two years. It was truly a “teacher heaven” for me, because the students respected me as their teacher, and my contributions felt validated and supported. I loved my teaching experience so much that I decided to pursue teaching further and found my present teaching job at the American School in Japan. In this new context, although I as a person had not changed, my relative power as a teacher changed dramatically because I was no longer afforded the same power by the students. Not only was their physical attitude different (body posture, walk, demeanor), but the very notion of questioning the value of what was being taught became a reality I had to deal with. As a student I had never questioned that I should go to school to improve myself and grow, and certainly as a teacher, I had always acted with the premise that I was teaching valuable ideas and skills to my students and therefore deserved respect. Teaching American students at ASIJ became both, a personal and a relationship power struggle.
It was a relationship struggle because even though I was in the position of power in the classroom, I had no tools to handle the attitude of those students who challenged that authority other than my own sense of what was right and wrong. I remember that the times I had trouble with students (mostly high school male students that were rebellious) I did not know what to do. Should I confront the student with the “behavior” problem? Should I ignore him? Should I try to talk to him as a friend or as the teacher demanding respect? To this day, I do not feel that neither my ASIJ experience, nor my study at MSU have prepared me for the struggles of power in the classroom but I understand now that students as well as teachers have something in common regarding power, we all want more of it.
I understand that students who have trouble in school are in general frustrated with their lack of relative power. The student is, after all in the position of least power unless s/he has allies that have power (outspoken parents, friendly teachers, etc). When I place myself in the students’ shoes mentally, I can start to understand the frustration that a person must feel when he does not see any way out of a situation that he does not want to be in for a long time. In short, for some students that choose the path of questioning authority in the classroom school is a prison term. S.B Saranson writes on page 83 of his :the Predictable Failure of Educational Reform” book: “When one has no stake in the way things are, When one’s needs and opinions are provided no forum, When one sees one self as the object of unilateral actions, it takes no particular wisdom to suggest that one would rather be elsewhere.”
Although such feelings on the part of the students are very valid, I often wonder what I can do about it if anything at all. The teacher is, in many ways, caught in the middle. In the same way that companies have middle management to take the brunt of the workers discontent, teacher, usually become the front line of battle when it comes to student discontent. Last year, for example, the school board wanted to implement random drug testing of the high school students at our school. The teachers had given no opportunity to discuss or to even vote on the issue, but the first thing that students said was that: “If we have to get tested, then the teachers should too!” In their mind, we were the ones that has asked for such a test on them as another means of power over them. My kids were pleasantly surprised when I brought up the issue in class, by asking them what their thoughts on the subject were. We has a good conversation where they voiced their opposition to the proposal, and I had the opportunity to express my opinion of opposition as well on the basis of personal privacy. They did not know that we had not been told, or asked for an opinion, they had just assumed that the proposal had come from the teachers.
As a teacher, I want to have the power to implement the curriculum I want to implement without such action being questioned or debated. I feel that what I teach has importance and should be given the necessary amount of effort on the part of the students. I would hate to have to teach something that I do not believe is important, and I feel fortunate for the fact that I have never felt that the topics or lessons I teach have no value. Every year I tell my students that I believe what I teach to be important, and that I want them to also see and understand the importance of the issues class brings up. They also see that I am not only committed to the issues I bring up in class, but also and more importantly, that I am passionate about what I teach. Still, what is the power I have over the students as regards to their learning? Can I forcefully make them learn? I do not think so. As a teacher I can make the class enjoyable, challenging, and interesting, but I do not have the power to impose learning.
Perhaps the power to learn or not to learn is the biggest “hidden” power that students have that they are seldom consciously aware of, for what is the good of any educator if not to educate? And if students are not open to the educator’s teaching, then where does that leave the power of the teacher?
In the end, I have come to believe that my power as a teacher is only as great as the power of the student for one can not exist without the other. Both, the teacher and the student are involved in the same process: learning. As such, the teacher is not above the students, and the students are not below the teacher. It should be a harmonious relationship and if it is not, then the question becomes: What is the power behind the discontent? What is the force behind the struggle? Is it the administration of the school, or the community, or the corporations or perhaps the entire society? Who or what convinced the students to think that the teacher is the enemy and what force is behind the teacher feeling that the students can not be trusted, can not be given the freedom to take their own power of learning? No book or conversation has yet convincingly answered these questions for me. Sometimes I am convinced that school is but a factory for workers and that I am the middle manager that is responsible for the product. Sometimes, I feel that the responsibility lies with the government, because they need people to fight for the country in times of war, they need people to fit in the system, not question it. And yet, sometimes I blame those directly above me in school for their inability or unwillingness to give up power, to share it with both myself and the students. And perhaps that is the ultimate answer: No one is really responsible for the struggle, but we all are as a collective. So in my classroom, the only thing I can do is act with my conscience, follow my heart, and give my students a genuine chance to collectively share the reigns of power the joy of learning together and the responsibilities that come with having power.