Status in the Classroom

In my last post, I reflected on my experiences with co-generative dialogues (cogens) this year. While writing it, because cogens attempt to bring teachers and students together as equals to improve the classroom, to I began thinking a lot about the role that status plays in the classroom. Specifically, my thoughts got tangled up in processing the social hierarchy that exists between teachers and their students and how this might impact teaching and learning. The post nudged me to dig deeper.

We teachers control students’ grades, all things pedagogy, discipline, and even when kids are permitted to relieve themselves. I’m not saying that all teachers are power-hoarding authoritarians who want to dominant every facet of the classroom. It’s not like that. I think most teachers are the opposite — they strive, at least most of those that I know, to be “student-centered” or “inquiry-based,” whatever those terms mean. All of the teachers I know strive to put the learner’s thinking at the forefront of our lessons. We have great intentions and students genuinely appreciate it.

But despite how liberal or student-facing our instruction may be, we still have institutional power over students. The way schools are set up, it’s unavoidable. Teachers are just doing their jobs. And this says nothing about the privilege we teachers (and school leaders) may have when it comes to age, race, gender, and class, which drive all of the above.

In the end, outside of standardized curricula and exams, which programs both teachers and students to not see one another as human, teachers have immense social capital when compared to students. Simply put, although we say we want students to own their journey, we make most of their decisions for them; school is a place where students are subservient to adults. And this is underscored (or even mostly true) in schools that are underfunded or serve marginalized groups.

In Educating for Insurgency, Jay Gillen captures this idea rather well. He states:

So the first part of the plan involves perceiving the students as the principal actors, the center of the action -- not the adults, and not the curriculum.

This requires a degree of humility on the teachers in particular. We teachers tend to think of ourselves as dominant in some way, creating the classroom culture and mood, setting goals, evaluating, and so on. After all, we know more about the subject being taught; we are significant. But it doesn't therefore follow that we are central.

The essential difficulty here is that we enter into the dramatic relation of the school or classroom encumbered by the frozen, unhelpful categories that pit the young people's wildness against adult control. Those categories or hierarchies of, at least, 'teacher' vs. 'student,' 'adult' vs. 'youth,' credentialed vs. not-yet-credentialed are so pervasively established that they give the starting-point of the interaction. (p. 147)

So, in the end, how does our status impact teaching and learning? Some might say that it doesn’t, that the weightiness of content abstracts our identities to the point where they affect little of what happens in the classroom. They may be right. I’m just not convinced.

Can I do something about it? As a small cog in a system that unabashedly views students as test scores, I don’t know.

But this year, in reading folks like Chris Emdin, Jay Gillen, and Ericka Walker, who all advocate for being intentional about student agency and ownership of the classroom, being conscious of my status and even striving to dismantling it is what I find myself leaning into. I believe co-generative dialogues is one way grassroots way of doing that. Student-led peer collaboratives (like tutoring) is something else that’s on my mind, though I’ve done nothing meaningful on that front as yet.


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