Sunday, July 6, 2014

#10summerblogs: Having power in the classroom. A fairy tale.

I used to think that I needed to have all of the power in my classroom.

I'm the teacher.
I went to school.
I have the degree.
I'm taller than you.

I've come to find out that three of those things don't matter, and the fourth isn't always true. Let me tell you the story of how I realized all the power in the world doesn't make you a better teacher, it just makes your students more motivated to prove you wrong.

Two years ago, I started a new job. When I started this job I wanted to make sure that my students knew who was in charge. How do you do that you say? I have no idea, but here is how you don't.

On, something like, the second day of school, two of my eighth grade boys were whispering to each other while I was giving instruction. I decided this was the perfect time to prove I was in charge of this classroom by demanding the boys tell me exactly what they were talking about. I stopped class and created a me-versus-them situation that was completely over the top and a credibility destroyer. (I didn't know that then. I thought I had asserted my authority by embarrassing two popular boys. Yelling at them always works, right?)

So, Boy A went home and told his mother that the new teacher embarrassed him during class. Being a loving and caring (and correct) mom, she called the associate principal and explained what happened. The associate principal then came directly to me.

The associate principal (whom I have HUGE respect for) came to me, explained the conversation, and then gave me the most valuable piece of advice I have received in my professional career: "Don't make it personal, Dane. It's not about power. It's about relationships."

He didn't yell.
He didn't threaten.
He coached me.

He gave me a model for how I should run my classroom.

Next part of the story:

Couple of months later I was at a music conference held during Iowa's All-State music festivals. I saw a session about running your rehearsals that was facilitated by none other than MY high school band teacher.

As he was talking, I realized that many of the stories he was telling sounded very familiar. He was telling a story about a time where he tried to assert power in the classroom and it totally failed. He said, "It's not about power. It's about relationships." And then he said the most important thing I have ever heard about classroom management:

"You are only one good group decision from being duct taped to the wall."

Let that sink in for a minute.

Students decide everything they do in the classroom. There is nothing in the ENTIRE world you can do to "make" them learn. Your students will choose to learn, or choose not to. 

  • No matter how effective, or motivating, or entertaining you are. Your students must choose to learn. 
  • No matter how much power think you have or want to have, if you students were really motivated, you would be stuck to a wall. No question.

So, what's my point?

I think the real power in the classroom comes changing the focus from teacher and student to partners in learning. If we can stop thinking of ourselves as educators and start thinking of our room as a place where learning takes place, we can change the environment of our rooms into a place where learning happens.

Have you ever sat with your students and completed an assignment with them? Try it. Let's say you have a project: a speech, a research project, (heaven forbid) a worksheet. When school comes back around this fall, give an assignment and then complete it with your students. Can you use this time to judge the validity of the assignment with more accuracy once you have completed it? When it's time to present or discuss or explain your work, be the first to go. See how your students look at you.

What have you done? You have shared the power. The power of learning with trump the power of education every time. Instead of educating your students you have learned with them. Remember:

Education is something that is done to me; learning is something that I do.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged,

Dane Barner


  1. I have felt that struggle many times as well - wanting to have the power & authority but realizing that it wasn't worth it. I love what you said about the students only being one group decision away from duct-taping you to the wall. So true, especially the older they get. It's all about the relationships

  2. Thank you, Jen. It's been a hard lesson to learn, but I'm not going back to my old ways. I'm not going to put my students through that!