Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Is Teaching About Control?

I knew I was going to hate this piece as soon as I read the first sentence.

In their training, teachers are taught to control the classroom.

This piece appeared on NBCThink, a kind generally guest op-ed page the website runs. It was written by Peshe Kuriloff,  who is a retired professor of education who is now a self-employed consultant. She's got a BA and an M.Ed from Harvard and a PhD from Bryn Mawr. And somebody at NBC (probably) gave this crazy-pants piece the title "A Covid school lesson: Teachers don't have the power they think they do."

I was educated a billion years ago, and I've had numerous student teachers in my classroom throughout my career, and I have no idea what the heck she's talking about. I have never encountered an education professor who asserted that total control of the classroom (which is an odd turn of phrase because, after all, controlling a room is easy enough but then there are all these students in it) is the goal or, as she says, the measure of teacher success. Who teaches that? Did she teach that to her future teachers? (Survey says no)

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.

Who has that idea? Yes, the anti-indoctrination crowd thinks teachers can bend minds to their will, but that's just one more sign that they don't know what the heck they're talking about. 

There were certainly total control teachers aplenty back many decades ago. But now is not then. I've written about schools that throw weight into asserting their authority, but that pretty much never works. Sure, there are pre-teachers who vastly over-estimate their power as a teacher. If they're at all smart, it takes them about a week to figure out that's not happening. And there are certainly control freaks who make it into the classroom, but they burn out rapidly.

There are some good points in Kuriloff's piece:

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.

Certainly. That's true in every non-pandemic year as well.

But virtually every student teacher I ever had had to learn how to exercise authority. For so many teachers, the first years are marked by a painful awareness that you are just playing teacher in front of young humans who could realize at any moment that you don't have any power over them except for the power they grant you. Classroom imposter syndrome is the worst. My first teaching job involved students who were one year younger than I, and I was never not aware that if they all decided to stand up and walk out, there wasn't a thing I could do about it. Raise your hand if you have that teacher nightmare where your class is spinning out of control and you can't stop it.

You exercise authority in a classroom through a couple of factors.

1) Know what you are doing and what you are talking about. I don't mean that you never commit or admit errors, but you need to mostly have command of the content and an actual plan. 

2) Show respect. There's a classic question about whether you'd rather be loved or feared in a classroom--pick respect. And you get it by knowing what you're doing and showing respect to your students. This, incidentally, covers all of the methods course and theory stuff about making learning student centered and sharing authority and all the rest of that stuff that sounds so complex but really boils down to "treat students like they are intelligent human beings whose time is valuable."

3) Always be moving toward something. It's not about making them stop talking so you can move on. It's about moving on.

I'm traditional. The whole "I learn as much from them as they do from me" makes me cringe, because if you aren't more knowledgeable than your students, what are we paying you for? And students need a safe space, and that includes a space in which there's a competent adult who knows what's going on. 

But traditional doesn't mean autocratic power tripping, and it hasn't for sixty or seventy years, so I'm not sure what the perceived audience for this piece was. Most of her lessons are not new lessons. Yes, pandemic distance learning underscored the value of relationship (and the degree to which it depends on physicality). But otherwise, nothing to see here.


  1. About a decade of experience in multiple schools in multiple districts in the PNW.
    1. The audience would be admin and teachers. Lots and lots of them.
    2. The article is a realistic description of how most of the admin and a good chunk of teachers view teaching (at least 25%) at many schools and districts.
    3. Many of the other teachers will conform because admin and evaluation.
    4. Schools are inherently authoritarian. And yes, teachers will freak out when they think they are losing "power" and will generally deny it vigorously. (Washington state and zero suspensions, for instance).
    5. One of the primary ways admin evaluates teachers is "can you control a classroom". Everything else is secondary.

  2. Maybe she is addressing those horrible charter school practices.

  3. This reminds me of a school board member in my district about 20 years ago who wanted to eliminate all the guidance counselors in elementary schools because he claimed they exercised "mind control" over the students. Most of us, when we heard that, said out loud or to ourselves, "if only!"