De-centering Our Power in Classrooms and Beyond

“We have a problem…”

Morgan began, opening her hand to show me three flair pens, which were missing caps.

Problem five of five hundred yet to come, I geared up for resolution autopilot, What can you do to fix that problem?, when Morgan continued (as if she already knew what I was going to say),

“We have a problem…

…But kids aren’t listening to me because I’m not the teacher.”

Morgan’s words stayed with me that night and I’ve carried them with me for the past two months.

With Morgan’s words, I realized that empowering children does not guarantee they are seen as powerful in their communities. Encouraging independence and agency with problem-solving is something. But words are nothing if we do not urge their importance. With this thinking, I wondered:

Do we hold the same stake on ensuring children listen to us as we do on ensuring children are listened to?

With Morgan’s words, I began to notice the role power played in my classroom — in routines, meetings at the rug, transitions, decisions about our day, about our learning, the books we read, the conversations we choose to make grand.

The more I became conscious of power, the more I realized I was at the center, with kids orbiting around my pull.

Because of Morgan’s words, I write this post as much for myself as I do for others. I write it for kids, for adults, who feel unheard, unpowerful. I write it for those of us who hold privileged positions of power, as a reminder that shared power is greater than any power we carry alone.

After months of lingering in often uncomfortable hyper awareness, in the pursuit of  answering,

When and how am I positioned in a place of power and authority?

When and how am I exerting power and authority?

this is what I’ve found:

The Meeting Area

How it places us at the center:

The layout of a typical meeting places kids on the floor, looking up at a teacher, who is sitting in a special chair. There are of course, practical and necessary reasons for this. But there are shifts we can make to help kids see the meeting area as a place the community gathers in many different ways, to talk about many different things, and to learn from many different people:

How we can de-center ourselves:

  • Meet in a circle, at least once every day. This community-building style of gathering can become a morning or closing ritual of a day and/or of a workshop. Sitting this way grounds us with children.  For access to more voices, children can meet in small circles — one on each corner and one in the middle. To de-center ourselves further, we can  position ourselves just outside of the circle, whispering in to individual students to nudge the conversation along.
  •  Share the chair. If kids associate the chair positioned for teaching as the source of learning, and we are the only ones to use such chair, by default, all learning is attributed to us. Consider adding several chairs, or even a bench, so that kids can sit alongside us, or alongside each other for teaching and sharing. To de-center ourselves further, sit on the rug with the class while a child is in the teacher’s chair. 

Teaching

How it places us at the center: 

As the teachers, it’s only natural that we carry power when it comes to teaching and learning. We plan, we prepare, we model, often around our agenda (keeping up with pacing calendars, assessments, observations). 

How we can de-center ourselves:  

We can lean on Cornelius Minor’s, You Got This, in which he devotes a chapter to the kind of listening that fuels our plans, that makes us “radically kid-centered” (p. 24).

If we know where our teaching is going, we can be careful observers of kids who can serve as models, of stories or problems that can become connections, of conversations and interests that can grow into contexts for learning.

  • Make the connection about kids, not ourselves:  Rather than connect learning to our lives, or tell our stories, we can connect learning to classroom life, to stories of children (in and out of school, if we’re really listening). By doing so, we can weave together a narrative of our classrooms.
  • Have children model:  Pictures and videos of children can become teaching tools, whether they will prompt a story that kids can tell with us, or serve as a model for a skill. These can be used for a mini lesson, mid-workshop teach during independent work time, or for share.
  • Do the things you are asking kids to do. Reframe the mentality from I teach, you try, to We practice, we try together. We can talk about the things we try when kids aren’t around, in our lives as learners and problem-solvers.

Talk

How it places us at the center: 

Size, age, loudness, and authority can symbolize power, so being mindful of our posture, body language, and how (and when) we project our voices is key for de-centering our power.

How we can de-center ourselves: 

  • Get on children’s eye-level, as much as possible. 
  • Do more listening than talking. At teaching time, during conferences, always. Real listening, not I have 1,000 other things to do right now so can you hurry up with this? listening.
  • Ask more, answer less questions. Direct questions back to the class, “Is anyone able to help with this?” or equip kids with means to research independently.
  • Speak with empathy. Moments that seem trivial to us can feel enormous in the world of a child. Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz share an Empathy Toolkit in Kids First From Day 1 (p. 10 for the full toolkit):
    • Take their perspective. “I’m listening.”
    • Don’t rush to judgement. “Tell me more about that.”
    • Recognize emotions. “It sounds like you are feeling.”
    • Communicate and connect. “Me too.”

Decision-Making

How it places us at the center: 

As the adult, we are the ultimate decision-maker in a child’s life. We (think) we know what’s best to keep kids safe, engaged, happy, to make our days run smoothly and seamlessly. 

How we can de-center ourselves:

  • Offer choices, two for every one choice we make as teachers, Hertz and Mraz say. 
  • Instead of “No,” say, “Not this, but that,” or “Not now, but later.” This shift in language makes kids feel like they have some control, that their ideas are important and valued and worthy.
  • Have the class vote on important decisions that they are invested in.
  • Explain rationale when voicing with authority, “Some of us are having a hard time concentrating when it’s so loud in here. We can a two-minute no-talking break to reset and then try whispering again.”  or “There’s something else planned that ties into our learning so instead of sharing now, you can share at our closing meeting.”

When we are tempted to use actions and words for power, instead, we can empower the actions and words of children.

Consider Morgan’s dilemma. In that moment, 

  1. I could get the commnity’s attention by using my size power (loudness of voice) and authority power so the they’d listen to Morgan. OR
  2. I could empower Morgan by teaching her other methods of getting a community’s attention. When her spoken words didn’t work, she could have used an instrument to get attention. Morgan could have recorded a video that we played at meeting. Morgan could have written a letter to the class. Morgan could have made a sign, reminding the community to cap their brand new writing pens.

I could have taught Morgan that sometimes our voice isn’t listened to, but that doesn’t mean our words should be given up on, and more importantly, it doesn’t mean someone else should say our words for us.

The more we position ourselves, as leaders, with the community instead of in the center of it, the more its members will begin to rely on one another, see one another, hear one another. That’s when the community will be at its most powerful. 

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