In my last post, I discussed Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath, and how some of the ideas apply to us in the classroom. Last time, I focused on the ideas of how underdogs are able to overcome the difficulties set before then. This time, we’re taking the other side, the side that we, as teachers, are more often on. We’re looking at the limitations of power and authority.
In his book, Gladwell talks about the unrest in Northern Ireland, and how a British officer attempted to quell the unrest by cracking down severely on citizens and instituted a harsh curfew. The idea was that they would instill fear into the citizens and keep them from breaking any laws. The opposite happened. It only served to cause the citizens to be more stubborn and rebellious.
If you’ve been in education long, you may have experienced something similar. In one of my first years at my school, our principal decided to really crack down on dress code issues by sending students home. It tuned into a huge thing. We’re talking hundreds of students getting sent home. Traffic was crazy, and parents were livid. The whole thing ended up on the Atlanta news. The whole thing backfired.
Dropping the hammer on behavior problems isn’t necessarily the answer. The issue is that, at a certain point, the authority becomes illegitimate. As our old friend Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Taking advantage of the authority we have in the classroom can often backfire on us. That is, if all we are doing is being authoritative.
I look at in-school suspension as an example. A student misbehaves, is assigned ISS for a few days, and then is back in the classroom. Sure, it’s a simple punishment for breaking rules, but where is the point where students learn to become better. Without the relationship and rehabilitation, those students are likely to end up back in ISS again, not learning anything. Think about how many students in ISS are repeaters, and how many times they repeat.
We have to legitimize authority in our classrooms and schools with a sense of mutual respect. We are not judge, jury, and executioner. We need to take time with students to help them understand what they do and how they can become better. We have to see them as people who are still learning how to live life rather than just rule-breakers who are trying to make our lives miserable. In turn, maybe they’ll start to see us as people who are trying to help them navigate life rather than just authoritarians waiting to punish them when they fail.