As I posted earlier, I feel daily the temptations of responding to student behaviour either as a Parent (“You’re bad and I’m going to punish you”) or as a Child (“that’s the most imaginative excuse I’ve heard all week! Take 10 points and you may go home early.”)
I wrote before about the tendency I notice in myself and some others, to characterize the “Institution” as the demon, the bad, limiting Parent who stops the Child (here the teacher may see the student as the Child) from doing what (s)he wants. It can become easy to identify with the students as innocent children to be protected from big, bad authority, with wholesale projection going on.
However, looking around, there are very good reasons for mistrusting authority these days. If authority could be trusted, then there wouldn’t be a problem: decisions taken by people in authority would be in the best interests of the people in their charge. But these days, authority has squandered its credit; authority can no longer be trusted. Thus teachers may feel a need to protect students against what may seem to be the machinatins of authority; whatever authorities decide is seen with extreme suspicion as probably being entirely in the power interests of that authority itself, and not in the interests of those in its charge.
Such authority, of course, hides its true agenda behind highflown, socially acceptable rhetoric. It is not uncommon, for example, for higher educational institutions to use metaphors of flight and images of birds in their promotional literature. It sounds wonderful, and it’s good PR. But it’s all spin.
An Adult response might be, perhaps, to question authority, examine critically, and come to one’s own conclusions after careful consideration. However, what often happens is that the baby is thrown out with the bathwater: a common reaction these days seems to be that all authority figures are no longer to be trusted in this day and age. Regrettable, but a fact of life.
However, here’s the rub. A teacher in a classroom is inevitably looked upon as the authority figure, as the surrogate Parent, perhaps, or at least as the representative face of the institutional authority. This happens regardless of the teacher’s own wishes in the matter. A teacher who mistrusts authority, and yet who is at the same time the de facto authority in the room, will tend, if there is insufficient self-examination and self-awareness, to mistrust his or her own authority, and may develop various strategies to deal with this contradiction (insisting on the term “facilitator” instead of “teacher” is one strategy that springs to mind).
In order to be truly “on the side of students” in the sense of nurturing their freedom, their talent, and their ability to enjoy and to learn, a teacher must exert that authority. A teacher has power, and that power can be used to nurture, or to destroy (usually a combination). To avoid using that power, because you mistrust authority and suspect a hidden agenda, is itself a political decision and has consequences which are, I suspect, almost never harmless.
Problems can arise in discusions and conversations on this topic because people may equate (often with good reason!) the use of power, the exertion of authority, with fascistic tendencies – the tendency to use power to further one’s own aggrandizement at the expense of the people one has power over. Examples of such behaviour abound, unfortunately.
Strength and authority are powers that I feel should be, must be, exerted in order to protect students (children, young people, people in one’s charge), not only from misguided, fascistic authority, but also from themselves – from their own aberrant, self-sabotaging behaviours, some (many?) of which behaviours may well have been developed as responses to the abuse of power against them.
Although I find fault with a lot of what Melanie Philips wrote, on this matter, which she describes as a retreat from teaching, a retreat from knowledge, the collapse…of authority, I think she has hit a nail very squarely on the head.