Teachers are Not the Heroes

Thomas White
April 29, 2020
It’s time to fight adultism and re-center the wants and needs of students.
“Education is suffering from narration sickness.” — Paulo Freire

I was sitting in the auditorium, waiting for our faculty meeting to begin, when a colleague approached me. I’d met and interacted with this teacher a few times, but we weren’t close.

“Do you have J — — — in your class?” the teacher asked.

I told the teacher that this student had just transferred into my class earlier that week. The teacher responded:

“I hate that kid. Just felt you should know.”

I was shocked, taken aback, at the blatant display of hate and disregard for professional standards. This was not a whisper, but loud and direct. It was not a nuanced heads-up to avoid getting into power struggles with the student, but a simple, unadulterated “I hate that kid.” The only response my shell-shocked brain could summon was a half-hearted “ok,” which I had to repeat two or three times as the teacher expounded on this hate, before the conversation finally concluded.

A few weeks later, I was sitting in this teacher’s classroom, relocated while my room was being used for testing. A set of feminism posters celebrated Audre Lorde, the #metoo movement, and Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones. The learning objective on the board stated “we will research our social issue topics,” and the homework instructed students to listen to the New York Times’ 1619 podcast. The bookshelves housed a class set of The Hate U Give. The classroom was decorated, from floor to ceiling, with social justice.

Like me, this teacher is white, while most students at our school are not. I don’t doubt that this teacher is doing their own work, and I applaud what I saw of the classroom; we white teachers have a lot of work to do, and educating ourselves and reorienting our curriculum are vital steps to take. I also don’t know what this teacher’s day to day relationships with students looks like — though I know, from various conversations, that our interaction was not an anomaly.

This incongruity between classroom and comment is frustratingly common, not just for this teacher, but across education. As teachers attempt to rid their classrooms of white supremacy, to inject their curriculum with a heavy dose of intersectionality, they tend to focus squarely and solely on the content of their lessons. Replace dead white men with women and authors of color. View history not just from the winners’ viewpoints, but from the perspectives of the oppressed. In our focus on this particular work — important, necessary work — we often exclude from our intersectionality the dynamic most relevant to our practice: the relationship between the student, the teacher, and the institution of school.

A power imbalance exists between students and teachers. Whether they want to or not, teachers hold enormous leverage over students: passing and failing, going to the office or walking free, calls home and parent/teacher conferences. This leverage is frequently used to control students’ movements, their speech, even when they can or can not attend to basic bodily needs, like eating and using the restroom. The larger institution holds even more leverage, as it controls what job or collegial opportunities await them, should they reach the other side.

Conversations amongst teachers rarely consider this imbalance. We privilege our own wants and needs, our own frustrations, and we expect our students to conform to them. We fail to consider how, in our role as teacher, we can weaponize our knowledge of the institution against our students.

One weapon comes from teacher expectations. It’s not novel to suggest that teacher expectation of student achievement acts as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy — this idea goes back at least fifty years, to the 1968 study “Pygmalion in the Classroom.” While that specific study’s methods have been questioned and picked apart, the basic conclusion is widely supported: negative expectations hurt students. Simply by thinking that a student will underperform, a teacher practically ensures that they do.

Through their relationships with the faculty, teachers can directly impact the educational outcomes of their former students. When my colleague told me I hate that kid, it wasn’t merely petty and unprofessional; it directly harmed the student. The institution of school was weaponized against this kid, likely not for the first time.

Other weapons are more straightforward. The power to punish, the control of a narrative, and the benefit of the doubt all fall in favor of the teacher. We are assumed to always want the best for our students, and it’s always accepted as gospel that we truly know what is best. In the classroom, the teacher is the authority, the arbiter of right and wrong, acceptable and inappropriate, mature and childish.

The point is not to suggest that my colleague is a hypocrite; it’s not about that teacher at all. Teaching is an inherently human job, and it’s natural to expect that you won’t like everyone you work with. This includes students. Rather, my goal is to advocate for a more just classroom. We must center students and their needs in our conversations about the classroom, and we have to listen to them with the assumption that they really do know what they need.

Because if we don’t upend the power structure that hurts students in the classroom, social justice becomes merely another thing for authoritative teachers to hold kids accountable to.

There’s a word for what I’m talking about: adultism.

Put simply, adultism is a bias towards the wants and needs of adults, and it colors almost every interaction between adults and youth in schools. However, it goes beyond a simple bias; in many ways, adultism resembles other forms of systemic oppression, such as racism, sexism, or homophobia. One population — in this case, adults — has power, and uses their authority to create systems that keep another population — youth — in a subservient role.

The predominant system that reinforces adultism in America is the institution of school.* At the sound of the bell, students are divided and herded across the building, where they complete tasks that an adult deems important. They conform to the wishes of the adult in every aspect of their speech, behavior, and movement. Those who don’t submit, who step out of line, are punished in house. Eventually, if they continue to resist, the consequences reach outside the school, because the needs of the school are backed by the power of law, in the form of truancy court and school resource officers.

Adultism tells students that their needs don’t matter. It asks them to doubt that they even know what their needs are, and thus undermines their autonomy.

Like the dragon queen celebrated by that poster on the teachers wall, most educators are unaware of the oppression they perpetrate. They see themselves as great liberators — some because they bring education, opening doors, others because they teach their students about social justice, opening eyes — but to receive this liberation, students must bend the knee. The teacher’s justice framework has not considered the autonomy of their students.

One day, shortly after talking with my colleague at the faculty meeting, I found myself in a conversation with several teachers and staff members. They were complaining about some of the teen parents at our school. Apparently, one student was dropping her child off at the day care — provided free on campus for students — then skipping class.

The adults were outraged. How could this student be so cavalier about the free service she was receiving? Didn’t she know that teachers and staff members were on a waiting list to get into that daycare? Maybe she just needed the right incentive. Tell her that if she keeps skipping class, she will lose her childcare access.

It was never considered that the student might have legitimate reasons to not want to attend class; that perhaps day care for teen parents is a good service worth providing, regardless of school attendance records; that education is a public good, and both the student and her child are part of the public.

The adults have work to do. Teachers must learn to challenge their assumptions about the students they serve, giving them the benefit of the doubt as much as is possible. They must begin to appreciate their students’ autonomy, their right to dislike the teacher or the class, to have their own wants and needs. They should change the way they talk about students amongst themselves. Most importantly, teachers must critically examine the ways in which the institution of school — its rules, rhythms, and culture — affect students, and actively question their role in upholding it.

Any teacher who is doing their own anti-adultism work has encountered rules, policies, and procedures that make this work hard to act on. Some, like John Warner, have suggested rebellion:

Depending on your situation, you can either refuse silently or make a public fuss and try to change the policy for others, but either way, if what you are being asked to do is inconsistent with what you know to be in the interests of student learning and overall well-being, just don’t do it.

I have done this myself. It’s relatively easy to turn a blind eye and let a student use the restroom, even when it is at a so-called “inappropriate” time. I’ve allowed students to eat snacks and meet the foundational need for sustenance. I’ve accepted work later than my department’s policy prescribes. But this get trickier when the stakes increase. Other times, I have followed unjust policies out of fear of repercussion, either for myself or my students. Warner’s suggestion to “refuse silently” is sound, even moral, but it only works so long as you and the student can fly under the radar.

And so, policies will have to change. A full exploration of the necessary changes may be outside the scope of this essay, but here are a few proposals.

Truancy court should become a thing of the past. Using the law, and ultimately the criminal justice system, to enforce school attendance is the greatest assault on student autonomy. It eliminates their ability to choose to attend school, because the alternative is noncompliance. Furthermore, it amplifies every currently-existing power imbalance. If students willingly chose their classes, as in college, there would be less need for authoritative practices. Ironically, it would be also harder to create authoritative environments, as the forced participation itself is the source of the power imbalances in schools.

Numeric grades should be replaced with authentic self-assessment. Traditional grading frames school as a set of tasks to be completed, rather than a body of knowledge to be learned. This system encourages teachers to act as taskmasters and students laborers. Alternate frameworks, though, such as mastery-based learning, still rely on alphabetic or numeric assessments, which are most often used as carrots and sticks, power that teachers hold over students. A particularly good teacher may be able to use them differently, but incentives and punishments will always be the path of least resistance under a numeric-based grading system.

Curriculum standards should be loosened, to allow for self-directed learning. Choosing how you spend your time and what is important to you is key to personal autonomy. This does not have to mean necessarily that schools should eliminate requirements — a diploma ought to mean that a student has mastered a certain body of knowledge and skills — but rather that these requirements should make room for students’ individuality, both in content and sequence.

Computer surveillance technology like GoGuardian should be prohibited. These are tools of enforcement and compliance; they are tools of power. If teachers want to work with their students, to teach through relationship, to respect autonomy, they will have to give up these tools.**

Finally, teachers must be given the autonomy and support to try liberating practices. This may sound ironic, given how much of this essay I’ve devoted to the ethical shortcomings of teachers. But it’s also true that many teachers want to do better. Many of us want to eliminate grades, allow free access to the restroom, and put students in control of the curriculum. This is all difficult to do when it’s mandated that we enter two grades per week and align our curriculum with our team members. The bar to entry becomes convincing your admin, plus five (or more) colleagues to join you. This is difficult when the proposal is a dramatic change in practices or something of an experiment. These policies seem tailor-made for maintaining the status quo.

More broadly speaking, though, policies must be specific to individual communities and made with strong input from the students themselves.

Months later, I was in another faculty meeting. Instead of the auditorium, though, I sat on the floor of my living room while my nine-month-old son played with blocks. On the couch nearby, my phone kept me connected to the virtual meeting. It had been only a few weeks, but already I had begun settling into the new rhythms of being a teacher during coronavirus lockdown.

When I wrote the first draft of this essay, the thought of teaching remotely never would have crossed my mind. Once our campus shut down, I considered shelving this piece, maybe returning to it in six months, a year, however long it takes to get back to normal. How could a story about the institutional power of school have any relevance, when that institution was shutting its doors?

Perhaps naively, I thought this might be a time when teachers lower the pressure and recognize that students have other, more personal, things going on in their lives. From a certain vantage point, this seemed plausible. Rebecca Barrett-Fox, a professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University, wrote a viral essay titled “please do a bad job of putting your courses online.” The state of Washington temporarily eliminated the distinction between pass and fail, sending all students on to the next grade at the end of the year.

Listening in on the Q&A portion of our faculty meeting, I was returned to the reality of my profession. Teachers were furious. They had logged in to GoGuardian to see that students were using their Chromebooks to watch DisneyPlus, rather than do their daily algebra assignments. They asked our principal “what can we do about this?”

But what if the student was watching a younger sibling while their parent worked, and another viewing of Frozen 2 was the only parenting they could manage? What if they were worried about a sick relative, and watching Avengers: Endgame was all they could bring themselves to do?

Colleagues complained that the new policy didn’t allow them to give zeros, even for missing work. Never mind that they can still give a failing grade of 60. At every turn, the questions were how we can we make sure they still do what we want?

Students may be out of the building, but the institution — and the power imbalance it represents — is trying its best to reach them through Chromebooks and wifi hotspots. Quarantine will not change the institution, not on its own. We have work to do.


*It’s important to note that this is true of virtually all schools — public, private, or charter. This is one aspect of schools that is not altered by its funding model. Certain schools built on progressive schools of thought, such as Montessori education, are working to build anti-adultist institutions.

**I write this as much for myself as anyone; I’ve used these tools, too, because they’re easy to use and no one bats an eye. But we need to begin making this unacceptable.

Thomas White
Thomas is a former high school English teacher, writer, and amateur gardener. He lives with his wife, his son, and two Australian Shepherd dogs. He writes about culture, policy, and school.
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