Teaching Today's Students

Power Over or Power To?

The-Teaching-Professor-Newsletter-Cover-ImageHas the balance of power changed in classrooms full of millennial students?

Jennifer Waldeck, in a short article in The Teaching Professor*, “Reflections on Teacher Power in the Contemporary Classroom,” argues that current student behaviors challenge “traditional assumptions” about the power teachers have to influence students.  She lists conventional ways of influencing students:

          • Using “rewards” or “punishments”
          • Presenting oneself as an “expert” that students should unquestioningly follow
          • Assuming that being a “teacher” necessarily carries “authority”
          • Leveraging “good relationships with students as a way of encouraging them to comply”
          • “Managing their classrooms” to “force students to be on task,” by not allowing the use of personal electronics, talking, lateness, etc.

In her student-focused, group-based research, Waldeck finds that today’s students do not “identify with us,” do not seek out relationship with professors in order to deepen knowledge.  She finds that students increasingly view teachers as “employees paid to transmit knowledge as a commodity,” and that they intentionally resist “teacher influence.”  While these findings are certainly discouraging, Waldeck suggests that this discouragement can be channeled to re-define our understanding and use of power in the classroom.  Waldeck advocates for re-thinking power by shifting the balance from trying to influence students and mold them from above to seeing ourselves as collaborating with them, seeing the work from their vantage point, and connecting points of relevance in daily life.

The kind of power she calls for “is not about bossing students around” but “about influencing students to engage, motivating them to learn, and challenging them to connect the dots of course content to their lives.”  This power to influence deep learning, she claims, cannot be “mandate[d] with a policy or a statement in the syllabus.”

Instead of managing the classroom to structure student behavior, Waldeck encourages teachers to:

  • “Influence students to engage […] the material […] in the midst of” the many other pursuits they are involved in.
  • Rather than expecting students to value “knowledge for knowledge’s sake,” show students how a comprehension of the subject matter “will help them secure employment, generate income, or contribute to some other applied outcome.”
  • “Influence students by being as considerate of them as we wish them to be of us.”

Rather than viewing teacher power as a given force for students to bow to, Waldeck shifts the focus to ask how teachers may find the power to influence students through truly engaging them.  Many studies about effective student learning support this shift.  The authors of How Learning Works demonstrate that students are most engaged, and better retain what they learn when they are motivated by their own goals and values, rather than punishments and rewards.  Ken Bain’s study of What the Best College Teachers Do finds that “Trust,” an integral element of generating student engagement, “depend[s] on the teacher’s rejection of power over them” (70).  Student learning that moves beyond mere completion of tasks cannot be brought about by force, but by teachers asking “how they can help students understand all the beauty and joy of the enterprise before them” (50).

What Waldeck’s “Reflections” do not address is the ways in which these “conventional assumptions” about power in the classroom are not only challenged by contemporary student behaviors, but also by other pedagogies which critique an authoritarian model of power in the classroom as being ineffective or unjust.  Examples of such critiques of power might be found in critical, or liberation, pedagogy, like the foundational Pedagogy of the Oppressed, or feminist theorists, like bell hooks in Teaching Community.  Works such as these examine how the classroom can re-inscribe unjust social stratifications and divisions, and they offer possibilities for how it can dismantle divisive structures.  Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach argues that educational structures governed by power over students are really governed by fear.

Fear, according to Palmer, creates structures of power that divide classrooms, students from teachers and from each other, to “protect us against one of the deepest fears at the heart of being human—the fear of having a live encounter with alien ‘otherness’” (37).  It is “to avoid a live encounter with students,” that teachers “hide behind their podiums, their credentials, their power” (38).  Yet, Palmer reminds us, the “creative conflict” brought about by the meeting of “divergent truths” has power to change both teacher and students.

Consider having a conversation, first with yourself, then with your students, about how power operates in your classroom.  Engage students in an analysis of the dynamics of authority and how authority shapes knowledge.  Invite them to share power, to analyze the power structures in the syllabus and co-create rules for learning together.  Talk with them about how power might be shared in the classroom to forge connections among the class community and the course material.

Waldeck, and other thinkers on power in the classroom, remind us of an important aspect of teaching:  power is, well, powerful.  The way we wield or share the authority we have over our students has a dramatic impact on the community of learning enabled (or disabled) in our classrooms.  The agency we share with or withhold from our students has the capacity to ignite learning or to quash its flames.

*The Reinert Center has an institutional membership to The Teaching Professor available to SLU faculty and graduate students.  Please email cttl@slu.edu for instructions on how to access it.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Bain, K.  (2004). What the best college teachers do.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.

Friere, Paolo.  (2004). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

hooks, bell.  (2003). Teaching community:  A pedagogy of hope.  New York:  Routledge.

Palmer, P. (1998).  The courage to teacher:  Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life.  San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Waldeck, J. (August/September 2014).  “Reflections on teacher power in the contemporary classroom.” 28(7), 1,4.


Image courtesy of http://www.magnapubs.com/newsletter/the-teaching-professor/