Classroom Power Relations: Understanding Student-Teacher Interaction

By Mary Phillips Manke | Go to book overview
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Chapter 6
"Sally, Would You Like To Sit Down?" How Teachers Use Politeness and Indirect Discourse

"Sally, would you like to sit down?" If Sally is a visitor in my home or office, I might ask this as a genuine question, or at least a suggestion. Sally might answer that she'd rather stand and admire the view from the window, or that she'd been sitting for hours in the car and would prefer to stay on her feet for a while.

But suppose that Sally is a student, and I am a teacher, and I say, "Sally, would you like to sit down?" The most likely interpretation of what I have said is a direct command, "Sit down, Sally." The most likely result is that Sally will take a seat.

White ( 1989) pointed out that "unrelenting politeness" is an "institutionalized presence" in American public schools. Yet, as he said, everyone recognizes what lies behind the politeness--the institutionalized authority of teachers. Rare is the classroom where teachers and students have built power relationships in which a student need not attend to a command or request from a teacher (see Swidler, 1979, for descriptions of free schools where such rare classrooms existed). So what is going on when teachers who mean "Sit down," say "Would you like to sit down?" or "Please, will you sit down," or even, "I would like to get started"--yet children respond to what seem to be polite requests or neutral statements as though they were in fact commands? Why do my observations from three elementary classrooms in three different schools contain so many instances of teachers' contributing to the construction of power relations, not in overt or obviously authoritarian ways, but in ways that seem to soften the edges of their claims to control

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