Academic journal article Childhood Education

Teacher Power: Who Has It, How to Get It, and What to Do with It

Academic journal article Childhood Education

Teacher Power: Who Has It, How to Get It, and What to Do with It

Article excerpt

Teachers wield a great deal of power in the lives of children and families. Thus, such power must be recognized.

When asked about the characteristics of effective teachers, preservice or inservice teachers frequently use the following terms: "knowledgeable," "fair, "dedicated," and "concerned for the well-being of all children." They rarely, if ever, mention that effective teachers are powerful. In fact, many teachers seem doubtful that "power" applies to effective teaching.

Perhaps the term "power" has a negative connotation among educators. We prefer terms such as "authority," "strength," or "capability." None of these options, however, carry the weight of POWER. Just what is important about "teacher power"?

First, a great deal of research illustrates that the teacher is a critical element of children's education (Ayers, 1989; Borich, 1993; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Think back to comments that teachers made to you. A comment like, "I'm impressed with your work" or "This is ridiculous" stays with a student for a long time - long after the teacher has forgotten it.

Definitions of power point to the capability of doing something, the possession of control over others, and delegation of authority. We also may consider power from the viewpoint of political or national strength - a national or local leader, for example. While educators emphasize the importance of preparing children for realizing their political strength as citizens (Dryfoos, 1995; National Association of State Boards of Education, 1991), little attention is given to the importance of individual teachers. Yet teachers do wield a great deal of power in the lives of children and families. Thus, such power must be recognized.

If delegated authority is one definition of power, then all teachers naturally possess it. Only those teachers who acknowledge and relate their power to teaching and learning, however, will be prepared to make the most of the authority granted them.

Power in Practice

In Teaching Adults (1986), Elizabeth Jones explains that adults working with children demonstrate power in three different ways: on children, for children, and with children. Jones points out that occasionally it is necessary to use power on children by telling them what to do; at such times, typically if children's safety is at stake, no choices are given. An example of such power is a teacher-made rule forbidding hitting or name calling.

Teachers demonstrate power for children when they advocate for them by providing meaningful curriculum with "intellectual integrity" (National Association for the Education of Young Children and National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, 1992), and by forming partnerships with families and community agencies (Washington, Johnson, & McCracken, 1995). Teachers who use their power for children are aware that educators are an important part of the community.

Many success stories have come about as a result of adults using their power for children's welfare. The story of Keels Elementary in South Carolina is a case in point (Berry, 1995). Threatened with the school's closing, the teachers at Keels used their power to improve and change their school. These teachers did not find their power in a "prepackaged curricular program" (p. 114). Instead, they seemed to find it within themselves. Indeed, their district superintendent referred to them as "the most direct group of teachers in South Carolina" (p. 115). The teachers at Keels challenge and critique each other and participate actively in the hiring of new teachers. Beyond providing excellence for students, these teachers have expected and, sometimes, demanded parental involvement. Berry's report indicates that teachers who demonstrate power exhibit the following characteristics:

* High motivation to change

* High self-esteem

* Creative problem-solving

* Assertiveness

* Deep commitment to students

* Understanding of children's needs

* High regard for professional development. …

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