We Are All Students, We Are All Teachers. Part 3: Authority Vs. Ego

Authority Vs. Ego

For my first lesson of the year, I like to post the below picture:

The boss would like to see you...
The boss would like to see you…

I then ask the students to answer two questions:

  1. Which person would you rather work for, a boss or a leader?  Why?
  2. Which type of teacher do you think Mr. Sugar wants to be?  Why?

I use the above questioning to set the tone for how the class should run.  I use it as a lead into expectations for student and teacher, as well as introduce the universal classroom rule: Respect Everything: The people, the materials, the content, everything.

As any kindergartner can tell you, public school teachers often have considerable age over their pupils.  This age difference has both positive and negative consequences. Learning from our life’s moments can provide us with unique wisdom in a multitude of situations.  As they say: with age comes experience.  Unfortunately, both tragic and joyous experiences affect psychological reactions in social situations.

As I have gotten older, I am more and more aware of the wealth of experiences that I have accumulated.  Obviously, this translates well when guiding young people.  When I teach my class about the War On Terror, for instance, I speak as someone with vivid memories of the 9-1-1 attacks.  Most of my students were babies when this event happened, so their knowledge of 9-1-1 comes from textbooks or the first-hand accounts of their elders.  Moreover, when I teach about the Neolithic Revolution (the human shift from hunter/gatherer society to a farming society), I am able to speak as someone with the opportunity to research the topic – even if I was not physically present 12,000+ years ago.  In this sense, my age is an advantage for teacher and student both.

Young people have advantages over their older teachers as well.  Students are often more in tune with what appeals to young people – popular culture and the like.  But also, they are able to remind us of what it was like to be a developing young person. Moreover, the student teaches the teacher.  If a student is struggling to master the content of a lesson, a conscientious teacher will change their instructional approach.

Experience allows us to speak with authority on academic content, yes, but experience also ideally prepares us to notice when we’ve reacted inappropriately in a social situation with a student.  I argue that as human beings, the best trait that human beings can have is honesty.  We all have bad days.  We all make mistakes in reacting to behaviors – and many of these reactions are generated by experiences we’ve endured previously in life.

Every public school teacher has had a student that goes out of their way disrupt the course of a lesson.  Some teachers are quick to yell or insult students.  Others prefer exile from class, detention, or out-of-school suspension for the same negative behaviors that in another teacher’s class would result in a call home or a parent-teacher conference.  As guides, role-models and mentors, we are not perfect beings.  A true role model demonstrates proper behavior of contrition when they make mistakes!

Is it June, yet?
Is it June, yet?

I admit that I have made horrible decisions in addressing negative student behavior!  In one case, I was disciplined for reacting inappropriately to one of my long-standing students.  It happened while I was reading a passage aloud to my class and a student named Ed decided to spit on my new sweater.  I had already asked Ed three times to stop interrupting the reading, and he responded by spitting on me.  In this case, I decided to roll up the piece of paper I was reading and swat Ed in the face with it.  It wasn’t hard, and I barely touched Ed’s cheek.

Ed’s reaction was extreme.  He stormed out of class and I was called down to the principal’s office.  It didn’t matter that Ed had spat on me – I was the teacher and I had touched a student inappropriately.  I would add that Ed’s family and I got along very well, and that he had been my student for a few years already (Ed was 18 years old at the time).  I called Ed’s father and apologized for my reaction.  Ed’s father apologized for my sweater, and also, spoke to the principal on my behalf!

From this experience, I learned that I have to maintain my professional facade at all times – even if I know the student very well, and no matter how the student acts.  I could have certainly addressed Ed in another fashion, but I believe it took this experience for me to understand the level of appropriateness in relating to students.  Also, I realized, that only a teacher would think that they could get away with swatting a student with a piece of rolled up paper and not generate some type of reaction.

From my experience with Ed, I understand the difference between authority and ego.  A student decides to learn (or not learn) from a teacher, based upon the authority of that teacher.  Teachers can demand respect, in order to suit their egos, or, they can command respect by the nature of their behavior.  The longer I teach, the more aware I am of the need to speak with an authority that respects my students.  The question is: how does a teacher derive that authority in healthy manner?

I'll make you an offer you can't refuse.
I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.

The answer, as far as I can tell, centers around how a teacher approaches the relationship between themselves and a novice.  An ole skool math teacher once told me: “Don’t let the students see you smile until the second semester.”  A fellow science teacher here at American High School is infamous for her torrential shouting at students and staff alike.  While these approaches may suit the ego of these teachers (and potentially even keep the class in line), I wonder what the psychological effect is on young learners?

According to 1980s linguist Stephen Krashen, language learning occurs when students are engaged – both consciously and subconsciously – in making connections between prior knowledge and new concepts.  He argued for the existence of an “affective filter”, or a multi-faceted psychological barrier that impedes language and content acquisition when students are: A) Emotionally Insecure B) Unengaged C) Under Anxiety. (Krashen 1988)  If students are intimidated, it is logical to posit that their minds are not operating at peak academic performance!

For reasons of academic scholarship alone, I argue against a Machiavellian classroom ruled by fear of the teacher.  If we must refer to a literary example, I would much prefer John Locke’s ideas of life and liberty.  After all, what would one teacher truly be able to do if 34 students decided to simultaneously walk out of the classroom?  For one, that’s a lot of paperwork and calls to parents.  Second, administration would immediately question what led up to said walk-out.  While a military academy may necessitate an authoritarian classroom model while training cadets for the stress of combat, public schools are academic institutions designed to foster the intellectual development of all pupils.  In this regard, students need an environment that encourages them to take risks and regard their teachers as guides, not totalitarian dictators.

“And then we said, finish it for homework!”

While a public school student, I myself experienced a great deal of anxiety from emotionally aggressive, socially disrespectful teachers. My anxiety was coupled with the influence of ADHD, which already caused tension between myself and certain types of teachers.  Some teachers couldn’t handle that I would inadvertently talk or read a book when I finished my worksheet early (to say nothing of the error of relying too heavily on worksheets).  Other teachers loved my level of energy and encouraged me to help classmates or read ahead in the textbook.  I will let the readers guess which of the two aforementioned classes I excelled in, and which classes I barely passed.

Remember too, that by their very nature, young people are developing their identities and feel a sense of insecurity about the world.  Each one of us recalls the awkwardness of adolescence!  So, I cannot help but question the reason that a teacher would try to shout-down or insult a student.  I admit that I have a sarcastic sense of humor, and that my students and I are known to trade a few barbs with each other.  This past week, one student said that I have a haircut like Count Dracula.  In reply, I asked the student whether that last insult was an example of a simile or a metaphor.

If a teacher gets into an argument with a student, the teacher can either immediately assume that they, as the adult, are correct – or – attempt to mediate the situation as the teacher would with a fellow adult.  By mediating, the teacher is not only able to evaluate where they may have erred in the social situation, but also, develops the respect of the student.  Some of my most loyal students have developed as a result of our disagreements.

So, true authority is developed over time by a teacher that demonstrates their commitment to the success of every student.  The teacher should have high behavioral and academic expectations.  Moreover, the teacher should explain the reason for these expectations.  Sound behavior is expected, so that pupils will know how to act professionally when the time comes.  Academic dedication is necessary, so that students learn as much as possible in preparation for more rigorous skills and concepts.

A student that falls short of either type of expectations should be guided respectfully by the teacher, and also, have the rationale for the expectations reiterated.  Should the teacher fall short of the class expectations – behavioral or academic – the student(s) involved deserve an apology, as well as a plan of how the teacher will repair the lapse in expectations.  This is the basis of professional, respectful behavior between adults – so why should it be any different between students and teachers?

Again, teaching is both modeling concepts and explicitly instructing them.  An adult teacher that makes a mistake must model appropriate behavior of how to rectify the mistake.  A teacher without an ego will do so willingly, because they have violated their own human morals.  Moreover, none of us are perfect.  It should not bruise our self-worth to admit when we made a mistake and then demonstrate what we learned from it.

In closing, I would like to return to the idea that all people are students and all are teachers.  My students have taught me a great deal: about the newest trends; how to speak to people outside of my age, gender and culture; and what students mean when they say “I can’t do this”, “this is boring” or “I don’t understand.”  They also have taught me about what they are afraid of as they move into adulthood.

All of these lessons have shown me that the traditional authoritarian model of public education is flawed.  Our classroom social dynamics, combined with a wealth of other indicators, has convinced me that the education system of the United States is broken.  In my next post, I will illustrate these indicators, in order to justify the need for an educational revolution in this country.

Scholarly Sources For This Post:

Krashen, Stephen D.  Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning.  Prentice-Hall International, 1988.

We Are All Students, We Are All Teachers. Part 2: What Is A Teacher? What Is A Student?

What is a teacher?  What is a student?

From a certain perspective, teachers in public schools have a great deal of power – at least over their students.  Teachers make and enforce classroom rules.  They define scholastic culture with procedures and teaching styles.  Teachers select course content, define assignments, and create grading rubrics.  Moreover, the ways that teachers act will be emulated by students, for better or worse.

But, essentially, what is a teacher?  I could argue that a teacher is simply someone with expertise in a content area valued by their society.  While the development of effective instructional methods is important, a teacher can simply be a person who is consulted by another human being to share their knowledge on a subject.

In our highly structured public school education system, the idea of teachers has been heavily loaded with a gamut of roles and responsibilities.  On any given day, this teacher is any of the following: a content expert, impromptu actor, copy editor, file clerk, test administrator, call center operator, contract lawyer, behavioral psychologist, security guard, interrogation detective, sports coach, parenting consultant, technology troubleshooter, mathematician, secretary, administrative assistant, sociologist, or custodian.  In any case, this teacher is a human being – no different than the students in a classroom.

So, what is a student?  Most simply, a student is a human being with the goal of learning a skill or content.  In our public school system, students must abide by expectations that are generally mandated by outside authorities.  Students are often expected to: take numerous timed exams; complete regular assessments with deadlines that correspond to instructional pacing guides; abide by academic standards determined by educational administrators; conform to behavioral expectations; and form some sort of personal identity within the broader school community.

Objectively, the difference between a teacher and student is that one is a content expert, while the other a novice.  In public school, however, there is a much larger context for the notion of what constitutes a student.  Within our present social constructs, the dynamic between teacher and student is complicated.

Frequently, there are vast age, gender, education level, class, race, culture, religious and economic roles that interplay classroom relationships.  While I cannot hope to qualify this interplay in one single post, I would like to mention some of these ideas in order to question the present social paradigms of education.  My next post, Ego Vs. Authority, will touch on age difference.  Future research and thought will certainly be dedicated to these other social sectors and their impact on education.

We Are All Students, We Are All Teachers. Part 1: Lak’ech


We Are All Students, We Are All Teachers.

In this thread, the author discusses social dynamics between teachers and students as the foundation of revolutionizing our educational system.

Part 1: Lak’ech

This week’s post illustrates the disparity between how educator/student social interactions occur and how they should be functioning for a healthy educational environment.

In the culture of the Mayan people, there is a concept called “Lak’ech.”  It means, roughly, “I am you, and you are me.”  A similar notion exists In the Christian bible: In John 13:34, Jesus says: “as I have loved you, love one another.” Even among secular folks, we have heard “treat others as you would like to be treated.”

As an ideal, these mantras seem like common sense.  We regularly see similar idioms on motivational posters, bumper stickers, and tee-shirts. Certainly, treating everyone equally, or at least respectfully, should be the goal of every moral person.

Of course, no one is perfect.  As human beings, we err, flaw, make mistakes, and act in regrettable ways towards each other.  It is the duality of humanity: just as we commit intense acts of beauty and kindness, so too are we capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty.   The ideal of Lak’ech therefore may seem far-fetched or naive, but arguably, character is developed through our acts of contrition when our behavior has been less than beautiful.  Moreover, is there anything wrong with striving for perfection, even if we may never quite reach sainthood?

All religious overtones aside, what does Lak’ech, Jesus Christ, or any other Hallmark card cliches have to do with education?  This author argues that we cannot hope to revolutionize our educational system until we develop a pedagogical perspective that respects all of the human beings involved in learning.

A constant complaint from fellow teachers is the behavior of certain students in their classes.  (Note: the author is not excluding themselves from said complaining).  In three years of teaching at American High School, I have been subject to a gamut of negative encounters with his pupils: I’ve been kicked, stabbed, scratched, shoved, cursed out, yelled at, spat on, stolen from, and had personal property vandalized.  Sadly, these are not unique experiences – every person I’ve met who has taught for a considerable length of time has a litany of their own behavioral horror stories.

Likewise, conversations with students have yielded their own litany of negative experiences with regards to teachers (to say nothing of their interactions with fellow students).  Every student I’ve ever known has had a teacher deliberately embarrass them in front of peers, had their intelligence or capability questioned, or been subject to punishments clearly banned under Federal Verbal Abuse/Corporal Punishment guidelines.

In my own public school experience, I recall my moment of greatest horror as a young student.  It was in 8th grade, attending Montgomery Village Intermediate School.  In the words of a few of my teachers, I was “one of the Ritalin kids.”  This meant that I had been medically diagnosed (an idea that will be discussed in later posts) as a student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  It meant that every day, after lunch, I was mandated to go to the nurse’s office and take 5 milligrams of Ritalin, so that I didn’t drive the people around me crazy.

Like many children, I often “forgot” to take my medicine at lunch.  This is especially true when I was socializing with friends, playing in the gym, finishing a chapter in a good book – or really any activity other than my daily reminder from the nurse’s office about my inability to sit through 51 minutes of note-taking from a passionless teacher with the emotional sensitivity of a rabid wolverine (or alternatively, drying paint).

On one particular fall day, I was extremely nervous and preoccupied.  The result was that I “forgot” to go to the nurse and take my ADHD medicine.  But, this particular fall day was important!  I had finally worked up enough nerve to ask Linda Suarez to be my date to the homecoming dance.  Linda was beautiful: long dark hair, clear skin, and liked to laugh at my jokes.   Linda also liked science, which was a bonus for an honors kid like me.  In 8th grade, I had a mouth full of metal braces, a thick “bowl hair cut”, and a Metallica tee-shirt for every day of the week.  Today was going to be the day.  I was going to ask out Linda, she was going to say yes, and I was going to be one of the cool kids for at least a week or two.

Me: Middle School (I’m on the right side of both pictures).



So, my conversation with Linda was going as well as a former 13-year-old can expect.  Like any 8th grade male, my palms were sweating, my voice had cracked, and I was debating whether or not to ask Linda out at all.  Just then, there was an announcement over the PA system: “Will Jacob Sugar come to the nurse’s office please.  This is the third day in a row that he has not taken his Ritalin meds.”  Realize that at MVIS, we had an old school.  They literally tore the entire school down the year after we graduated.  This old school (not ole skool!)’s PA system could not differentiate between classrooms.  When someone was called on the PA system, everyone in every classroom on every floor heard the announcement.

Needless to say, Linda didn’t go with me to the dance, and my entire town knew that I was on crazy pills.  As horrifying as this story was, I love telling it to people.  Students in my self-contained special education classes think it’s funny, and usually respond with a painful experience of their own.  Teachers usually gasp in horror, and a few have amended their treatment of “problem children” in response.

I also use this story to exemplify the potential negativity in the traditional teacher/student social dynamic.  As children and adults, we hope that teachers and students are able to have healthy social interactions that focus on the transfer of knowledge and communication of ideas.  Far too often, however, students are subject to the ego and negative behaviors of adults – who are themselves subject to a myriad of psychological pressures and systemic expectations in excess of their jobs as facilitators of learning.

Teachers and students alike are placed under a great deal of pressure to succeed on standardized tests, pass their classes, and facilitate/conform to school rules.  Students that fail to conform are met with punishments that sap their sense of self-worth and ability to succeed in life – even if said students’ learning profiles or lifestyle circumstances interfere with uniform school expectations.  Teachers are subject to the whims of their administrators – who are able to evaluate teachers with the same power as the teacher/student dynamic.  The result can be a rewarding life spent engaging students, or a fear for one’s sanity and fiscal stability.

In the next post(s), this author intends to ask the questions: “What is a teacher?” and “What is a student?”.  I will demonstrate that regardless of age, subject of expertise, or legally defined role, human beings in a classroom alternate between the role of teacher and student.  By proving that these positions are simultaneous for all people in a classroom, we can observe that there is no difference between teachers and students.   This critical analysis lends credence to the ideal notions of Lak’ech, and offers the necessary social foundation to revolutionize our education system.

Stay tuned for next week’s post:  “What is a Teacher?  What is a student?”