One teacher’s ethical use of power

iStock_000005088343XSmallGeorge W. Noblit, University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, had always believed that a teacher who wielded too much power created an oppressive classroom atmosphere that stifled the development and learning of many children. Acknowledging that classrooms are not democracies, Noblit, nevertheless, believed that in a good classroom, the difference in power between teacher and children was minimized. However, after spending one day a week for an entire year in a traditional teacher-centered primary classroom, Noblit now feels that “caring in classrooms is not about democracy – it is about the ethical use of power.”

Noblit describes the teacher in this teacher-centered classroom as a person who viewed her position not in terms of power, but in terms of responsibility. Her job was not to exercise control, but to see to it that her classroom worked and that all her students learned.

Generally, Noblit observed that this teacher used whole-class instruction with temporary, flexible groupings for skill development. Her classroom routines were well organized and carefully planned, and her explanations and demonstrations of problem-solving and learning strategies were effective. Frequently, her blackboard lessons were followed by whole-class practice and then by individual or small-group work. Paperwork was often supplemented with hands-on materials.

Contributing to common good of class

Apart from academics, students were expected to contribute to the common good of the class. Children performed many helpful daily tasks, and responsibilities rotated. Ineptness did not lead to losing the responsibility and privilege of a task. Instead, coaching helped children learn to do tasks skillfully. Also, children were allowed considerable latitude to figure out problems for themselves. Discipline was rarely an issue in this class despite the fact that children with serious behavior problems were often placed with this teacher. Noblit reports that this teacher promoted good behavior by establishing routines that helped children know what to expect. Instruction was carefully prepared to ensure that every student understood the assignment and knew how to do it. Children were reminded of rules and procedures frequently. When a student blatantly violated one of the written classroom rules (cooperation, consideration, communication, concentration), he or she lost the right to free time during the day. The worst infraction of classroom rules was to laugh at a student who did not know the correct answer.

One classroom routine involved doing things together. Whenever the teacher said, “Let’s do this together,” all the children became immediately more alert and focused on her. When she asked a question, all hands would go up. A child who answered a question incorrectly still received the teacher’s attention and good humor for that moment, and Noblit observed that it was not uncommon for that child to look around at classmates and smile. This teacher’s fundamental strategy with all her students was to lead them to the right answers, to smile and to praise their efforts. Above all, her students seemed to value the evident pride she took in them.

Emphasis on connectedness and solidarity

Noblit writes that this experience taught him that public evaluations of knowledge are not necessarily harmful to children. When a classroom context is defined in terms of connectedness and solidarity, rather than individual achievement, children and teacher are able to work together to “get it right.” This teacher used her power to create a secure learning environment, a place in which her students were encouraged and protected. Her routines provided continuity to the curriculum, and her relationship with her students demonstrated her faith in them. Her authority came from her commitment to creating an environment in which all her students could learn. And, because of the caring relationship she developed with them, her students did not challenge her authority.

“Power and Caring”, American Educational Research Journal, Volume 30, Number 1, pp. 23-38.

Published in ERN September/October 1993, Volume 6, Number 4.

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