Understanding power play

Gita Krenek

I’m going to begin this article with a little story.

Long ago, in the days of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain was given a task: he had to break some kind of spell. In order to do this, he had to find out what it was that women wanted almost of all. He travelled throughout the country, asking every woman he met. All the usual answers – jewels, fine clothes, a handsome husband, love – did not do the trick. Then one day he came upon an old woman on the road. Her answer was: power. Needless to say, the spell was broken.

gita-1 The desire for power is of course not confined to women. We can witness little power struggles everywhere. Here is an example that you will see in any little roadside chai shop/restaurant. The customer wants a drink; without looking up, he rudely shouts “water”. He thus demonstrates his dominance over the lowly waiter. The waiter however has to regain some sort of self-esteem, which he does by attempting to assert himself in the only way available to him: he bangs down the glass of water with a scowl.

We can see this kind of power play enacted between teacher and student in just about any classroom, any day. The student feels put down by the teacher – made to feel powerless, disempowered – and the only way to feel better about him/herself, to assert his/her own feeling of worth, is to put someone else down (either the teacher or another student).

What kind of behaviour would we expect to see in someone who feels disempowered, and who is trying to assert themselves?

  • Disrespect towards the teacher (shouting out answers, inappropriate behaviour, impertinent comments, showing off).
  • Deliberate disobedience. There is an enormous feeling of power, a rush of adrenalin, in defying the teacher. For some children, stubbornness and disobedience can be a way to regain some feeling of their own power.
  • Dominating behaviour in the playground, such as pushing and shoving, fighting, taunting, bullying.
  • Constantly drawing attention to the misdemeanors or shortcomings of others, often with an accusingly pointed finger.
  • Having to be the best/fastest/strongest, each person trying to outdo the other in an aggressive, pushy way. Showing off, gloating about success.
  • Disharmony in the class as a whole.
  • Switching off and feigning nonchalance when being spoken to. “I’m not going to take the slightest notice of what you say.”

What kinds of attitudes and actions disempower a child?

  • Regarding each child simply as one more cog in an impersonal machine takes away his/her sense of self-worth.
  • A child who is not coping easily with classwork will feel a sense of helplessness if he/she does not receive the support from the teacher that s/he needs in order to keep his/her head above water. Maybe it’s no co-incidence that the children who most often engage in a ‘power struggle’ are the ones at the bottom of the class, who therefore feel useless.
  • A child will feel insignificant and ignored if his/her efforts to perform to the best of his/her ability are not acknowledged.
  • Paradoxically, our own desire to help children can actually increase a sense of powerlessness. I am referring to well-intentioned actions such as doing things for them that actually they can do – or want to learn to do – for themselves. This could be anything from undoing buttons to solving all their problems for them to having low expectations (“That will be too hard for you.”)
  • Imagine you are at a training workshop. You have been asked to make a circle. You are not quite in the right place. Instead of saying “Mamta, could you move to your right please?”, the instructor grabs your arm and drags you into place. How would you feel? Think about it. No, really think about it.
  • How we speak to a child betrays our attitude to him/her and can have a huge effect on that person’s self esteem. How would you feel if your principal only spoke to you in instructions and commands? Would you feel boosted in your morale, confident, secure in your knowledge that you are a valued member of the team? Or would you feel insignificant, anonymous, undervalued?
  • Of greater concern are deliberate put-downs by the teacher towards a recalcitrant student. There is a big difference between condemning an action and condemning a person. Deliberately making someone feel bad about himself – feel that he is not a good person – should have no place in our dealings with other people. Don’t be surprised if you get plenty of negativity and self-asserting behavior in return.
    And by the way: if you have a need to make others feel small, ask yourself: who is putting me down, that I need to put someone else down in order to feel better about myself?
  • Being shouted at is extremely disempowering.
  • One part of school life, which I only hear about (as we don’t do this in our school) and which strikes horror into my heart, is military-style lining up and marching. Think about it: what is the whole point of ‘drill’ in the army? It is to instill mindless, unquestioning obedience to an imposed command. An army cannot function unless soldiers obey robotically; there is no place for individual personalities. Is this how we want to train young minds? But far more importantly: this mindless ‘discipline’ robs the person of his sense of individuality. He feels – as he is supposed to feel – dehumanized and powerless.

gita-2 What kinds of words and actions can we employ to minimize children’s feelings of powerlessness?

  • Children need to feel that you recognize them with their own aptitudes, weaknesses, and personality, and that you accept them for who they are. Be interested in each child as an individual, then the child will feel understood. Really listen, take them seriously.
  • Do you greet the children as they arrive at school? Some teachers like to stand by the classroom door and grasp the hand of each child as s/he enters the room. Or at least, rather than just walking in and starting the lesson, you could start the day by saying “Good morning” to the class, thus acknowledging that they are real people and not just insignificant bodies behind desks.
  • Look into their eyes (in a non-threatening way) when you speak. Don’t talk at them.
  • Avoid instructions and commands as much as possible. You can say the same thing in a way that does not sound dominating. For example, instead of saying “Make a circle”’ you can say “Let’s make a circle”, or “Can we…?” “Now we are going to ….”, “I would like you to ….” It’s a small change of wording with a big effect.
  • Keep your voice calm and mellow at all times. Take aggression out of your tone of voice.
  • Avoid shouting. Instead of yelling, “Everyone be quiet and listen”, have a signal to gain attention. It could be auditory – eg. a few runs down a xylophone (I play a phrase on my little flute) – or a clapping rhythm, or a phrase that you say and the students say an answering phrase (eg. “One two” “Eyes on you.”)
  • Acknowledge the child’s humanity by using “please” and “Thank you”. Remember, a child will imitate you. If you show your power by demanding, the child may try to regain his power by demanding (your attention, for example).
  • Don’t impose your solution when dealing with conflicts. Usually one person will feel wronged and resentful, and therefore disempowered. Teach children how to resolve their own conflicts – with your help if needed.
  • Let them make their own choices and decisions. Allow them to take (calculated) risks. You don’t need to micro-manage their life.
  • Figure out what to do with students who are getting left behind. These children often have other (unacknowledged) skills, such as art or sport, or simply doing practical, helpful activities. How can you let them gain self-esteem through what they can do?
  • Train children to enter and leave assembly (or wherever) quietly, in an orderly manner (no pushing) but without regimentation.

Is it necessary for the teacher to reduce his/her own power?
Some educators argue that in order for the child to become ‘empowered’, it is necessary for the teacher to reduce his own ‘power’. They see the teacher’s ‘power’ as ‘telling children what to do’ and being maintained by rewards and punishments. This is, I believe, a fundamental misunderstanding. The teacher’s ‘power’ comes not from the rules or punishments he imposes but from a deep centre within himself, from being calm, confident, knowing that he is in control. Such a teacher will not need to use rewards or punishments, and will not constantly give commands. He will speak quietly, but firmly. The children will co-operate without fear. They will be keen to do as he asks, out of respect. He is able to maintain his ‘power’, without totally ‘disempowering’ the child. Thus in order for the child to become ‘empowered’, it is not necessary or desirable for the teacher to reduce his own ‘power’.

‘Power struggle’
In the phrase ‘power struggle’, perhaps the word ‘struggle’ is as important as the word ‘power’. Sometimes at the end of the day, we feel exhausted, we feel the whole day has been a ‘struggle’. If that sounds like you, is there anything you can do differently in order to minimize the children’s perceived need to ‘struggle’ against you, and your need therefore to engage yourself in that ‘struggle’?

The author has taught English to school children in Austria and Ecuador and to young adults in India. At present she is working as a volunteer in a small NGO-run primary school for rural children in the foothills of the Himalayas. She can be reached at gitakrenek@gmail.com.

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