“Although my power to end the conversation when I deemed it appropriate affirms that I never completely ceded my authority as teacher, there was nonetheless a moment in class when I felt as if my story was no more or less important than others.”
- Marc Lamont Hill, Beats, Rhymes and Classroom Life
In his book, “Beats, Rhymes and Classroom Life,” Marc Lamont Hill speaks about an experience he had as a graduate student researcher slash quasi alternative-education high school teacher once, when he felt compelled by the direction of a particular classroom dialogue and decided to share his own story in an authentic and vulnerable tone. The encounter was a high tide moment in his classroom and one that forged relationships and a classroom dynamic that students would often recall in later class sessions. When it comes to teachers sharing personal stories, most teachers who work today could rarely speak about an experience in which they divulged personal information in front of a classroom full of their students. Yet, we hope to build authentic relationships amongst our students and expect them to blindly take any advice we give them. We want our students to relate to us but are unwilling to move off of our savior-like self-image and actually share our own stories with students. Rather, we assume we are fulfilling the deed of the quality educator by simply listening to our students’ stories and advising them from some omniscient vantage point of the “objective” teacher. The student-teacher relationship is not in such a flailing state yet, but with increased standardized testing and progressive policies that push the teacher into more of a robot-like role, the future of the classroom doesn’t look the most hospitable.
Educators can become “just another equal voice” in the classroom without ceding authority as teacher but most are unwilling to even take up this opportunity. How many times have you used your own personal stories to prolong, extend, or enrich the classroom dialogue? Probably never, and that is because traditional pedagogical “customs” generally oppose this discretionary action. As rich as our conversations in class become, most teachers settle with the role of the one-sided listener who conducts the conversation onwards when “necessary” and pauses when he or she feels there is a potential for “teachable moments.” But even when these teachable moments arise, how much are we willing to let our human vulnerability slide into those classrooms we preside over? We are all “unhealed” in the sense that imperfection blesses us all. But one philosophical question pertaining to teaching lies at the feet of our ignorance to critically re-examine what a “teacher” must dictate.
Always listening but never relating
I am getting at something beyond the current pedagogical tropes of what the “lead learner” entails. I agree, teachers need to be “lead learners” in the classroom, taking on the head of the class yet giving students agency and space to create but we must re-envision what that lead learner entails.
The lead learner should not only oblige his position. He must always be aware of his power within the classroom and must try, at many opportunities, to trouble the notion of being the “sole holder” of the helm. The teacher potentially usurping his power as a teacher by engaging in dialogue that is typically reserved for students only is a radical move in public schooling. What will this lead to? Most will prophesize that a pedagogical direction that ultimately makes the “teacher” more lax in his classroom role would simply lead to ultimate chaos and there is valid fear there but let us also think about the possibilities.
Sure, a teacher giving up his grounds as the authority in the classroom has the possibility of leading to degenerative classroom experiences but what if it goes right? What if the teacher becomes equal to his pupils, still withstanding in his integrity and innately affirming his confidence through his degrees and the scholarly literature he has consumed over the years, as well as sheer adulthood? What if students think they have an open door to anarchy due to the non-traditional dynamic of the class but they choose to still listen and learn? What if teachers step down from the pulpit of simply being voyeurs into classroom dialogue and engage students from a vulnerable space of “not knowing” everything and a compassionate space of truly relating? Is that not a possibility to the teacher who has developed full reigns on his classroom?
These questions lead to a more tangible one: How would our educational experience transform if we stopped one-sided listening and started divulging and relating to our students?
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