I ain’t gonna do you wrong . . .
All I’m askin’ is for a little respect . . .
Or you just might walk in and find out I’m gone. — Otis Redding
On the Faculty Focus website in April 2011, Ellen Smyth wrote on what students want from teachers. Number one on the list? Respect. I know from experience what a difference a little respect between teacher and student can make.
Years ago at a four-year university, I taught a class of students who were not eligible for acceptance during the regular school year. They could enroll during the summer in a preselected set of courses, and if they earned satisfactory marks, they could attend full-time.
I was halfway through my master’s degree. Compared to my workload, the homework I assigned my freshman students seemed paltry. One day, several students complained about their enormous burden of homework, and I wrote on the board, Welcome to college. Some students laughed; others subsided into offended silence.
After that, several students started meeting together to list my faults and offenses. They felt that I had singled out one girl for unwarranted criticism. Encouraged by these classmates, she lodged a complaint against me. After an administrative review, the complaint was dismissed, but I still wondered what I could have done to redirect the course of events.
Some antagonism had been manifested during class, in snarky comments or flat-out refusals to participate in class discussion. Control was my safety net. I increased my restrictions on in-class behavior and refused bathroom breaks or deadline extensions. Once, to comply with administration requests that faculty enforce dress policy, I privately reminded a female student that skirt hems must reach the knees. This was the student who lodged the complaint.
In the fallout afterward, this student revealed that she was an abuse survivor and a graduate of the foster care system. Through her hard work, she had won legal emancipation at age seventeen. In her eyes, I had abused my authority in the classroom, and she wanted to bring me to justice.
She did not know that I, too, was an abuse survivor—only, I had not yet learned to embrace new patterns of power. My efforts to maintain control in the classroom were modeled on the dysfunctional power play I had grown up with. At that time, I felt that I had done my best to maintain order, and this student and her friends had betrayed my trust.
Eventually, I recognized that we both had repeated old patterns of abusive behavior, but I had a greater responsibility to resolve our conflict equitably. As little power as a graduate student instructor had, it was greater than that of a student with a difficult and lonely history, completing a probationary term at a large university, with no automatic right to stay. Author and educator Mike Rose would agree that hers was a “life on the boundary” in ways mine never was.
Later, as a doctoral student, I found myself on the other side of the table from a professor who had singled me out for public criticism and punishment. At first, I tried to placate the professor; as she herself pointed out, if she did not recommend me for employment after graduation, who would?
Over and over during the awful months when I was bound to her, I wondered why my status as a student did not earn me the right to a little wiggle room. Whenever I came to a conclusion that the professor did not share, she publicly excoriated me and sometimes assigned months of work toward reparation; because, as the professor told me, I had “not shown sufficient remorse.” But as a doctoral student, I reasoned, my job was to question what those in authority told me: I was meant to test assumptions, reason things out for myself, see the world in a new way. If I could discover nothing new, I would have no reason to call myself an independent scholar.
For over a year, all my attempts to renegotiate or extricate myself from our working relationship failed. The professor isolated me from administrators and other professors who might have helped me. In the end, in order to escape her control, I changed my focus of study; but by then, I had learned to be wary of anyone in authority over me—including my final dissertation committee, all of whom offered me nothing but gentleness, courtesy, and help.
After graduation, I began teaching part-time at a local community college, instead of full-time at a research university. I needed time to recover, to breathe, and to understand what it was I had really learned or accomplished during my doctoral program. I thought it would be easy to pick up where I had left off, teaching freshman composition.
But my troubled doctoral experience changed my understanding of the student role. My nurturing, supportive, final dissertation committee had taken pains to involve me in the work of the Community Informatics Initiative (CII), which applied principles of inquiry outlined by progressive thinkers such as John Dewey and Jane Addams. Through my work in the CII, as well as the grassroots organizing I led for my dissertation research, I developed a passion for the rights of the learner. I committed myself to teaching and engaging in the inquiry process in order to honor the rights and responsibilities of all learners: especially my students, my peers, and myself.
Over the next two years, I revamped my curriculum to reflect my new focus. I took more risks in the way I presented myself to my students; I admitted when I made mistakes, I offered to negotiate classroom policies, I asked for input for designing assignments and activities. I took as my mantra a quotation from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “the pedagogy of the oppressed [is] a pedagogy which must be forged with, not for, the oppressed (be they individuals or whole peoples) in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity.” Personal experience had taught me that if there is anyone who can be oppressed easily and without consequence to the oppressor, it is a student.
If any individual freedom is to survive, it must be protected by those in power. I sought to ensure for my students the right to question, not only societal norms or movements, but any commonly accepted authority, including myself. However, in order for students to be willing to risk challenging the instructor, they must believe there is something worthwhile to gain. In a teacher-student relationship without trust, this kind of challenge is a bid for freedom from oppression. I hoped that, if I gave my students reason to trust me, their challenges to my authority would be spurred by honest curiosity and a belief that I was there to help.
In the past few years, that hope has been borne out. My students now ask more interesting questions and sometimes challenge the authority of my statements, usually in good humor. But surprisingly, I find that my primarily low-income, racial and ethnic minority students interpret my “revolutionary tactics” as something much more basic and profound: a little respect for the knowledge, skills, and personhood that they already possess.
Community Informatics Initiative. A research center at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrievable from http://www.cii.illinois.edu/
Dewey, J. (2005). How we think. New York: Barnes and Noble. (Original work published 1910).