A young teacher in Philadelphia I know recently liked one of those teacher posters on Facebook. It was one of the ones that was a “I am a no-nonsense teacher, here to make sure you learn” posters. It included the line, “My classroom is not a democracy,” and other chestnuts of autocratic teacher-language.
I want this teacher — and all teachers — to be better than that.
I want her to understand that the choices she makes as a teacher will be better if she listens to students, not just about the questions they ask about math or science or English, but the meta-questions they ask as well.
I want her to understand her authority as a teacher doesn’t come from being “tough,” but rather being caring.
I want her to understand that when we use language that denies students agency, there will be students in that classroom that will view us as more concerned with our subjects than with them, no matter how much we tell them that we can about them in other moments.
I want her to understand that, yes, we need to hold kids accountable for their work, but if we do not listen to why an assignment was missed, we may lose a moment to understand our students better.
I want her to understand that our classrooms are about the intersections of our needs and our student’s needs, and in too many classes, the question, “What do you need right now?” is never asked.
I want her to understand that structures can be democratic, so that students can learn how and when and why to use their voice in learning — and all — spaces.
I want her to understand that posters like the one she liked is dangerously seductive, because as a young teacher who doesn’t feel fully at home in her “teacher-self” yet, the idea that we can be the authoritarian figures in our classrooms feels comforting and empowering, but the empowerment that poster was offering comes at the cost of the agency of our students.
I want her to understand that she can be a teacher who has the respect of her students, who can create smart systems and structures that allow all students to learn, who can have a classroom that is a place of powerful learning, and who can listen to students’ needs at the same time. And while that might seem really daunting, especially in that first year, it is always, always worth it.