Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Autonomy, Respect, and Obedience
Observations from my own Teaching Practice

So, I was having a hell of a time finding an image for this post, when I ran into this weird little drawing in the google image results for "teacher." As my friend Erica points out, and as I don't know how I missed, it's clearly a drawing—or a schematic almost—of Jesus and the apostles. What interested me about it initially were the yellow lines over the "teacher" which seemed to indicate an authority that went beyond discipline and obedience towards something moral. The authority indicated, I now see, is a divine one, but, for a secular Jew & pantheist like myself, the distinction is minor. The vision is of teacher as purveyor not merely of knowledge but of wisdom and moral direction. Moral authority comes less from what one knows of morals than of how one's students view one.
Evidently, I am not efficient enough to simultaneously keep up with my new teaching schedule and post regularly to this blog, so instead of my usual essays, I’m going to start posting brief thoughts and observations arising out of my own teaching practice. These will come primarily from the pre-calculus class that I began teaching two months ago.

The class is held at a high-end private day-school, whose philosophy is Romantic—that is, permissive, individualist, and committed to teacher autonomy, student choice, and learning as the pursuit of truth and beauty. Sixteen students are enrolled in my class, which I think may be the perfect number for the instructional methods I’m using. The course content is loosely defined and oversight is minimal, so that within the (unfortunately brief) confines of my 45-minute block, I have a lot of freedom to teach what and how I like. Because my other weekly commitments are small, I have more time and energy than any full-time teacher could ever hope for to devote to planning and preparing my curriculum and to assessing student work. In short, I have the ideal conditions for rigorous, thoughtful pedagogical innovation, and the result is that I am teaching by far the best class I’ve ever taught.

If my reflections on the class appear at times big-headed, let me explain that I have been, in my estimation, the worst teacher in an entire school—incompetent, weak, and ineffectual—and if I am doing even a halfway decent job now, it is only because I have learned a little from my mistakes. I am still painfully aware of my shortcomings as a teacher, but the conditions of my pre-calc class—not only those factors listed above, but the cultural similarity between myself and my students, the maturity and intelligence of the students, etc.—show my teaching in the best possible light.

Increasingly, this is becoming a blog about pedagogy, and in that capacity I want it to be about good pedagogy. Plenty has been written about what is wrong with education, and I am greatly indebted in my knowledge of schooling and teaching to many fine writers on that subject, but that is not my project, and what I hope to present here are examples of excellence and innovation in education. Such examples are found in schools and classrooms all across this nation, and it is my great ambition to seek them out, to write about them, and to learn from them—but for now, I am busy with my own classroom, and so that’s what I’ll write about.

A couple weeks ago, I gave a quiz. Two students were absent on the day of the quiz, and the following day, I asked them to complete it for homework. One of them asked if they ought to take the quiz in the library—a common location for make-up quizzes. It was a question of routine procedure, but beneath that was one of trust. In the permissive context of the school in which I teach, I, with my residue of charter-school rigidity, my button shirts and leather shoes, come off as strict; so my student wanted to know if he should take his quiz in the library, so I’d know he wasn’t cheating.

One has to think quickly in these situations—hemming and hawing, no matter how minor the question at hand, undermines authority—and what I came out with was this: “You can take the quiz wherever you want. The point of this quiz is for us to find out what you know, so that I can know how best to teach you and you can know what you still need to learn. If you choose to vitiate that information by using knowledge that is not your own, then we won’t know what you know.” You can tell, by signals too nuanced to record in words, when a message gets through to people, and this one got through. The point was one of both trust and esteem: you’re mature enough, I was telling them, to take responsibility for your own learning, to choose where to take a quiz and to hold yourself accountable for taking it honestly. The school where I teach the class has neither grades nor detentions; the whole point of such a school is that learning should occur for its own sake, and this was the lofty vision that I was asking these two students to live up to. They were pleased, you could tell. When I used the word “vitiate,” one of them laughed a little; I doubt he knew the word, but I had chosen it on purpose, to show, by the elevation of my language, the high estimation I have of their character, the adulthood that I bestow upon them.

What I came away thinking about was respect. It was respect that I accorded them in letting them choose where to take their quiz, but it was the respect that they had for me, for the class, and for their own learning that made it possible for me to place this trust in them. Because of their respect, the permission I gave did not undermine or dissolve my authority but rather extended it, raised it from the individual and impermanent authority of a single teacher to the broad, collective authority of knowledge, learning, and intellectual integrity.

At play here is the relationship between classroom authority and moral authority, between obedience and respect. If one can once got hold of the students’ respect, one can continuously ask for their best, and they will proudly and gladly give it; when one has got only their obedience, they show themselves lazy, unwilling, and immature, working listlessly and giving up quickly. Without their respect, I could never have offered those two students such autonomy; the appeal to maturity would have become only a permission to cheat and a lure to deception; the result would have been a further weakening of the teacher-student relationship and a further erosion of my authority.

It is hard to get from obedience to respect. When we teachers lack the latter, we experience the former as a brittle, pathetic kind of authority. The conclusion that some Romantic pedagogues draw is that the two are opposing forces, that obedience is the tool of those who cannot get respect. My experience has been the opposite: that firmness and quickness and sureness of command (as long as that command is understood as reasonable and benevolent) is a necessary precondition for the development of respect.


  1. great thoughts! i agree that people often live up to your expectations, so treating them like adults will make them feel and act like adults.

  2. Thanks, ben and candle_face. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    I agree that one of the most important things a teacher must do is to set high expectations-- for behavior, for academic achievement, for maturity, for moral fiber. One must be careful, however, that students are set up to meet those expectations. If we treat kids like adults but create a classroom environment in which they are likely to behave like children, then we are doing them no good. If we entrust them with responsibility without inspiring them to meet that responsibility, then we are setting them up to fail.

    But how do we inspire respect? How do we create a classroom environment that engenders maturity? This is the really difficult part.

  3. Funny, I was just thinking about the military, as I often do these days, and the different styles and aspects of leadership in the military. For the most part, leadership in the military requires obedience only. For this reason, it is easily corrupted. But on rare occasions, leadership is "gung ho" style (in the original sense of military gung ho), which means:
    The leader shows respect to every soldier - even the soldier who seems unworthy of respect - by acknowledging that the lowliest soldier, if he takes his eye off the target, can get everyone else, including his commanding officer, killed. So the leader shows respect for the soldiers. The soldiers, who have little respect for themselves, see that their officer respects them and something happens: Which is, they want to be worthy of that respect. Therefore they bust their butts not to disappoint their leader's trust, because doing so means disappointing themselves in themselves. Of course, that's just the paradigm, but I am given to believe that it works in an extraordinary percent of cases.
    And it's not entirely surprising, because esteem and respect are the things that human beings crave above all else.
    (I recently read about a survey taken world wide asking people to choose their highest value among several values (including freedom, though I forget what else was on the list) and the winner was respect.)

  4. You make an interesting comparison, Leora. Analogies between education and the military typically disparage both—the former explicitly and the latter implicitly—using “military” as a token for reductive, oppressive authority, so it’s interesting to see a military-education analogy that leads in such a different direction. In fact, the analogy between the two institutions is a natural one, and we should expect more richness from it than is usually implied. After all, in few institutions are the character and quality of leadership and authority as important as they are in the school and the military; and despite the misgivings of many Romantic educators, few relationships entail an authority as unilateral as that between student and teacher or between soldier and commanding officer. In both contexts, stakes are high and decisions must be made quickly and frequently; though the consequences of failure are less immediate in the classroom, they are no less dire, for the very future of a democratic society rests on what occurs in the school—more directly, even, than on what occurs on the battlefield.

    The gung-ho style of leadership that Leora describes reveals the surprising compatibility between strictness and respectfulness in authority. In fact, as Leora explains, respecting one’s charges can actually increase the force of one’s authority and inspire harder work and readier obedience—but the conditions are crucial. If a teacher (or officer) attempts to show respect for students (or soldiers) who do not respect him, his gestures of would-be respect are transformed into gestures of deference. Rather than raising up the students towards the lofty position that they accord him, he instead lowers his already questionable status down below that of his charges.

    What this points to is the fact that respect must be reciprocal. We cannot receive respect from someone for whom we have none; we can feel feared, obeyed, even admired—but not respected. Respect does not imply symmetrical relations, but it does imply mutual esteem. Indeed, it is only because it is reciprocal that it has the power to lift up our own idea of ourselves.