Does fear = power?

School is over for the students but it continues for me as I take several professional development classes this week. I’ve already picked up several useful tidbits that I definitely will try to incorporate into my classroom next year.

There was one random comment that an instructor threw out to us yesterday that caught my attention. It was said in the course of the free flowing conversation that branched off from the official topic. My paraphrase of the instructor’s observation was: There’s little real power that a teacher has over students in the classroom anymore. The only real power is that of “the grade.” And this power derives from one or more of three fears students have: fear of grades, fear of teacher, fear of parents. The fear of grades comes from a student simply wanting a particular grade such as desiring a high grade or needing a passing grade. If the student is ho-hum about grades, then, hopefully, the student fears what the parents might do if the student performs poorly. I’m not sure I understood what fear the teacher translates into. Perhaps fear of the teacher passing or failing the student?

calvin gradeBut the main point the instructor had was that if the student has no fear of any of those three things, then the teacher realistically has no power over that student. I initially agreed completely. I had one such student who truly didn’t care about any of those three things. Without getting into the specific grade, I’ll just say that the students’ final grade barely even registered it was so low. Did I have any power over that student? I guess that depends on what your definition of power is. I had a rapport with the student and we had many conversations about the uncaring attitude toward grades and even graduating. The student was open with me and I understood where the student’s attitude came from. Of course, I didn’t agree but I still showed the student respect as a person.

No, I didn’t have power over the student’s education. But I still felt I had influence. The student was respectful in my class and toward me. The student obeyed my rules. I’ve heard that the student wasn’t that way with all teachers. As the year progressed the student would even participate in activities that were of interest. There were a couple of times would the student asked what would happen if (insert scientific scenario here). Unfortunately, the questions were always completely off of the current topic. But each time, I said “Let’s find out” and I ran a mini experiment with the student when time and circumstances permitted. Heck, why not? The student was curious and I tried to help satisfy that curiosity. Grades had no value for the student but there was still a spark of wanting to know.

So, given more thought on the subject, I don’t agree quite as completely with the instructor. Having mutual respect in the classroom can result in a type of power in the classroom. Caring about students, listening to students, and being flexible to some degree can give the teacher the power to manage a classroom. If you want power for power’s sake, simply because you want to be in complete control, then I think relying on fear is the only way to get there. That’s not me, though.

However, I need more than my one year of experience to test out my philosophy. I had a few students that upon reflection I think I was too lenient with. With them in mind I plan on being stricter in some regards next year. I believe in give and take but those few students took more than they gave.

Anyway, I wanted to wrestle this reflection on “fear” into written form so that it would stop bouncing around randomly in my head. Feel free to offer your thoughts.