Teaching and Learning as Collaboration, not Antagonism

James Baldwin wrote in 1966 about the antagonistic relationship between Black Americans and the police; his willingness to interrogate that dynamic provides a powerful framework for rethinking the antagonism between educators and students. (The Nation)

Teaching in my third academic year impacted by the Covid pandemic, I am feeling nostalgic for some (but not all) of the pre-pandemic dynamics in the classroom.

My university established and followed strict protocols throughout the 2020-2021 academic year that allowed many courses to be taught face-to-face (while professors were allowed to teach remotely and courses provided many hybrid opportunities to address student needs). But last year was a very stilted teaching and learning experience with faculty and students fully masked and social distancing (maintaining the six-feet requirement typical pre-vaccine).

This fall we are face-to-face, masked, but not social distancing; therefore, I am enjoying being able to do small group work in class again. A return to semi-normalcy in the classroom means that Monday, as my first-year writing seminar students formed groups to discuss their reading of Baldwin, I waited a few minutes before strolling around the room to listen to the discussions.

Anyone who teaches knows what happened; as I approached each group, students fell silent, and several looked up, concerned.

I always take these moments to begin a discussion about the antagonistic relationship that exists between teachers and their students. Students admit that a teacher approaching makes them afraid they are doing something wrong, even when they are fully engaged in the assignment.

Many of us who went through teacher training or conduct teacher training have discussed walking toward students as a classroom management technique.

It does work, but we rarely unpack why and almost never interrogate that the technique should not “work.”

My first-year students at a selective liberal arts college (having almost all been very successful in K-12, either straight-A students or close to that) are quick to acknowledge the many ways that they feel antagonism from and toward their teachers. From dress codes to bathroom restrictions to grading policies to late-to-class rules—students find the school days filled with landmines policed by their teachers.

Of note is how difficult it is for first-year college students to shift away from student behaviors (raising hands, asking to go to the bathroom) and toward autonomous adult behaviors (we explicitly focus on the difference between access to going to the bathroom in high school and college).

Part of this reductive and dehumanizing dynamic is the prevalence of uncritical embracing of simplistic behaviorism grounded most vividly in the punishment/reward elements of school rules and grading.

Despite my commitment to creating a classroom environment driven by collaboration and not antagonism, students still primarily experience antagonistic relationships with their teachers/professors when learning formally.

As a professor, I witness that reality because of one of the worst aspects of the teaching profession—educators publicly shaming student behaviors.

When I started teaching high school in 1984, I quickly learned to avoid the teachers’ lounge, where my colleagues tended to gather and endlessly rail against (by name) students that I taught (and loved). What I noticed was a proclivity for teachers to angrily berate teenagers for behaving like teenagers.

One of my fortunate gifts as a teacher is that I chose to teach high school and that I genuinely love teenagers because they have reached an early stage of adulthood but also maintain some of the most endearing qualities of childhood. I very much enjoyed discovering and unpacking the world with teenagers who found everything to be new (even as I realized that none of it was new).

Jump about four decades later, and I see that played out just a bit differently on social media, where teachers and professors routinely hold forth in anger about a student’s email asking if they missed anything when absent. This sort of public (although anonymous) student shaming seems to be common at the beginning and end of semesters so there has been a flurry of them over the past few weeks.

Tip toeing the line of subtweeting, I Tweeted this yesterday with those type of social media posts in mind:

Later, I added this:

Throughout my career as a high school teacher and now a college professor, I have worked diligently to be student-centered in the way that honors the autonomy and human dignity of my students; I have also embraced Paulo Freire’s concepts of choosing to be authoritative and not authoritarian as a teacher, parent, and coach.

This critical commitment has often been well embraced by my students (although not all of them) but rebuffed by many, if not most, of my colleagues. A typical criticism I hear (which I confront in the second Tweet above) is that if adult authority figures are not authoritarian, students will take advantage of them.

The nasty (and false, I think) Puritanical belief that humans (especially children and teenagers) left alone will behave in base and selfish ways seems to be how many teachers/professors view their students. This deficit perspective is pervasive in education, often manifested as racism, classism [1], sexism, and agism but masked as “necessary” lest we lose all control!

I firmly reject that my job as a teacher is to “fix” inherently flawed young humans and instead embrace that to teach is to provide the guidance necessary for young people to develop their autonomy and recognize their and other’s basic human dignity.

Over almost 40 years of teaching, I have had very few students attempt to take advantage of me, and most of them have suffered the consequences they deserved for that behavior while many of them have directly reached out to me over the years to apologize.

A low-stakes teaching and learning environment has allowed me to be very demanding, having extremely high standards for students, and I have found that students respond well to high expectations couched in clear expectations, detailed support and feedback, and patience paired with firm guidelines for student behavior and artifacts of their learning.

I have documented on social media several times that my students submit work on time at well over 90-95% rates although I do not grade assignments and do not record or deduct for late work. Almost all the work that is late can be traced tp legitimate reasons (the types of real-world justifications for late work that adults enjoy).

Students and educators deserve a teaching/learning environment grounded in collaboration and not antagonism—where everyone has their autonomy and human dignity honored, and even celebrated.

If K-12 and undergraduate students already knew and behaved in all the ways adults want, why would they need to be in our classes?

When Student Y sends a preposterous email, our job as educators is to teach the student why it is preposterous, and how to engage with another human in ways that show respect to both the student and the teacher.

And that teaching—even when our last nerve is tested—must be as patient as possible, although firm, and our students must trust that we are here to work with them for their success, not to police them for their flaws until they are properly “fixed.”

At its core, I think James Baldwin’s view of policing serves us well here: “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.”

And so, many days while teaching, I explain to students that I work for them, and when all is going as it should, I actually am there to work with them.

None the less, every time I walk toward a small group of students, they fall silent and look up, faces expecting antagonism and not yet sure we are there for the same thing—whatever any student needs to live autonomous lives where their human dignity is seen and appreciated.

[1] See:

The return of the deficit signifies a depressing symmetry in demographic trends and public policy. Deborah Stone (1997), writing on the art of political decision­making, argues that “political reasoning is [about] metaphor­making and category­making . . . strategic portrayal for persuasion’s sake, and ultimately for policy’s sake” (p. 9). Portraying disproportionate school failure among Black and Hispanic youth in terms of “personal troubles” (Mills, 1959) or cultural deficiencies sustains public policies that emphasize individual self interest and personal responsibility (e.g., welfare reform, high stakes testing), leaving no reason to consider the effects of poverty and discrimination or underfunded schools and deteriorating facilities on children’s learning.

Dudley-Marling, Curt (2007) “Return of the Deficit,” Journal of Educational Controversy: Vol. 2 : No. 1 , Article 5.
Available at: https://cedar.wwu.edu/jec/vol2/iss1/5