Education is the training ground for citizenship and all students deserve a high quality educational experience, though some do not have access to such opportunities. Minorities and the poor often attend under funded schools with unqualified teachers (Darling-Hammond, L., 2004). In these classrooms white teachers, who make up the largest part of the teaching profession (Shealey, M. W, Lue, M. S., Brooks, M., & McCray, A., 2005), often misunderstand the cultural experiences and learning styles of students who do not look like them (Milner, 2007). Stereotypes and low expectations pile on top of the problems students bring with them from outside the educational environment, to impede their ability to focus on learning (Shipler, 2005). Students who do not excel in the classroom are labeled deficient, and/or placed in special education classrooms to be remediated (Dudley-Marling, 2004). Those who cannot navigate these hurdles are more likely to drop out, and dropouts are prone to more health issues, lower earning power, and incarceration (National Center for Education Statistics, Dropout rates, 2007).
Minorities and the poor are not the only students to face educational challenges. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students are hazed and marginalized in schools because their sexuality is seen as “other”. Teachers and curriculums do not address this way of being as acceptable, therefore silencing the needs of these students and opening doors for violence to occur (Loutzenheiser, L. W. & MacIntosh, L. B., 2004). Sexual harassment is common for female students as well, especially when compared to male students (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 2001). Females experience other forms of alienation in schools; they experience less attention in class, are judged more on what they look like than what they say, and have lower expectations placed upon them (Ornstein, P. 1994).
All of these roadblocks inhibit the student’s ability to learn and prepare to fully participate in our world. At risk students who experience high academic and social expectations, learn a classroom with an engaging teacher who uses a variety of teaching methods, attend a clean, safe school with a positive environment, and involved parents are more likely to succeed (Christle, C. A., Jolivette, K, & Nelson, M. 2005). All students should have this type of schooling, as well an opportunity to shape their own educational experiences (Wiggan, 2007). As democracy demands each citizen contribute her or his voice, schools must do the same; a sense of ownership and equal opportunities in the classroom will create an educational place where students feel valued, challenged, and supported; each student can then maximize her or his potential.
Society has given me a lot of power. As an educated, athletic, heterosexual, middle class, able-bodied, Caucasian, male in his 30’s, who was raised Catholic, speaks English, and is a natural born citizen of the United States, I benefit immensely from the power structures in our world and build upon those privileges given to me at birth: my race, gender, sexual-orientation, and citizenship. Beverly Daniels Tatum (2000) and Peggy McIntosh (1990) write that I have been riding a conveyer belt forward. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and other forms of prejudice are rooted in the belief that some people are better than others based on characteristics given at birth; but it is also stated that if you work hard you can overcome these deficits. Though, when you start the race behind, you have to work extra hard to catch up to those in the front. While we do value hard work in this country, it is the beautiful, skinny, athletic, tough, strong person who can dance, sing, and dunk that we truly praise.
Human dignity explains that we are have equal power in and through God; each person is valuable, not because of what they look like or what they can do, but because they are made in the image and likeness of God. This power is to be used with others, so all can become the best version of themselves. It means meeting everyone’s basic needs, both survival needs and thrival needs, allowing all to participate in decision-making, and protecting the weakest members of our community.
In the classroom I am given power over my students. All of the desks face me; I am the one expected to distribute knowledge to my students. My students are expected to follow my directions, and obey my rules. I am expected to give the assignments, grade the assignments, and determine who is successful and who is not. It is assumed that I am the expert who is called on to impart my wisdom on my students. Critical theorist, Paulo Freire (1993) writes that this style of education victimizes students, limiting both their potential and freedom. When one assumes that students bring little the classroom, both the teacher and the student miss opportunities to co-create knowledge. If the student’s voice is removed from the educational process, bell hooks (1994) explains that learning is oppressive.
My students bring experiences that I have not had; they have ideas, methods, and insights I did not think of. If I am not open to exploring with them, we both miss a community building opportunity where we can learn from and teach each other. Jonathon Kozol (2006) tells how students in classrooms where the teacher exercises power over them, lack creativity and the ability to critically reflect. Critical reflection is key to understanding how systems of power limit growth and marginalize some groups. Asking questions like: why; who benefits from this arrangement and who is penalized; whose truth is honored and whose stories are silenced; where did this knowledge come from; these questions challenge our assumptions and reveal bias within the system, that Freire (1993) says hurts both students and teachers. The Catholic Social teaching principle of subsidiarity states that institutional decisions should be performed at the lowest level, whenever possible, as long as they can be performed adequately. In my classroom, students have the opportunity to reflect on and interact with policies, procedures, and content.
When I use my power to oppress, limit, and/or control, I am hold others back and limit my own ability to become the best version of myself. My challenge is to step out from behind my podium and enact justice in my classroom. Freire (1993) explains that when students and teachers become co-learners and co-teachers, both parties are liberated. In this partnership we live out the principle of solidarity and subsidiarity. Together we listen to each other’s stories, co-creating knowledge, and critically reflecting on how we are impacted by the social structures of power. As a community of equals we move closer to the vision of Father Chaminade and we empower one another to become the best versions of ourselves we can be.
Self-reflection, critical inquiry, community building, and practicing acts of justice have helped me grow in awareness of how my use of power can empower, or limit another’s growth potential. I challenge my students to consider the power you have been given, both by society and by God. How do your actions affect others and how are you impacted by the structures of power in your life? What does it mean to become the best version of yourself, and to empower others to do the same? Who benefits from the systems of power in your life, and who is penalized? Whose stories are missing, and how are you challenging yourself to listen to and build community with those labeled other? Through critical questioning and deconstructing structures of power, I hope we will take small steps, together, to recreate the world more justly.
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