The Power Struggle

A teacher’s voice:

I have this one student who is disruptive and consuming of my time. He has not been diagnosed with anything, but he has major behavioural issues and obsessive tendencies. He often doesn’t want to engage in the work and then tends to disrupt and annoy the other children, swear or lash out in class. It stresses me out. I need to keep my eye on him at all times but I also have students that need attention because they’ve been upset by his actions.

With the help of my leaders, I have put some strategies in place to help manage the behaviour but that takes time in itself, and they don’t always work. For example, the other day he refused to move from a chair after I asked him to. I asked again and the reply was, ‘no’. He kept saying no and what could I do? I called the office.

Another teacher has said to me, ‘you look like you have it all under control’. I don’t feel that way. It happens often enough that each day on the way to work I’m afraid of what might happen next. I’m pretty calm in my approach to it but in my mind I’m not calm at all.

At a meeting, my leaders and I started writing down all of the issues, and it was the first time I felt like we were working on this process together. It became clearer what is expected of the student and me.  I don’t think the expectations of the student are unreasonable but at the same time, I’m not sure that they are possible.

The message that I often hear is that I am expected to have tight control of the class; for example, if all of the kids are sitting on the floor and one or two are sitting at desks that would reflect poorly on me, even if I have a good reason for the seating arrangement. It’s my job to keep the class calm but because I am trying to control the class and control him, and he is pushing back, our relationship is suffering. I am distancing myself from him. And because I have to call the office more regularly we’re not having the lengthy conversations that we used to. Not that those conversations would have ‘fixed’ things, but at least there was an opportunity to connect.


Jean’s voice:

This story features a struggle common in teaching — keeping control. The teacher in this story is caught in a double bind. Conformity is often seen as a form of control so the teacher is expected to ensure students conform, but by doing so a difficult to manage student becomes even more difficult to manage. The teacher states: ‘what could I do?’ in recognition of how limited a person can be in controlling another — in a classroom all members have agency — the power of choice and action.

Teachers are typically expected to keep the classroom calm but to meet this expectation a teacher would need to ‘control’ others’ emotions. Teachers may influence emotion in the classroom but so too can students, creating a collective emotional contagion. The teacher is yearning for balance in the classroom dynamic. Some years it is mostly achievable but in others finding balance in a classroom can be an ongoing battle. In those years maybe all we can do is acknowledge that it’s normal — and inevitable — to not always feel calm and in control.

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