Posted in Power, Sociology, Students, Teaching

Willard Waller on the Power Struggle between Teachers and Students

In 1932, Willard Waller published his classic book, The Sociology of Teaching.  For years I used a chapter from it (“The Teacher-Pupil Relationship“) as a way to get students to think about the problem that most frightens rookie teachers and that continues to haunt even the most experienced practitioners:  how to gain and maintain control of the classroom.

The core problems facing you as a teacher in the classroom are these:  students radically outnumber you; they don’t want to be there; and your power to get them to do what you want is sharply limited.  Otherwise, teaching is a piece of cake.

They outnumber you:  Teaching is one of the few professions that are practiced in isolation from other professionals.  Most classrooms are self-contained structures with one teacher and 25 or 30 students, so teachers have to ply their craft behind closed doors without the support of their peers.  You can commiserate with colleagues about you class in the bar after work, but during the school day you are on your own, left to figure out a way to maintain control that works for you.

They’re conscripts:   Most professionals have voluntary clients, who come to them seeking help with a problem: write my will, fix my knee, do my taxes.  Students are not like that.  They’re in the classroom under compulsion.  The law mandates school attendance and so does the job market, since the only way to get a good job is to acquire the right educational credentials.  As a result, as a teacher you have to figure out how to motivate this group of conscripts to follow your lead and learn what you teach.  This poses a huge challenge, to face a room full of students who may be thinking, “Teach me, I dare you.”

Your powers are limited:   You have some implied authority as an adult and some institutional authority as the agent of the school, but the consequences students face for resisting you are relatively weak:  a low grade, a timeout in the back of the room, a referral to the principal, or a call to the parent.  In the long run, resisting school can ruin your future by consigning you to a bad job, low pay, and a shorter life.  And teachers try to use this angle:  Listen up, you’re going to need this some day.  But the long run is not very meaningful to kids, for whom adulthood is a distant fantasy but the reality of life in the classroom is here and now.  As a result, teachers rely on a kind of confidence game, pretending they have more power than they do and trying to keep students from realizing the truth.  You can only issue a few threats before students begin to realize how hollow they are.

One example of the limits of teacher power is something I remember teachers saying when I was in elementary school:  “Don’t let me you see you do that again!”  At the time this just meant “Don’t do it,” but now I’ve come to interpret the admonition more literally:  “Don’t let me you see you do that again!”  If I see you, I’ll have to call you on it in order to put down your challenge to my authority; but if you do it behind my back, I don’t have to respond and can save my ammunition for a direct threat.

Here’s how Waller sees the problem:

The weightiest social relationship of the teacher is his relationship to his students; it is this relationship which is teaching.  It is around this relationship that the teacher’s personality tends to be organized, and it is in adaptation to the needs of this relationship that the qualities of character which mark the teacher are produced. The teacher-pupil relationship is a special form of dominance and subordination, a very unstable relationship and in quivering equilibrium, not much supported by sanction and the strong arm of authority, but depending largely upon purely personal ascendancy.  Every  teacher is  a  taskmaster and  every  taskmaster is a hard man….

Ouch.  He goes on to describe the root of the conflict between teachers and students in the classroom:

The teacher-pupil relationship is a form of institutionalized dominance and subordination. Teacher and pupil confront each other in the school with an original conflict of desires, and however much that conflict may be reduced in amount, or however much it may be hidden, it still remains. The teacher represents the adult group, ever the enemy of the spontaneous life of groups of children. The teacher represents the formal curriculum, and his interest is in imposing that curriculum upon the children in the form of tasks; pupils are much more interested in life in their own world than in the desiccated bits of adult life which teachers have to offer. The teacher represents the established social order in the school, and his interest is in maintaining that order, whereas pupils have only a negative interest in that feudal superstructure.

I’ve always resonated with this depiction of the school curriculum:  “desiccated bits of adult life.”  Why indeed would students develop an appetite for the processed meat that emerges from textbooks?  Why would they be eager to learn the dry as toast knowledge that constitutes the formal curriculum, disconnected from context and bereft of meaning?

Waller Book Cover

An additional insight I gain from Waller is this:  that teaching has a great impact on teachers than on students.

Conflict is in the role, for the wishes of the teacher and the student are necessarily divergent, and more conflict because the teacher must protect himself from the possible destruction of his authority that might arise from this divergence of motives. Subordination is possible only because the subordinated one is a subordinate with a mere fragment of his personality, while the dominant one participates completely. The subject is a subject only part of the time and with a part of himself, but the king is all king.

What a great insight.  Students can phone it in.  They can pretend to be listening while lost in their own fantasies.  But teachers don’t enjoy this luxury.  They need to be totally immersed in the teacher role, making it a component of self and not a cloak lightly worn.  “The subject is a subject only part of the time and with a part of himself, but the king is all king.”

Here he talks about the resources that teachers and students bring to the struggle for power in the classroom:

Whatever the rules that the teacher lays down, the tendency of the pupils is to empty them of meaning. By mechanization of conformity, by “laughing off” the teacher or hating him out of all existence as a person, by taking refuge in self-initiated activities that are always just beyond the teacher’s reach, students attempt to neutralize teacher control. The teacher, however, is striving to read meaning into the rules and regulations, to make standards really standards, to force students really to conform. This is a battle which is not unequal. The power of the teacher to pass rules is not limited, but his power to enforce rules is, and so is his power to control attitudes toward rules.

He goes on to wrap up this point, repeating it in different forms in order to bring it home.

Teaching makes the teacher. Teaching is a boomerang that never fails to come back to the hand that threw it. Of teaching, too, it is true, perhaps, that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and it also has more effect. Between good teaching and bad there is a great difference where students are concerned, but none in this, that its most pronounced effect is upon the teacher. Teaching does something to those who teach.

I love this stuff, and students who have been teachers often appreciate the way he gives visibility to the visceral struggle for control that they experienced in the classroom.  But for a lot of students, teachers or not, he’s a hard sell.  One complaint is that he’s sexist.  Of course he is.  The teacher is always “he” and the milieu he’s describing has a masculine feel, focused more on power over students than on engagement with them.  But so what?  The power issue in the classroom is as real for female as male teachers.

A related complaint is that the situation he describes is dated; things are different in classrooms now than they were in the 1930s.  The teacher-student relationship today is warmer, more informal, more focused on drawing students into the process of learning than on driving them toward it.  In this context, teachers who exercise power in the classroom can just be seen as bad teachers.  Good teachers take a progressive approach, creating an atmosphere of positive feeling in which students and teachers like each other and interact through exchange rather than dictation.

Much of this is true, I think.  Classrooms are indeed warmer and more informal places than they used to be, as Larry Cuban has pointed out in his work.  But that doesn’t mean that the power struggle has disappeared.  Progressive teachers are engaged in the eternal pedagogical practice of getting students to do what teachers want.  This is an exercise in power, but contemporary teachers are just sneakier about it.  They find ways of motivating student compliance with their wishes through inducement, personal engagement, humor, and fostering affectionate connections with their students.

The most effective use of power is the one that is least visible.  Better to have students feel that what they’re doing in the classroom is the result of their own choice rather than the dictate of the teacher.  But this is still a case of a teacher imposing her will on students, and it’s still true that without imposing her will she won’t be able to teach effectively.  Waller just scrapes off the rose-tinted film of progressive posturing from the window into teaching, so you can see for yourself what’s really at stake in the pedagogical exchange.

It helps to realized that The Sociology of Teaching was used as a textbook for students who were preparing to become teachers.  In it, his voice is that of a grizzled homicide detective lecturing bright-eyed students at the police academy, revealing the true nature of the job they’re embarking on.  David Cohen caught Waller’s vision perfectly in a lovely essay, “Willard Waller, On Hating School and Loving Education,” which I highly recommend.  From his perspective, Waller was a jaded progressive, who pined for schools that were true to the progressive spirit but wanted to warn future teachers about the grim reality what was actually awaiting them.

Waller’s book has been out of print for years, but you can find a scanned version here.  Enjoy.

Author:

David F. Labaree is Lee L. Jacks Professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and a professor (by courtesy) in history. His research focuses on the historical sociology of American schooling, including topics such as the evolution of high schools, the growth of consumerism, the origins and nature of education schools, and the role of schools in promoting access and advantage more than subject-matter learning. He was president of the History of Education Society and member of the executive board of the American Educational Research Association. His books include: The Making of an American High School (Yale, 1988); How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (Yale, 1997); The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004); Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Harvard, 2010); and A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (Chicago, 2017).

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