Who’s in Charge Here?

Arriving Saltspring Island photo credit: irfy via photopin cc

Arriving Saltspring Island

I was just one of the crowd of people on the trip—old and young, fat and thin, First Nations and white people, male and female. We were off by bus and ferry to Saltspring Island for the day. My job was to blend in, to let myself be represented by students. They were in charge, and I was along for the ride. I didn’t know it would be so hard.  

We had spent hours in class planning the trip, all of the class working together and having a say. There were many decisions to be made.

Would our grant cover a bus and ferry and gas for the day? Yes, because my co-teacher, Christina Patterson, would be driving the bus, so we wouldn’t have to hire a driver.  

Which Island craftspeople and artisans would we visit? We read many brochures and searched tourist information sites and finally agreed on a glass maker, a basket maker, a potter and a woodworker.

We read the map and figured out a logical route to their studios, including an important item, lunch in the village. Mickey, a friend of mine and Saltspring resident, had generously offered to meet us at noon and buy us all lunch.

We picked a day, e-mailed the artisans and requested studio tours. We read the ferry schedule and decided when we’d have to leave the school in order to get there; we wrote up the field trip agreeement and made sure everyone signed. We figured out which parents would need money for extra child care that day, because we would be back late.

We picked four students, one for each studio we planned to visit, to be our guides. Each one would lead the way into a studio, greet the artisan, introduce us, say thanks at the end of the tour, and give the artisan the card we had prepared. The four did a little rehearsing in the classroom to get ready for their roles.

The field trip fitted in well with the work Christina and I were doing to give students as much authority for making decisions as we could. I was glad to give up the decision making while we were in class, where everyone knew anyway that I was the teacher, and where I was facilitating the discussions that led to the decisions.

But in the field, on the ground on Saltspring Island, I was tested to the core.

Four times we went into a studio led by our student guide. Four times I got to practice giving up control. Four times I found out how difficult it was.  

Somehow, I wanted those artisans to know who the teacher was. When a student guide was less skillful than I hoped, when the introductions were halting or the thanks less than effusive, I wanted to make it right, to apologize, to explain that I had done my best to prepare that student for the role of guide, and I couldn’t say what had caused him to go off the rails.

I wanted to give a signal, a roll of the eyes, or a gesture that might seem to be aimed at helping the student but was really meant for the workshop artisan, a secret signal that said, “I’m the one in charge here.”

And when the student guide did a great job, speaking well, explaining clearly, asking interesting questions, summing up the experience as she said thanks, then too I wanted to signal my pride and my relief.

Sharing power. So much harder than it appears on the surface.

So much easier to pretend to share power while grasping the core ever tighter to myself.   

photo credit above: irfy via photopin cc

photo on home page: Kam Abbot

10 thoughts on “Who’s in Charge Here?

  1. This is great Kate – well described. I used to work with a really smart supply teacher. We both had the stated goal of sharing as much power as possible with the students. One day we were talking about how this works in practice and he said something like, “It is always our goal until it happens.” It made me laugh – it is always a big challenge for me to turn off “teacher” mode completely.

  2. This is a fantastic story Kate. Indeed it is in the nuanced, informal social interactions – facial expressions – that signal and affirm power relations, and we look for certain kinds of power relations that reflect normalized social inequality. Teachers are supposed to have more power than students, higher education is granted more power than less education. I really appreciate how open you describe your resistance to the presumed authority of ‘teacher’. It definitely requires a very conscious effort to step out of the way, to make the teacher role something different and to physically feel power (relations) shift.

    • Thanks for putting it so succinctly, Audrey: “…we look for certain kinds of power relations that reflect normalized social inequality.” And because it is so “normal” it’s hard to see, and hard to change.
      A student used to wear a T-shirt emblazoned with “Why be normal?” It’s a useful question, and liberating.

  3. Oh my, did I ever feel a cringe of sympathetic recognition when I read this post. It reminds me of the hard lesson that I’m a better instructor when I step back and stop trying to “manage” (i.e. control) all the interactions in the classroom.

  4. This is so deliciously described, and I totally take your point..I can feel it in my bones. Well said!!!.. as always

    • Thanks, Sheila. I think in your work, like in mine, there are relatively few places where clients have real choices, and many times when they are given fake choices, or only allowed to choose between very narrow options. (“Do you want an apple or an orange?” not “What would you like for a snack?”) Do you find it hard to be clear with residents (and yourself) about what power they actually have? How important do you think it is to be clear?

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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