Power Share

all in it togetherHere’s another story about sharing power with adult literacy students, to go with the one I posted last week called “Who’s in Charge Here?”

A Big Pot of Money

At the Reading and Writing Centre we had a pot of money entirely controlled by the Monday morning meeting. All enrolled students and the two teachers made the decisions at that weekly meeting, and everyone present, including the teachers, had one vote. A student chaired the meeting.

The pot was established when the centre opened and an administrator deposited $200 into it, her annual budget for “hospitality.” Over the years, funds came in from a variety of sources, including grants for field trips, sales from books we published, money the students made through various jobs they took on, such as reviewing materials for Grass Roots Press, selling books we published, speaking at conferences, and producing made-to-order cards, posters and flyers, as well as donations from various well-wishers and a few bake sales and yard sales.

The Monday meeting decided to spend the money for things like field trips, coffee supplies and food. (Usually some student or pair of students made lunch for everybody once a week.)

If you have coffee, you have clean-up.

As everyone who has ever worked in a group will understand, washing the dishes and cleaning up was an ongoing problem; a few students did most of the work. Although many different systems were devised to make sure that everyone took some share of the work, all the systems failed.

The repeated failure of the clean-up systems was a problem for me. I didn’t do clean-up, but I listened to the complaints of those who did too much, and I had to attempt to figure out a way to make things fairer, and to deal with the emotions that arose in the situation.

My own experience in many different staff rooms made me pessimistic that a solution would ever be found. In every place I had ever worked where there was a communal coffee pot, some people had done most of the work while others did none.

So I solicited a donation of $500 from a supporter of the Centre, which made the fund quite flush, and I went to the next Monday meeting with a suggestion that we use the donation to pay a couple of students to do the kitchen clean-up every day to the end of term.

They voted down my proposal.

Mostly students argued that they would rather spend the money on field trips and other things everyone could enjoy; some said that we should clean up after ourselves as a matter of principle. The clincher came when Ghurdeep argued that if we paid people until the money was gone, we would find ourselves once again dealing with the same problem of some people not doing their share, so we might as well solve that problem now and save the money.

The “no” vote was nearly unanimous.

I was shocked, even though I had given lessons in “How to say no to your teacher.” What did I expect?

Student Ownership and Student Leadership

Teachers at the Centre had wanted to give students as much ownership of the place as we could. We had set up the fund that the students controlled (and contributed to) as a symbol of that ownership. We had said that the Monday Meeting was responsible for decisions about how that money was spent.

Many teachers and programs pay lip service to giving students control over their learning, or to sharing power with students. We had gone considerably further than most programs towards making that a reality. We really believed in the principle of student control, of student leadership. And we knew by the feedback we got from students, and from our increased enrollment and better student retention, that we were on the right track.


But I couldn’t resist the temptation to manipulate the procedure to solve my problem. I didn’t want to deal with the on-going dilemma of some students doing less than their share of clean-up, so I went looking for a solution on my own.

I don’t think I even realized how underhanded it was to solicit a donation exactly when I needed money in the pot for my scheme.

Furthermore, I wasn’t honest with the Monday meeting. I presented my proposal as a solution to their problem of the work falling unfairly on a few students. I did not talk about my problem, which was listening to griping about the students who didn’t do their share, having repreated conversations about resentment and burn-out with students who did too much, and trying to maintain a harmonious group in spite of those cross currents of emotion. I didn’t say that, as a feminist, I hated the fact that most of the people doing more than their share were women.

I wonder what would have happened if I had been honest about those things in the meeting.

Why am I telling this story?

Because it makes me reflect on the insidiousness of power–how hard it is to give up when it is conferred on you in a particular situation. The relationship of teacher and student is by definition one where the power rests with the teacher, but the dynamic plays itself out in peculiar ways in adult literacy or adult basic education classroom.

Adult students come to literacy class with memories of teachers who didn’t reach them, humiliating scenarios of failure and disappointment, shame and ridicule. They come either with an exaggerated estimation of and respect for the teacher’s power, or, on the other extreme, such a fierce determination not to be in the one-down position again that they seem to be always spoiling for a fight.

I know that if I am in a power struggle with a student, I will always win, because I have the weight of the institution behind me. But I don’t want any student to lose in a power struggle with me. If he loses, I cannot teach him.

My whole purpose in being there is to teach, so I avoid power struggles. I try to share power. But it sneaks up on me and whaps me on the head.

That’s why I was shocked when the Monday meeting turned down my grand scheme of paying students to do clean-up. After I got over my surprise, I admit a small part of me was glad they had said “No!” to me so clearly. But mostly I was shocked.

And at every Monday meeting after that, while I listened to someone going on again about how all students should do their share of clean-up, I was reminded that I had come up with a brilliant solution to the problem, and I did not have the power to bring it into being.

7 thoughts on “Power Share

  1. Pingback: Power Share | Working in Adult Literacy | Adult...

  2. The power the students had was over the pot of money – not the over-all state of the coffee cups, nor the enforcement of class rules, nor the worries and responsibilities of creating a safe, clean, healthy, welcoming environment for students. So, yeah, they made a “pot of money” choice, not a “what about the dishes” choice. Creating small areas of autonomy in the midst of large systems is always problematic. Ask any parent who negotiates “rules” for their teenager’s bedroom.

    I’m impatient with these efforts – “impatient” because I think they have merit, even though I grump about them. I’m also uneasy about giving decision-making power to groups who may lack the experience, language and confidence to make just and feasible choices. Mostly, I find this power-sharing business hard work because I feel like I’m being asked to give up authority without thereby being relieved of responsibility; things are less in my control, but the outcome’s still my fault. Being Lazy and No Good, I generally tell people to leave their dishes with me. 🙂

    • As usual, Wendell, you have put your finger on the pulse point. Leaving the teacher with responsibility but no control is a bad idea.
      “What do people need to learn to be responsible group members?” and “How can they learn those things in the context of the program?” are two on-going questions with no easy answers. Some days work better than others.

      • Since you first posted this, I’ve been thinking of a library learning group I facilitated back in 2006. It was unfunded and had no particular mandate. The learners and I just wanted to hang out for the summer while we waited for regular, gov’t funded and managed programming to re-start in September. Consequently, we had to make our own rules and plans and such. Of course, we couldn’t do things that would get us kicked out of the library. And our “budget” was pretty small. But otherwise, we could do pretty much as we pleased.

        I think about how *horizontal* that group felt in terms of power and decision making. It was quite different from the dynamics of the classes I run these days. The difference, in part, is the layer of management above me. But I think I’m different, too. In ways I’m not entirely happy with. I think I’m a lot better at teaching to the test, facilitating effective and economical learning in targeted areas, and generally moving learners along (or out).

        It’s like the gov’t finally got the efficiency and accountability they always wanted from me, but at the expense of something else… Something your posts on power-sharing always call back to me.

  3. Thanks Kate,..I could totally relate to and anticipate that reaction of horror at spending precious resources to “pay to be cleaned up after”..this is for the rich and entitled ..and not to be aspired to especially, though many trappings of wealth are.
    What a very swell lesson to learn, how to say “no way” to the teacher and live to tell the tale As a new lesson in life to work on, it seems both huge and basic.
    And, again, such interesting food for reflection on how things can come so disguised till they are walked through to the end with the power shared.
    You are still the teacher (with all the wisdom that implies) but they got to say you are “wrong”…now that’s worth learning !!

  4. Hi Kate,
    Thanks for sharing another really insightful and thought provoking story. I’ve used many of your insights in my own practice and have shared them with other tutors. I also find the language really accessible. One thing struck me in this story you say “I don’t do clean up”. Can I ask why not? Do you not ever have a coffee? Would this not be another way to level the playing field, normalize the task, show equality and an equal distribution of power?

    Best wishes,


    • Thanks, Marie. I didn’t put my name on the clean-up list for two reasons–1) the clean-up was done at the end of the afternoon class, and often started before the class was over, when I was working with students. 2) When a single student got stuck with clean-up because his clean-up partner was away, I often became the helper. I didn’t want to have a regular turn and then also do this substitute role. Did I talk with students about this? I don’t remember, but I hope so. Your final question puts the reasons for the teacher taking a turn at clean-up very nicely.

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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