Here’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.