Education Commentary

Forging the Classroom’s ‘Constitution’

By Seymour B. Sarason — October 24, 1990 8 min read

Seymour B. Sarason, professor of psychology, emeritus, at Yale University, has added a new volume to his insightful dissections of schooling in America. But this book has the discomforting title, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform.

In it, he warns that failure to confront the social, institutional, and organizational obstacles that have thwarted past reform efforts will doom the current movement. These obstacles represent at their most basic level, he says, issues of power. The following excerpt examines power dynamics in the classroom:

Political science claims Machiavelli as one of its founders. That may come as a surprise to most people, for whom the adjective Machiavellian is a pejorative signifying immorality, deceit, and manipulativeness. The fact is that no scholar of Machiavelli regards him in such terms. What Machiavelli was concerned with was an examination of power as opportunity and dilemma for leaders seeking the attainment of public-welfare goals. In the case of Machiavelli, that meant the unification of Italy--that is, welding the Italian people into a sovereign nation free from domination by foreign countries who essentially had carved up Italy into many fiefdoms.

The exercise of power for the sake of power was anathema to him. The task of an Italian leader was to gain and use power for the Italian people, not as a means of personal aggrandizement. It was one thing to gain or have power--that was relatively easy, although its costs were many; it was quite another thing to use power in ways that would allow the people willingly to grant power ....

If I begin with homage to Machiavelli (whom few outside political science read), it is to make two points. The first is that the field of education has never been of much interest to political scientists, despite the fact that it is egregiously clear that schools and school systems are political organizations in which power is an organizing feature. With but a few exceptions, when political scientists have looked at schools, their descriptions and analyses have been centered on matters of policy and not on the uses and allocations of power.

The second point, explained in part by the first, is that the failure to examine school systems in terms of the myriad of ways in which power suffuses them has rendered efforts at reform ineffective. In no part of the school system is this failure more complete than in regard to the individual classroom.

We do not think of the classroom as a political organization. Our usual imagery of the classroom contains an adult who is “in charge” and pupils who conform to the teacher’s rules, regulations, and standards. If students think and act in conformity to the teacher’s wishes, they will learn what they are supposed to learn. We are not used to saying that a teacher has “power” and that students are and should be powerless. That sounds too fantastic. We are more used to saying that a teacher has authority which students should respect, precisely as those students should respect parental authority.

But, as any teacher (or parent) will attest, the conventional imagery borders on fantasy. From the standpoint of the teacher, especially at the beginning of the school year and especially in the case of the beginning teacher, the name of the game is power: quickly and effectively to establish who is boss of the turf, to make it clear that the authority of the teacher is powered by the power to punish.

It is no secret that the performance of the beginning teacher is viewed by his or her colleagues with bated breath. Will that teacher be able to maintain control? Will he or she be able to handle the different challenges to the teacher’s authority? Will we have to come to the rescue? Is that teacher an effective disciplinarian? . ...

Just as teachers are extraordinarily alert to issues of power--sensitive to behavior that mayor will require exercise of power, as well as to individual differences among student--so are the students. If substitute teachers have control problems, it says as much about the knowledgeability of students about power as it does about the substitutes’ unfamiliarity with the traditions of their classrooms and the casts of characters. Issues of power are always a function of the perceptions and actions of student and teacher.

Here is an extreme example. In the course of working in classrooms in an inner-city school, I saw a 9-year-old boy literally climb the wall. The school was almost 100 years old and the steam pipes were exposed, enabling the youngster to climb to the ceiling. His teacher was utterly inadequate to handle him and others in that classroom. I said to the boy: “Next year, you will be in Mrs. Esposito’s classroom. Is that the way you will act there?” With practically no reaction time, he replied: “I would never do it in her classroom. She would kick the shit out of me.” How does power get defined in the classroom? What understanding of power do we want children to obtain? Should students have some kind of role in defining power, thus giving them some sense of ownership, not only in regard to definition but also to implementation? Is the unilateral definition and exercise of power desirable for the development of children? Does it tend to breed the opposite of what it intends to achieve?

It was these kinds of questions that stimulated me to do the following. In several elementary-school classrooms, I arranged for observers to be there from the first day of school to the end of the first month. I was after what I described as the forging of the classroom’s “constitution.” What were the rules and regulations that governed the classroom and how were they arrived at? The task of the observers was to record and describe any instance relevant to the articulation of rules and regulations: when and how these instances arose and who was involved.

Who wrote the constitution of the classroom? The answer--to which there was no exception--was that the teachers wrote the constitution. They articulated the rules and regulations (frequently post hoc), but provided no rationale. There was absolutely no discussion about the rationale. It was as if the teachers, Moses-like, came down from Mount Sinai with the constitution. (The response of the Israelites, remember, was far from warm.) It never occurred to these teachers, who by conventional standards were very good, that students should be provided with a rationale, which deserved extended discussion, and that students should have the opportunity to voice their opinions. How should we live together and why? ...

It is ironic that today we hear much about how unfair it is that teachers are powerless to influence policies (read: constitution) that mightily affect them. As I write these words, the mass media are giving a lot of play to the new chancellor-designate of the New York City school system who, as head of the Dade County, Fla., school system, has empowered teachers (and others) in formulating policies for their schools. In a television interview, Joseph A. Fernandez stated that “the evidence is not yet in” about whether what he has done in Dade County will have the intended desirable consequences. He was unambiguous, however, in stating that for teachers to be held accountable for educational outcomes required that they have more power than tradition has accorded them. To state it oxymoronically, Chancellor Fernandez is a skeptical utopian.

The media are giving a good deal of play to the criticism directed at Mr. Fernandez by the head of the administrators’ union, who regard teachers the way teachers regard students.

And therein is the irony: teachers regard students the way their superiors regard them--that is, as incapable of dealing responsibly with issues of power, even on the level of discussion.

The head of the administrators’ union does not say that teachers have to grow up to handle power because if he did, he would have to face the question: how do you grow up in or to a role in which you are denied experience or access? When do you start?

It is no different in the case of the student in the classroom. When should students begin to experience the nature and dilemmas of power in group living?

I have focused on the classroom not to make the obvious point that power is one of its distinctive features but to suggest that the sense of powerlessness frequently breeds reduced interest and motivation, at best a kind of passionless conformity and at worst a rejection of learning. When one has no stake in the way things are, when one’s needs or opinions are provided no forum, when one sees oneself as the object of unilateral actions, it takes no particular wisdom to suggest that one would rather be elsewhere.

We are used to hearing today that many students lack interest, motivation, and intellectual curiosity. An explanation is by no means simple, but surely one of its ingredients is the fact that schools are uninteresting places for many students (and teachers).

I discussed this at some length in my book Schooling in America: Scapegoat and Salvation (1983). Here I wish only to emphasize that if classrooms are uninteresting places, it is in part (and only in part) because students feel, and are made to feel, powerless to influence the traditional regularities of the classroom.

One of the regularities is that determining what is right and wrong, just and fair, is solely in the province of the teacher and completely off limits to students. Teachers are legislators, executives, and judiciary. Underlying this behavioral regularity is the assumption that students are incapable of exercising power responsibly in any way or on any level. . . .

What I am advocating is that the teacher should accord students the right and responsibility to participate in forums where the constitution of the classroom is forged. The classroom should be a place where those in it come to feel that they will be governed by rules and values they have had opportunity to discuss. The overarching goal is not to come up with rules, but to comprehend the complexities of power in a complicated group setting.

Put another way, the goal is to instill in students an understanding of a commitment to the classroom constitution, a sense of ownership, and an awareness that their opinions will be respected, even when not accepted.

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 1990 edition of Education Week