Teaching Opinion

“Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely": Thoughts After Spring Valley High

By Christina Torres — October 27, 2015 3 min read
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What horrified me the most was how quiet it all was

I watched the Spring Valley High School video, although I didn’t want to. It echoes too many videos that make many of us feel ill, question where there is hope in the world, enrage us until we see red.

What I saw was, frankly, disgusting. After processing the initial violence, though, what struck me was how quiet everything else was. While this Black girl is choked and flipped by an adult white man, everything else seems frozen in a horrible tableau of inaction: a teacher hovers nearby and watches it all happen, another student looks away, his head in his hand.

This moment that made many of us, watching it on a screen, gasp audibly, is experienced entirely different by those who are there. In person, the violence in that classroom was either so unsafe students felt they could not speak up, or so normal that we have created some kind of horrific, silent acceptance of it in our schools.

Unfortunately, while the violence is shocking, the unfair treatment of Black girls in school is not, as Britni Danielle noted in TakePart. Black girls in school are often facing similar or even more difficult struggles than male counterparts, but we often fail to the make space to listen to and support them. Couple this with an increase in school policing for non-White students, as Melinda D. Anderson reports in The Atlantic, and schools become increasingly unstable and violent spaces for all children of color, including young Black women.

Beyond the horrific violence, I was struck with another thought: We need to stop seeing the classroom as a power struggle between teachers and students. From most accounts, the reason an officer was called into the classroom was because a student was refusing to go to the office. We may get frustrated, but there is no amount of disrespectful behavior that would ever justify the use of force on a child.

At the end of the day, we’re the adult in that room. A student’s quiet disobedience (or even their vocal disobedience) may be frustrating, but we as educators and adults have an obligation to try and keep a level head and do what’s best for kids.

Ultimately, getting on a student’s case because they refuse to do something isn’t about protecting the safety of a classroom, and it’s often not because we’re morally offended. It’s because we’re ingrained with an unfair belief that we as teachers must always assert our authority in the classroom, and we become frustrated or scared when that authority is threatened.

We have to let that go.

The more we recenter on our students and away for our own desire for power, the better we can ultimately serve students by actually listening to them instead of needing to “win” that fight.

We keep complaining that our students don’t know how to “think critically” anymore. We whine that current policy forces us to turn our students into test-taking automatons.

Education policy may drive larger culture, but it’s also time we take a look in the mirror at our own actions as educators. Do we not want students to question? Don’t we want them to stand up for themselves or seek the “why” to larger issues? Why, then, are we so afraid when they turn that critical eye onto us as their teachers? Aren’t they merely putting into practice the critical thinking and act of a non-violent protest we teach them about again and again?

At some point in school, most students learn the Lord Acton quote, "...absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton was defending the people’s right to question the pope. The sentiment is powerful and reminiscent of a John Dewey quote that Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price posted and many teachers shared recently.

Educators must not be “a cog in the wheel.” I wonder, though, whether we are willing to give that same agency to our students. Do we stand with them, seeing them as other “intelligent mediums of action,” even when they may not act the way we’re asking them to?

Or, do we let our desire for “control” insidiously trick us into believing we are the popes and monarchs of our classroom: our words law, our desires enforced by any means necessary, and the voices of our dissenters horribly and submissively silenced?

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.