Privilege, Power, and the Space We Take Up

One time I rode on a Megabus from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. I got there early enough to wait in line and get a window seat, and put my headphones in to signal to any seat partner that I wasn’t hoping to talk for the next 6 hours. I wanted to drift in and out of sleep while listening to droning podcasts about education or the economy or just people talking a lot about politics. A minute into my little mental vacation, a man sat down beside me and the bus left the station. In a few minutes, he started talking and he really didn’t stop much until we got to Philly. I took my headphones out and tried to be nice. He talked about the woman he was going to visit, the job he was hoping to get, his life in Pittsburgh, his kids, and peppered in a few questions about me and my life.

At some point along the PA turnpike, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to slip into my little podcast sleep, it was too late to pretend to go to the bathroom and find another seat, and it seemed pointless and pretentious to try to explain to this guy that standard seatmate rules would say that he should respect my earbuds and stay silent. So, recognizing that there was no way out of it, I settled in and decided to be a friend.

That guy was nice enough and seemed like he needed to talk, but he was definitely taking up too much space.

I’ve been thinking a lot about space lately, and not the physical kind. I’ve been thinking about the kind of space that guy took up on our bus ride, the kind we occupy in social situations, and the kind that we, and all of our students, inhabit in our classrooms. One of the problems with teachers, or at least most of us, is that we have some kind of inherent temptation to take up a lot of space in the classroom. It’s why my best observers have suggested that I allow more time for students to process questions, or why I feel an urge to moderate and center most discussions in my classroom, and why so many of us need hours and days of training on implementing a “student-centered” space. We feel a need to qualify things, explain things, and make sure that we are understood.

It’s not all bad. On some level, we got into this profession so that we can help young people understand our content better than they did when we met them. One way to do that is to talk a lot and hope that students listen, take notes, and somehow internalize whatever it is that we want them to understand. We want to be understood, and the most natural way to do that is to explain ourselves.

Sometimes we do that too much.

I’ve also been noticing something that others in America have probably noticed forever: the space we get to take up in a social situation has a lot to do with power and privilege. Teachers hold a certain power in the classroom. This power comes on so many levels. We are older, we have disciplinary recourse that students don’t have, we have the big desk with the computer, we give the grades, we can call home, and we can generally command the room enough to talk a lot. If we want students to feel some power or autonomy in our rooms, and if we want them to take up more “space,” we have to surrender some of that power that we have traditionally held.

This isn’t even a possibility for the old school, “don’t smile til’ Christmas,” lecturing disciplinarian. But I submit that it is even a challenge for the progressive teacher who is genuinely trying to center student learning in their classroom. We fear that there is a fine line between the concession of our commanding persona and a chaotic classroom that limits our students’ growth.

When we get nervous, we turn in to the guy on the Megabus and start talking too much.

Power and privilege go well beyond our title. We live in a world in which men often have a power that women do not, white people hold a power that people of color have not had, and there are countless other unspoken but implied power dynamics that apply in different contexts and settings. They have to do with money, education, sexuality, where you live, who you know, and what you have experienced. They all create some complicated power algorithm that seems impossible to ignore, but so many people with power act like it isn’t there. So they take up a lot of space.

I am a white, male, straight, 30-something, middle-class teacher in a classroom that is made up of students who usually aren’t all of those things. And sometimes they aren’t any of those things. The truth is, we tend to give “white, male, straight, 30-something, teachers” a lot of space and power in schools. We’re the kind of people who think others care about our thoughts and opinions. We talk a lot in meetings and our classrooms, and when people tell us that we had a good idea we take that as a license to start talking more. We subconsciously assume that people want to hear us because we have grown used to be able to take up a lot of space in our social and professional situations. We do things like start blogs so that we can ramble endlessly about whatever it is that we are thinking.

I’ve spent the last 15 years, or all of my professional life, trying and often failing in an attempt to talk less and take up less space. The greatest compliment that others have given about my teaching is that the students really listen to me when I talk, but the best advice I have received is to use that gift sparingly. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to notice who doesn’t have the power and space in the room, lift their voices, and give them opportunities to take up a little more space.

The other day, I sat in a meeting alongside some of my students and across the table from some powerful adults. The person leading the meeting did what so many of us so often do: she talked a lot, over-explained things, and generally took up too much space. The student beside me, a person whose voice I really respect, wrote two things to me on the meeting agenda in front of us.

“1. Why is she talking so much

2. Why is she treating us like we are stupid?”

The first one seemed like a simple answer. It is what we do when someone tells us to lead. We might get kind of nervous and instead of allowing space for others to fill, we try to prove ourselves by talking a lot. But her second question helped me understand how our students, or anybody, can feel when we use our power or position to take up too much space in a room. The impact is exactly the opposite of what any good teacher wants in their classroom. It makes our students feel undervalued, unimportant, and for lack of a better word, “stupid.” The student was right, and that makes the responsibility of any teacher to empower our students and value their abilities. Nobody wants their students to feel “stupid.”

That, at least, seems obvious. The hard work, especially for those of us who have been given the privilege of space for our entire lives, is to learn how to surrender that space and privilege.

I’m starting to try to find ways to give up the space, power, and privilege that I have so often occupied in my classroom, in meetings, and in my relationships. I’m working on a personality that isn’t larger than myself, but one that allows others the space they deserve in my classroom. Believe me, for the teacher who talks too much, jokes a lot, and has about the same amount of energy as a rowdy 4-year-old, this is a work in progress.

I’m trying not to be the guy on Megabus telling me about his relationships.