Power and Privilege in the Classroom

instructor in college classroom

‘On The Pedagogy of Belonging’ is a seven-part series of essays written by Julian Rose for the Georgia Institute of Technology Center for Teaching and Learning. As a former middle school science teacher and current GT Graduate Teaching Fellow, Julian has learned and practiced in-depth concepts of social justice in education, and is here exploring belonging as a framework capable of shifting higher education. The series of essays commences with Rose contending with the proliferation of ‘inclusive pedagogy’, and lands with a brief, sharp push for all educators to adopt pedagogies of belonging into their praxis. Below, the topics in the series are listed: 

‘Inclusive Pedagogy’ as the Bare Minimum
Institutional Harm Case Study: Your Instructor Is Racist, Now What?
Power and Privilege in the Classroom
Pedagogy of Belonging 
Circle of Courage and Classroom Climate
Disability Justice is Good Teaching Praxis
Representation without Solidarity is Skin-Deep Change

Part 3: Power and Privilege in the Classroom

The identities that we hold that afford us societal power and privilege also perform this stratification in the classroom. As educators, it is crucial to understand how our socialized power and privileges impact our relationships with students of diverse backgrounds and our colleagues. 

As an entry point, let’s quickly define power and privilege. Power is described here as ‘the influence, authority or control over other people, processes and/or resources’, whereas privilege is ‘the personal, interpersonal, cultural and institutional levels and gives advantages, favors and benefits to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of target groups.’ For example, privilege would be an instructor assuming you are worthy of good grades given your identities, while power would be your instructor granting you the ability to change the expectations of the course given your identities. 

As instructors, we could never simply leave the power and privileges conferred to us through our identities at the door of our classrooms or learning spaces. If we understand it is important to consider how our identity and role impacts our interactions with coworkers, we can extend this same logic to students. The simple power imbalances between those in our society who hold college degrees, and those of us who do not, create hierarchies in instructional spaces that educators are positioned to wield as a weapon. Educators have the capability to dramatically alter the trajectory of students while students do not experience the same ability to impact our futures — imbalanced power. If you have ever heard a teacher say “I don’t need this, I already have a job, YOU do”, you’ve heard an educator acknowledge this power. As educators, we are also often deputized to serve as both creators and enforcers of rules, another form of authority bestowed upon us, and a place where college students are often unempowered, and/or harmed or exploited. These are structural or institutional powers. 

Socialized or identity-based power in learning spaces further complicate this issue. The power granted to people without disabilities to advocate for teaching practices that match their learning styles, or the power of white educators to highlight scholarly contributions by those they identify with, are examples of ways power majorities use their influence to shape teaching and learning, often to the detriment of those who are marginalized. Most of us understand the importance of checks and balances — but are there checks and balances for these forms of power? 

This is the question of the moment — how can educators recognize, understand, and undermine the imbalances of power and privilege between them and their students? especially the power and privilege educators hold which harms students, and reinforces forms of societal oppression and exclusion. Below I’ve listed a few approaches to help address these imbalances in power, including but not limited to: 

  • Student-Centered Learning — Let your students inform the content, processes and decisions in your classroom to distribute power. Student-centered classes empower students, rather than imposing power on students
  • Transparent Communication – Acknowledge where power and privilege shows up with students openly, talk with them about how to best address these circumstances
  • Accountability Plans – Teach your students the best ways to hold you accountable, build these processes into the structure of your learning space, work with your department to ensure feedback and follow-up

We hear about power and privilege often in interpersonal circumstances, but rarely consider how these socialized phenomena impact our ability to serve as educators. Imbalances in power and privilege, between and among educators and students, can fortify barriers in trust and communication that prevent quality relationships and positive climate. In the old world, educators wield power and privilege as weapons to control students, but we have ample evidence suggesting that creates environments where all students are unable to thrive. Students prefer, and learn in healthy and sustained ways, classrooms where power imbalances are accounted for and subverted, and this is especially true in higher education. 


Additional Resources

Understanding Power, Identity, and Oppression

Conceptualizing Structures of Power

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