Whether we like it or not, students are far more often the products of their culture than they are the impetus who contribute to cultural change, though we have some powerful cases recently in which student voices are now imploring change at the highest levels of governmental authority. It’s a simple matter of a cultural conformity that largely favors the status quo over the originality of individually held values, generated by lengthy reflection on one’s experiences. Nonetheless, students are increasingly more prone to attribute greater authority to those who have gained their respect rather than those who have earned positional titles without their consent or endorsement. Think about the staggering occurrences of violence exhibited towards law enforcement in the past three years or the use of social media as a means to elevate dissension in the face of governmental authority. It is productive for any system to have some level of scrutiny and resistance to ideas and philosophies with which they disagree, to prevent tyranny and despotism from running amok without appropriate ethical discourse and tension which contribute to greater realization of values and principles. Even so, such dissentient factions could be mitigated or strengthened in conveying their purpose and message if supported by those who have gained their trust in relationships, especially if they coincidentally hold positions of influence.
In a world in which we increasingly experience diverse sets of culturally conditioned expectations, relational influence has a much further-reaching impact than positional authority, to the extent that position is frequently hollow (in the absence of a meaningful relational element) despite some valuable factors that may contribute to it.
Edicts and decrees no longer carry the weight that they once did; many in my generation or older begin their responses to student misbehavior with remarks like, “If I had ever treated my parents that way…” or “I was always taught to have a certain respect for adults like these students clearly don’t.” Somehow, the badge, the hat, or the suit somehow dictated a greater sense of influence (or we reflectively think it did). In all reality, it is likely that compliance or obedience still never contributed to impactful results that we somehow fallaciously thought were attained through use of such an authoritarian model. The truth is that position is circumstantial while relationships are continual and require some type of investment or withheld investment. Think about it this way: even when we try to sever relationships with some sense of finality, we do so with some degree of conviction, while conviction associated with position must be added through relationships. Talking heads do not give rise to enduring results; people do. In order to better understand the relational versus positional influence, it helps to consider a few positions which usually carry some cultural level of authority.
The parent, whether biologically or systematically defined, has a level of positional authority over his or her children. It is rather widely expected that a parent is to care for his or her children, providing minimally for physical needs. If a parent fails to provide for such needs or even societally delineated social emotional needs of his or her children, his or her positional authority is not only culturally diminished, but his or her position may be legally removed as such.
The teacher, a more electively assigned position, is generally entrusted with some positional authority with respect to his or her students, though this varies with the family dynamics that present in each individual home, and the authority of the position typically varies with the level of authority conveyed to children by their families or other social influences to which students give their devoted attention in matters of whom to respect.
The school principal, once thought to be the “boss” or leader of a school, is granted such a title based on any number of processes and has no means of arriving at a tenured role in most districts. Not so infrequently, this person or small group of people may be assigned to a school in which a culture has already established expectations for the role prior to his or her arrival. Therefore, asserting a positional authority without a relational element can contribute to diminished morale or a false sense that the person in the position is subject to the circumstances surrounding it, which may change often.
From a cultural anthropologist’s perspective, there are two primary ways to understand a culture: etic and emic. The first approaches culture from an outsider’s view, looking for the structural elements with a “third-party” sort of approach. The latter looks at the culture from within the perspective of the constituents thereof, often through participatory means rather than primarily through third-person observation. The danger of an etic perspective is that it can become too detached from the culture itself and may treat it as a kind of subject of study rather than as an organic entity. Two dangers of the emic perspective are that one becomes so immersed in the culture that he or she no longer distinguishes its unique characteristics from his or her own previous cultural experience and that the anthropologist may somehow influence elements of the culture, thereby changing the cultural values or systems. The etic perspective and emic perspective both ascribe positional values to the anthropologist, namely outsider or insider. While it is impossible to completely eradicate the distortions associated with either of these perspectives, empathy is an approach which can allow one to experience culture as an outsider but to potentially become sensitive to the needs of those in many cultures. This pseudo-scientific approach is probably the most suitable for educators, who intend to both understand and shape the cultures of the students whom they serve. The question arises, then, “how do we effectively empathize to serve our students and their families, especially if there exist significant cultural differences?”
The following may serve as some possible ways to empathize with those whom our schools serve:
1) Engage students and their families in activities that involve common materials with no preconceived notions. We hosted the Global Cardboard Challenge at our school last year and were thoroughly impressed with the expressions of creativity exhibited by our students and their families, using common craft supplies and cardboard amassed for several weeks beforehand. Projects ranged from family homes to fanatic signs for a family’s favorite collegiate team to a skee ball machine and even a large hen laying eggs. The beauty of the event was in its simplicity that allowed our students and their families to reveal family values and creativity without any judgment or anxiety about the products.
2) Visit students’ homes. One might imagine that this is a common practice among educators, but it is far from common. Visiting a child’s home could potentially reveal something that the child does not want educators to know about his or her life, but at the elementary school level, a home visit somehow bridges the divide between educator as positional at a school and educator as a person who cares enough to be a part of my life beyond school. Obviously, one should exercise caution in visiting children’s homes to ensure that dangers that may not be apparent or present at school do not meet an unsuspecting teacher who wants to form a stronger connection with a student. It is strongly advised that home visits never be made by a single person.
3) Walk home with “walkers.” Even though this doesn’t qualify as a home visit per se, one of the most rewarding experiences I have had occurred when I walked with students to their homes after school one day. We were informed that a certain bus route had been blocked and that a bus would be unavailable for one afternoon, so I volunteered to walk with students to their homes and found the journey to be more important than the destination. The students valued that I wanted to walk with them to their homes and had plenty to tell me along the way.
4) Work “car rider” duty as much as possible, and talk to parents in their vehicles. Because our lives and experiences are most immediate to us, sometimes we forget that others have some incredibly adverse or exciting experiences that will contribute to our students’ and their families’ lives. By engaging in conversation during this somewhat idle time, we can keep ourselves informed, either directly or indirectly, of what is going on with families.
5) Be willing to listen and respond with active empathy or sympathy when students and their families share struggles. Look for support when support is requested, patience when patience is beneficial, and education when education is necessary. Preparing answers prior to conversations or as someone is talking is not generally responsive and may prescribe action plans without sufficient information. Realize that every situation encountered may display subtle nuances that require different responses than similar ones.
6) At the core, value the relationship over the requirements. This is not to say that we should dismiss our expectations in the interest of keeping people from hating us. This implies that though we hold certain requirements to be important, we must ground our decision-making in our efforts to build and sustain relationships of trust in spite of previous occurrences that challenge such. When we discipline or educate students or families, we must provide the reason why, which is tethered to our concern for people above policies and character above consequences.
Positions are generally static while relationships can change and adapt to changing circumstances. The use of positional authority is predicated on both parties’ acceptance of such an attribute to the position, so when a person challenges this authority, or more, defies this authority, the position no longer carries culturally defined weight. Furthermore, as the culture adapts to the relationships that embody it, positional authority may become more of the vox populi rather than oligarchy. Roald Dahl satirically points to the assumed authority of a parent in his renowned work Matilda, as Harry Wormwood (Matilda’s ignorant father) asserts his authority to Matilda: “I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Matilda’s perseverance and ingenuity usurp all of the father’s assumed authority, which is negated by his inability to connect in a meaningful relationship with his daughter. Though Dahl vilifies the father and presumes the child’s motives are purer and of greater substance than Mr. Wormwood’s, the picture is painted clearly how authority has little effect without a relationship that supports it.
Few relationships in my life have taught me more about the importance of empathy than my relationships with my family. When I assume that my wife or children will do what I like as a matter of respect, I soon discover whether or not other relational elements are present. Most who respond to authority are responding in a manner of compliance rather than to please or reciprocate in a healthy relationship pattern. Those who submit under an authority without any relationship are responding to power rather than people. My family operates most effectively when we mutually invest time and energy in one another’s lives rather than through exchanges of stated positional rationales for exercising authority in different circumstances. In fact, some of the most mundane and caustic conflict results from people fighting for or against positions.
Frustratingly, meaningful relationships take time and considerable effort and can often be deterred or derailed by adverse circumstances, thereby making them less than appealing for someone who simply desires an easy and comfortable path. Even more complicating is the fact that no two relationships are alike, and so the skills and efforts that we invest in one relationship may be largely different from others and may not pay the same sorts of dividends that we intend to acquire through them. In a world of increasingly more frequent mobility and circumstances that entice or demand temporary conditions in work and home life, we find many of our relational investments to be short-term investments, which generally do not give us as much satisfaction. Nonetheless, our positional transience needs not predicate an absence of relational investment, nor should it prohibit us from learning from the lives of others. As we witness the power of the elevation of voices which have previously been stifled as a result of positional power and authority being exercised to muffle or mute them, think of how important the relationship is to the messages conveyed and how our purpose becomes more evident in the presence of a constructive and collaborative relationship. Rather than naively continuing in a pattern of expecting respect because of our positions, we must aim to earn respect through our relationships, which can continually develop greater capacity in both parties, especially through empathy which seeks to understand before assuming any sense of authority by means of one’s holding a position.
As I continue my journey towards developing more meaningful relational capacity, I would be quite interested to learn from others how they make this happen in their lives and how empathy helps in this endeavor. Please share with me how relationships have reinforced or removed your positional authority or influence or, perhaps, how they have developed new positional influence as relationships have endured over time.