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An educational criticism: Teachers' power-tinged interaction with students

1 December 1993


This is a study of the conflict between a teacher's position of power and his or her ability to establish rapport with students. It is based primarily on the writings of Deborah Tannen, who has studied the effect of conversation styles on interpersonal relationships. In her book, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990), Tannen describes the differences in style between those who use conversation to establish rapport with others and those who use it to show status or power over others. Since teachers have a power-position and need to have rapport, they have the potential to experience this conflict.

My findings indicate that this is not such a serious problem for teachers. Even though they are in a position of authority, they can and do establish rapport with students. There seems to be more of a problem with over-emphasis of either power or rapport to the exclusion of the other. Those who try to be on an equal relationship with their students find that their students take control of the classroom. This is especially true of some students who engage teachers in a power struggle. Teachers need to be aware of this and maintain their authority while at the same time giving these students choices. On the other hand, teachers should not be so controlling that they break students' spirits. Teachers should be empowering students to move toward controlling their own behavior and evaluating their own work.


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