Dialogue as an Act of Defiance and Love

Teachers hold the most power in a classroom.

They set the course for student learning, guided by the power of principals, who are guided by standards set far from children in state departments of education, by researchers, policymakers, and “interested” stakeholders. The farther you get from the learning, the more non-people of color are involved and the more power fewer people have. The conversation is limited from the beginning. The power structure is a pyramid with all of the influence at the top and all of the weight distributed down on the child. I have seen school leaders who understood this and took it upon themselves to take the position of Atlas, holding up the world, in order for teachers to have the space to care for children. These leaders have called out to parents, community, higher education, and social service partners,  “Help me hold it up.” When they were successful eventually the teachers and the students became so convinced they were safe that they forgot about the pyramid. The limits were removed. I have also seen principals who hold the weight they carry over the heads of teachers and students. They make statements that echo the theme, “Comply or I will drop the weight.” We often forget the influence of power in the classroom, in the school, in the community. But, if you become aware of this imbalance, a different kind of educational leadership is necessary. No one can be Atlas forever and when those heroic, but individual leaders move on, what happens?

This is one reason why I follow the work of EduColor and Jose Vilson so closely. He and the organization he helped to found are proactively engaging in a dialogue about one of the most taboo of topics in education, power. People with a concern for the intersection of freedom and education might say that there is always an imbalance of power in every relationship. Others, specifically EduColor and its participants, seem to disagree by asking questions like, “Who holds the power in this situation?  Whose interests are being protected? Are there concerns that aren’t being discussed at the table just because of who set the table?” These questions are playing themselves out again and again on our TVs, on our social media, at our dinner tables. Never before have I known the names of murdered African Americans as if they lived in my city, went to schools where I taught, lived down the street from me. I am a shaken. What EduColor is bringing to the conversation is more than the limiting dialogue of the two-way conversation between the decision makers and the affected. They are bringing love and humility to the conversation to establish the horizontal relationship that Friere describes as dialogue in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

 

Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between dialoguers is the logical consequence. It would be a contradiction in terms if dialogue—loving, humble, and full of faith—did not produce this climate of mutual trust, which leads the dialoguers into ever closer partnership in the naming of the world. (p. 80)

I know that as white male, I represent the pyramid. History, society, the media, all confirm that the pyramid was designed by people who look like me. That doesn’t mean I must affirm the imbalance of power. I can name the imbalances and ask questions that destabilize the status quo. I have never seen power as a zero-sum situation. This is how I have found success, in nuturing my students and their families. As an educational leader I stand in a very particular place. I can see the pyramid, I can see the students, I can see the families. I have moved across spatial and cultural boundaries for years in an effort to serve my community. I have a keen interest in the intersection of freedom and education. I believe education needs a new kind of leadership, one that leads from the middle, not from the top. Our students, our communities, our teachers have their own merits, powers, and intelligences. I believe leadership must be a dialogue led with humility, faith in humankind, hope, and critical thinking, but mostly with love.