Have You Ever Felt a Power Trip Coming On?

We have all seen it: teachers on a power trip or on a rampage or just completely disconnected from children. In teacher preparation courses on behavior management, preservice teachers are warned to avoid the power struggle yet, these same teachers are also taught to always be in control of their students. I have felt it myself, when a situation starts to feel out of control I have lost that feeling of empathy for my students, sliding into the rigid lock of a need for power.


One of the roles of the teacher in the early childhood classroom is to be empathetic with the feelings and intentions of young children. It is one of the keys to a functioning classroom and, in my experience, often makes children feel safe. When children feel safe, they are able to learn.


A recent study (PDF) by Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, highlights why these two charges of the the early childhood teacher may actually be in opposition to each other. His study suggests that feelings of power dampen the “mirror response” system in our brains that enables empathy. This same mirror response is how we imagine the experiences of others and in a sense, see another’s perspective.


Dan Willingham and others have cautioned teachers to be careful of adjusting practices based on the latest neuroscientific study. I agree: a single study may not be enough to justify an adjustment in teaching practice. However, if we take a grain of salt into our thinking about our practices, this study confirms a number of intuitive perceptions I have had about my teaching.


I have long felt that effective teaching depended on the imagination. This study seems to confirm this intuitive position. In teaching my imagination is what helps me to understand what my students are experiencing while I am teaching. It provides a lens for understanding student perspective. It also takes me a step away from the power relationship discussed in behavior management literature. Teaching with the imagination actually led me to change my teaching practices when I realized that my students, when mimicking the physical movements I made in drawing letters in the air, were actually drawing the letters backwards. When I realized this, I re-trained myself to trace letters in the air backwards so that, to the student, they would learn to make the hand motions correctly.


Empathy and imagination also frame my approach to talking with angry or upset children. If I present myself to them with an engaging and calming facial expression, they will sometimes mirror my face and step out of a distraught frame of mind so that they can come to terms with strong emotions.  This type of distancing is a skill learned while pursuing my National Board Certification. I saw myself on video and realized what I was doing.


Over time, practicing stepping out of the role of power has helped me to become a more responsive educator. I have almost developed the ability to sense when I have closed off those receptors. I can feel my vision narrow, my hearing dull, my sensitivity to the look in  a child’s eyes fog. It is an almost imperceptible change. Being aware of it is definitely a matter of practice… and some days I fail.

But, more days than not, I am able to imagine and connect. What do you do if you feel a “power trip” coming on?

Image: http://www.transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/esl/articles/teaching-english-in-cambodia.shtml

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  • JustinMinkel

    Brilliant insights, John.

    John, I can’t tell you how good it does my soul to know that you are teaching young kids like my son.

    I think there’s an opportunity in what you describe, to model strategies for kids who have trouble with their anger.  I often let kids see me (or even exaggerate) taking deep breaths, for example, when a student is driving me crazy.

    I love your suggestion of using empathy–and you’re right, compassion does spring directly from imagination–to help keep us calm.

    I had a kid who was driving me clinically insane.  Then, about 2 weeks after he joined the class, he wrote a sprawling 8-page story (first thing he’d ever written) called ‘The Story of My Life.’  It talked about his biological father trying to kidnap him and plenty of other rough patches of his personal history.  Instant compassion.  Our students don’t always present us with this kind of overview of why they act the way they do, but the reason is usually there.

    Thanks for this, my friend.




  • ReneeMoore

    Brilliant is right….

    I’d Amen Justin’s remarks; this a great food for thought, John, on several levels. 

    First, I really like the angry birds visual (a game my grandson has finally successfully taught his grannie to play!)

    Second, that illustration of you observing how the students were reacting to you drawing letters in the air; then using that reflection to train yourself to do it backwards for their sakes is outstanding. Made me wonder what things I model for my adult learners about writing and composition, that maybe I need to show them “backwards”. 

    Finally, about that teacher-power-trip-thing; yes, it can be ugly. I’m old school about things like discipline, manners, and respect for elders, but even within that context, there is much more room for mutual respect and student freedom of expression than is sometimes practiced in classrooms–including mine on a bad day (and there are some bad days). Reminders like this help.

  • JohnHolland


    Hey Guys,

    Thanks for your kind words. Today was my first day with my three year olds. I am not sure I have the energy to write a blog post about but, I wanted to say, there was a moment today when I had to let go of that empathy, for survival. I had Seven kids crying at the same time, 4 of which were crying only after the first 3 started up. There was a moment when I had to completely disconnect. I just looked at my assistant, smiled, and dug back into cajoling them out of the torrent of tears. We were all done crying by 10:15 today which is not record but not bad considering the sensitive group I have this year. Maybe I can get that blog post done tomorrow.

    The experience left me wondering what are the benefits of letting go of empathy as well.