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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue B ::: February 2003

Naming the Power Dynamics in Staff Development

by Cassandra Drennon
We were nearing the end of a two-day practitioner inquiry workshop that I had been leading in the ballroom of a local hotel. At this point in the agenda, 12 adult literacy teachers were enthusiastically helping one another come up with data collection strategies for their individual classroom research projects. As a staff developer, I could not have been more pleased with how this peer-led activity was going. Then a bomb seemed to drop out of the blue. Helene, a middle-aged white woman from a rural area of our state, was telling a story about a conversation she had overhead between two students in her adult basic education (ABE) class. When quoting one of the students, she let the "n-word" fall matter-of-factly from her lips.

An excruciating silence overtook the room. As I glanced around, most of the white group members were looking down and seemed uncomfortable. I saw African-American group members locking eyes with one another. As I sat with my heart pounding and my thoughts racing, Janice, a young African-American woman who had been facilitating the discussion, posed a relatively benign question to Helene. It was about the situation she had been describing, and the conversation took off again. I admit I felt some relief when the awkward silence broke. However, it was obvious that the stress we all seemed to be feeling would be there until I, as the leader, did something to help the group recover from it. I wasn't even sure what had just happened; I definitely didn't know the right thing to say or do next. 

First: Find the Words 
Over the course of my career, I have adopted a vocabulary to describe my perspective on adult education and my intentions in the classroom. It includes such terms as participatory, learner-centered, and democratic. When planning and carrying out this particular practitioner inquiry workshop, I drew from practices that I thought would reflect this perspective. For example, to engender a sense of shared ownership, I involved the participants in developing the agenda. To demonstrate my respect for the participants, I made their knowledge and experience the starting point for all activities. To sustain a learning community, I encouraged participants to collaborate on every research project, not just to focus on their own individual projects. I tried to minimize my role as an expert or authority by moving away from the front of the room and participating along with the group. I put processes in place - such as rotating peer facilitators and allotting time for individual presentations - to balance participation among group members. Not only do I assume that these practices are effective methods for teaching the group members about inquiry, but I also consider them ethical and socially just practices that can go a long way toward ensuring that everyone has an equal learning experience. However, the incident that occurred in the inquiry workshop reminded me there are no guarantees.

We have to be able to name something before we can begin to change it. Naming the workshop incident "racism," however, didn't go far enough toward helping me to understand or cope with it. Although I had acquired a vocabulary to describe the kind of classroom environment I wanted to achieve (which, in effect, were my values as a white, middle-class woman) I hadn't acquired words at the time of this incident to convey how and why reality often fell short of my ideals. Without such a vocabulary, classroom life would continue to feel somewhat messy and unpredictable.

This incident and others like it became the impetus for my dissertation research. I set out to interview women facilitators of adult literacy staff development who, like me, tried to enact teaching practices that were participatory, learner-centered, and democratic (Drennon & Cervero, 2002). I asked the staff developers to share stories with me about when these ethical goals for teaching had been challenged and how each of them responded in those situations. By the end of the interviews, I had accumulated dozens of what might be termed critical incidents, which I then analyzed for patterns and themes. I wanted to find out exactly what they and learners were doing when the challenging moment occurred, what they thought caused the challenge, how they responded, and what the effect of their response seemed to be.

Although I never asked the study participants directly about issues of race, class, gender, or role status, I found them to have considered these and other categories of difference as key factors in almost all of their stories. When I was studying the critical incidents, the following concepts provided a lens through which to see, name, and explain what they really consisted of. I continue to find these concepts valuable in my teaching practice because they offer possibilities for action: choices I can make in the face of racism, sexism, and the like, for teaching differently. 

Power and Interests 
The assumption that classrooms and training rooms are neutral spaces where teachers and learners are basically alike and equal is not valid. A far more realistic view is that teachers and learners are ranked in relation to one another, just as they are in the world outside the classroom. People are allocated or denied privileges based on where they are in the social hierarchy. We bring our long-held ideas about each other based on race, class, gender, sexual preference, age, and physical ability into the classroom. Without consciously changing these ideas, relationships in this setting play out based on these identity categories as they do in every other setting. Relationships based on organizational role status continue to play out as well.

Within every classroom or training room is a web of these relationships structured by power. Cervero & Wilson (1994) ask us to think of power as the capacity to act, which is distributed unequally among us. They explain that we are always exercising power in the direction of our interests. In other words, we exercise power to get what we want. Unequal power relationships, by their very nature, can threaten participatory, democratic classrooms.

The language of power now offers me a way to talk about how classrooms and training rooms are organized around unequal relationships. I know to take stock of the privileges that are awarded or denied me and others based simply on the identities we were born with. I am getting better at "reading" classroom power dynamics for the interests besides mine that group members bring to bear. Even when a decision I make seems very mundane, I try to remember to ask myself, "Whose interests are being served here and whose are not?" When trying to make sense of a classroom situation, I can specifically ask myself questions like this: How are the people in this room different from one another in terms of identity and organizational status? How are these differences being played out in relationships?

The practitioner inquiry workshop included men and women who were African-American, Latina/Latino, Asian, and European-American. Most were classroom teachers but others were program administrators. Some had lived in the South so long that they strongly identified with being "Southern." Helene, however, had recently moved to the south from the Northeast and a few group members had playfully teased her about being a Yankee. That regional difference with her peers may have been a source of misunderstanding and distrust.

Another useful question is: What interests of my own am I trying to advance or protect in this situation? During the practitioner inquiry workshop, I was advancing two sets of interests simultaneously. In a practical sense, I wanted to ensure that all the participants were exposed to a range of data collection options. At the same time, I wanted to be certain that leadership of the activity was shared among the group members, and that everyone collaborated on the development of each inquiry project. When Helene surprised us all with her racially charged comment, I wanted time to collect my thoughts and carefully plan a response. This decision to stay quiet served my own interests to avoid conflict but not necessarily those of others in the room.

A final valuable question is: What interests might other people be trying to advance or protect? No one else in the room directly confronted Helene with their reactions to her use of the n-word either. However, two group members - a white man and an African-American woman - separately called me a few days later to talk about what had happened. Both said that they were offended by the word Helene had used. Both said that they stayed silent because they thought a direct discussion about it would be uncomfortable for everyone and would take valuable time away from completing the group's assigned task. At the time that they called, their interest was in seeing that the comment was addressed with the whole group. Later, Helene explained to me that she had quoted students using the word only to depict a slice of life in her rural mountain community. Janice, the African-American peer-facilitator leading the discussion at the time the comment was made, told me that she moved the conversation forward because we were in an "academic setting for research purposes." The way the comment was made did not strike her as racist and to construe it as such would have been, in her words, "hypocritical and distracting." An African-American man and a Hispanic woman later commented that they were very offended by the use of the language. They did not disclose why they chose to stay silent about it in the workshop.

In their study of feminist teaching in action, Maher and Tetrault (1994) organized their understanding of power relationships among teachers, students, and texts into several major themes. The theme they call "positionality" refers to a teacher or learner's position in the classroom as defined by socially significant factors such as race, gender, ethnicity, and class. Positionality implies relationship; that is, we are only privileged or marginal in relation to someone else. It was an eye-opener for me, after reading their work, to grasp that our identities are not fixed. For instance, I can be privileged in a group by virtue of my position as the leader or simply for being a white middle-class woman. However, if it happens that I am also a lesbian, or a senior citizen, or a physically disabled person, it is likely that some of my privileges will be undercut: such as the privilege to talk openly about my significant relationships or the privilege to have my credibility assumed. Our identities are defined within a shifting web of relationships according to Maher and Tetrault. Given the will of the group, power can be more equalized. Some believe that positionality, more than any other single factor, influences teaching and learning in the classroom environment (hooks, 1994; Maher & Tetrault, 1994).

The language of positionality offers me a way to understand who teachers and learners in a specific classroom are in relation to one another. An understanding of positionality helps me understand why I can facilitate the same workshop agenda with two different groups and they will experience it very differently. These questions related to positionality are helpful to ask of specific classroom situations: What privileges can I or other members of this group take for granted simply because of our identity or organizational status? In this group, who is privileged or marginal in relation to whom? 

In the practitioner inquiry group, I was able to take my credibility largely for granted. I had been an ABE teacher myself at one time, I had lots of experience helping people conduct inquiry projects, and I was the official leader of the group. For at least these reasons, participants seemed open to what I had to offer them. In contrast, months later I found myself in another state far from home, facilitating a workshop called "Teaching the Adult Learner." The participants were Midwestern, white, male scientists new to the training profession who were all much older than me. From the moment I walked in the classroom door until the session was over, the participants vigorously challenged my credibility. They questioned my sources, dismissed my participatory approach as "touchy-feely," and even made comments about how I was dressed. I did not feel that I was an effective teacher in this setting and I doubt that the participants learned much, if anything. While I may have been privileged in the inquiry group in the sense that my race or gender in no way worked against me, I was definitely disadvantaged in the second group on the basis of gender. Sometimes it takes a contrasting scenario to help us grasp how deeply positionality affects teaching and learning. 

In the web of relationships that is always present in the classroom, teachers and learners are constantly negotiating interests from their relative positions of power. We do this on two fronts simultaneously. We act within the web of power relationships to accomplish the practical aspects of teaching and learning. We also act on power relationships by either strengthening them or changing them (Cervero & Wilson, 1998). Our actions on one front affect what can be accomplished on the other. I would like to think that, as a teacher and staff developer, the actions I take in the classroom are always toward ethical ends but this, I have come to realize, is not always true.

Using the language of negotiation, I am able to explain how I sometimes make tradeoffs in the classroom that do not move us in the direction in which I want us to go. Learners make tradeoffs, too. I realize that my responsibility as a teacher or staff developer is to consider the direction and effects of my actions with respect to power relationships. Now I know to ask myself, What is being negotiated in this situation? What tradeoffs am I making? What is the effect on power relationships and is this acceptable to me?

During the brainstorming activity, I encountered a fundamental issue of power that had to do with the negotiation of identities within the group. Once the racially charged comment was made, it seemed to matter who was white and who was black, who was from the South and who was from the North, who was the real leader and who were the real participants. Through my silence I allowed my practical interest in getting through the brainstorming activity to prevail. I did nothing to advance the interest I claimed in creating a democratic environment. By choosing not to make space for dissenting voices I ended up granting Helene and her comment privilege. By doing nothing in response to the comment that clearly offended some people, I chose to reproduce rather than interrupt a historically rooted power dynamic in the group. 

Closing Thoughts 
It is not easy to admit how flawed my teaching practice sometimes is. The fact that what I do in the classroom is wrought with tensions, ironies, and contradictions is something I would rather keep to myself. However, I continue to seek out conversation with others about classroom struggles, especially those that emerge from race, class, and gender differences, because of the deep pain they cause and the disruption they bring to learning. Applying the vocabulary of power and interests, positionality, and negotiation has shed light for me on issues that I had a hard time "seeing" previously. It has allowed me, in turn, to talk about those issues with teachers and learners and, I hope, expand the possibilities for teaching democratically. 

Cervero, R., & Wilson, A. (1994). Planning Responsibly for Adult Education: A Guide to Negotiating Power and Interests. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cervero, R. M., & Wilson, A.L. (1998). "Working the planning table: The political practice of adult education." Studies in Continuing Education, 20, 5-21.

Drennon, C.E., & Cervero, R.M. (2002). "The politics of facilitation: Negotiating power and politics in practitioner inquiry groups." Adult Education Quarterly, 52, 193-209.

Hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Maher, F., & Tetrault, M. K. (1994). The Feminist Classroom. New York: Harper Collins.

About the Author
Cassandra Drennon is a former instructor in adult literacy and English for speakers of languages in Athens, Georgia. She provides research, program evaluation, curriculum development, and training services to educational organizations. 

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL