Transforming Through Power: Teachers and the Negotiation of Authority in Schools


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Transforming Through Power: Teachers and the Negotiation of Authority in Schools is a well-researched Education  Thesis/Dissertation topic, it is to be used as a guide or framework for your Academic Research.


Schools are unique institutions where structural and cultural dynamics shape the actions of humans. Teachers work within structures of power to establish themselves as legitimate figures of authority worthy of the right to command respect. Such efforts are complicated by the multi-faceted and swirling relationships of power that exist everywhere in schools, defining and guiding individuals.

In this study, I interview and observe the practice of seven secondary
teachers working in New York City public schools. All in their third year of teaching, they were at an interesting time in their development, not novice teachers and not quite veterans. Using a grounded theory approach, I analyze and interpret their reflections on seeking to establish positive classroom cultures as well as trying to make an impact in their larger school communities.

My participants spoke of teaching as a process of constant negotiation; they imposed order on their classrooms by controlling time, space, and resources, yet also modulated their efforts to meet the initiatives of students. When expectations were challenged, they showed a range of responses, sometimes cementing their moral legitimacy, at other times resorting to actions like yelling, threats, and consequences that might be interpreted as harsh.

They navigated the complex and shifting structures of power within their school, including ritualistic sites of evaluation, to carry out their own agendas. Their practice showed a dialect relationship between power and knowledge and used constructed ideas of learning to cement their authority. Sometimes they challenged the hierarchy of schools to create spaces of shared learning.

Emerging from their words and re-tellings is a picture of teaching as self-creation through confrontations with questions of power and authority. As teachers sought their own answers, they showcased a joint transformative growth, a “becoming,” through their work with students and the community.


“Issues of power are enacted in the classroom.” This phrase from Lisa Delpit (2006, p. 24) is an opening to a range of complex and challenging questions about what it means to be a teacher in modern public schools. The simple presence of power in the classroom is not so surprising; many teachers realize within a few days the need for assertiveness and some degree of control (Pace and Hemmings, 2007, p. 6).

Rather, it’s a claim that power has a pervasive dominance, that every dimension of the classroom is shaped by certain larger structures and forces and translated through the personal enactment of a teacher. Delpit (2006) highlights that without adequate consideration teachers may be reproducing structural forces that further disempowerment and oppression.

How much do teachers think about and understand their use of power? How do teachers rationalize and explain their own personal approach to their power? How do teachers interpret their positions within larger structures of power? And, most centrally, how do teachers change in their own identity and self-perception as they confront the idea that they are both agents and subjects of power relations? As this last question suggests, these inquiries are less about the inner workings and mechanics of power, and more about how the experience of power has significant and lasting impacts on the fundamental beings of people.

Public schools, where I have spent my career, are places where this topic is inescapable; these are questions about the modern experience of being and acting in institutions. I’m interested in the work of teachers because they exist at a unique place within the institutions of school, both upholders of various rules and structures within their classroom as they seek to intentionally order the learning of their students, but also subject to a litany of regulations and evaluations that control their work; teachers are nodes in a lattice of power relations.

My interest is borne of personal experience working in schools and wrestling with the uncomfortable feeling that the dynamics of power were not only flowing through me, I was also a magnifier of those very dynamics. It was a feeling of the weight of institutional pressure to do and be a certain way, and reproduce that effect on others; to take unique and vibrant individualities and mold them into a faceless and spiritless subjecthood ready for mass production and consumption in modern society.

That general impression has stuck with me; it raised deep philosophical and existential concerns about a central question in sociology around the competing influences of structure and culture on the lives of humans. But it also raised questions of individuality and epistemology – our social relations and interactions with power shape how we view the world and come to believe what is real and valid.

This dissertation has arisen from this base. It is an investigation of the perceptions and experiences of seven third-year public school teachers in New York City secondary schools as they confront and reflect on their experiences of power. Given the places I’ve worked, I have often operated under the frustrating belief that teachers were too stressed and beat down to care deeply about their work.

Surprisingly, I found my participants to be far from thoughtless or powerless actors within a rigid and prescriptive bureaucratic structure; they uncovered deeply personal concerns and desires for carrying out projects of great importance to them. More surprisingly, they revealed themselves courageously entering a process of ontological transformation.

Through their rich re-tellings and descriptions, I came to see how their very selves transformed through interaction with power. To help explore these broad questions, the related concept of authority is extremely useful. Power and authority share many similarities: they are social constructs, they are both theorized as relationships that can be negotiated, they have certain value neutrality that can be molded towards oppression or liberation, and their presence can be both overt and hidden.

Though closely related, I will not be using the two terms interchangeably. I draw on Foucault’s concept of power as a web of relations existing between and amongst institutions, people, and discourses; this system of relationships is built on a range of disciplinary techniques that produce truth, knowledge, and subjectivity.

I also use Sennett’s (1980) theorizing about authority as an effort to interpret structures of power. Furthermore, I will draw on several authors’ ideas about how these concepts are relevant to and can be studied in schools.

These two concepts, power, and authority, are helpful in challenging the false dichotomy of structure and individuality because they are grounded in the multi-directionality of relationships. They are also united in their relevance to teachers’ perceptions of the tensions and challenges that arise from their dual role both within institutional structures of education and as authority figures in the classroom.

An unexpected consequence of this work has been surfacing of the impact that power has on subjectivity. It was only through close reading (and re-reading) of the stories of my participants that I came to appreciate how confronting power and authority reflexively and intimately shape an understanding of one’s identity, and indeed a personal transformation – a “becoming” – one that I explore in chapter 9.

I have my own experiences with power and authority. My memories of being a new teacher are still raw; like many others, it was a struggle to create a manageable classroom and contend with the scrutiny and pressure of my supervisors. Yet, these memories have also been reshaped, redefined, and retroactively reinterpreted through over a decade and a half of work in schools as a teacher and an administrator.

I began as an educator at a different time when accountability reforms were in their nascent stages, culturally responsive pedagogy was almost unheard of in my circles, and the management of the schools looked very different.

This study is an attempt to tap into the experience of being a teacher in the here and now, a close look at seven individuals new to the profession but not quite novice, freshly perceiving and feeling and experiencing the relationships of power and authority. It is an effort to appreciate how our individualities within institutional settings can find routes through which to express and create worlds that follow from our ideals.

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