Teaching Resistance

While promoting student empowerment, I have found that educators want to piece meal together those principles that are the easiest… those that will maintain traditional distributions of classroom power.

You see, inside each principle is the location of a specific power tool and all seven of them are grouped according to three different power functions: power building, power sharing and power resisting.  The power-building grouping is by far the most popular and in terms of training, it is the easiest to present.  Teachers love the principles that promote knowledge as power (Principle 3) and what they think to be compliance as power (Principles 1 and 5).

When I am training in a space that prides itself as being democratic, the power-sharing grouping also doesn’t come with a lot of push-back (well, not a lot).  While there is definitely still a learning curve, democratic teachers support the idea of voice, choice, and dominion as power (Principle 2) and shared accountability as power (Principle 7).

But, when I start talking about power-resisting, where students learn how to resist oppressive powers in order to access their full humanity and walk in their full personhood (Principles 4 and 6), well that is when arms begin to fold across the chest or the deer-in-the-headlight glaze begins to appear.

Principle 4 recognizes students as political agents (being both products and producers in the social world). It makes room for students to embrace the political tensions they experience outside of the classroom. It creates pathways for problem posing education where students can use their academics to address real and pressing issues (even beyond the purview of their teachers).

Principle 6 recognizes students as personal beings sharing collective space in a social world. It makes room for students to learn about self (self –awareness, self-care, and self-advocacy), drawing a distinction between their responsibilities to the world and their responsibilities to the self.

Unless you are a social studies teacher, most educators aren’t afforded the opportunity to tackle some of these peripheral conditions of learning and development. We know psychosocial development to be important.  But, we are not equipped with time and tools to take it on while teaching core content as guided by state standards and measured by high-stakes testing.

So we overlook and omit it. And then we look in horror or confusion when we are forced to come face to face with it.

Gloria Ladson-Billings has framed an admirable yet quite challenging response to the dynamic tensions around teaching resistance in school structures that treat students as objects and further reduce them to the margins.  Through the pedagogy of opposition, students are taught to validate self, resist oppression, and access the resources to do both.  What’s unique about this pedagogy, or this framing if you will, is that it positions teachers to help students to resist while at the time, it positions them to resist as well.

The challenge with this notion of resistance is that very few teachers can pull it off. And, I am not talking about traditional teachers who see themselves as the supreme curator of knowledge and center themselves as the authority of knowing, learning and being.  I am talking about democratic teachers… and even culturally relevant teachers.  Research (Young and Leonard et al.) has shown that teachers aren’t successful at balancing the competing priorities that come with the pedagogy of opposition while satisfying teaching mandates by their employers.  So they succumb to the pressures of being traditional and return to employing more contemporary classroom methods.

All of this was said to make a case that teaching resistance is hard… even for those who aspire to do it! Therefore, it makes sense that there is resistance to resistance-teaching when I get to that point in my workshop for student empowerment.

But, it can be done! It just takes the commitment of the entire school along with the community to pull it off successfully.  It takes full stake-holder buy-in that Principles 4 and 6 must be central pillars in the mission for student empowerment.

Please know that there are individual teachers who can successfully teach resistance while teaching foundational content and skills. One way to identity those teachers is to locate those who are living a life of resistance.  Not a resistance to all that is good; but, a resistance to all that is bad… those messages and systems that aim to shame, stigmatize, and marginalize.  Because when you learn to see yourself as a producer in this world, not just a product (Principle 4), and when you learn self-care and self-advocacy (Principle 6), you then understand the art of resisting while surviving.

Melissa Harris-Perry talked about how black women survive the many negative messages that are imposed upon their person.  She said they go between accommodating and resisting… each one finding her own unique balance.  This is what successful teachers of student empowerment do.  They find the right balance of resisting and they automatically teach their students how to do it as well!

I try to reinforce in my student empowerment workshops that resistance work is not about students oppressing their teachers.

Sure, teaching resistance does entail a shift in classroom power… after all, we are talking about student-empowerment, right? But, in that teachers and students work hand-in hand in the work of resistance, Principles 4 and 6 are about liberation!  In terms of global production and personal care, it is something that students and teachers can and should do together!

Student empowerment is not an al a carte experience. It requires all seven principles, including those related to resistance, to make it work!!

3 thoughts on “Teaching Resistance

  1. At the risk of sounding like a cliche, that’s powerful thinking! It does take courage to challenge the powers-that-be. So often, they are only partially visible, but you’ll get quick a shock if you push against them.


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