02/05/2013 12:00 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

Is Antagonism Between Students and Teachers Inevitable?

Negative exchanges occur between students and teachers in schools every day. We accept it as normal for some student-teacher relationships to be antagonistic. These exchanges might feel inescapable or even necessary, but they are also counterproductive, not to mention unpleasant. What are the effects of antagonistic relationships? What would it take to maintain supportive relationships between students and teachers and eradicate antagonism?

A story from my childhood:

One year my desk was in the middle of my classroom, second to last in the row. The boy who sat behind me was from Washington Drive, our low-income housing neighborhood. During class one day while we were all supposed to be doing something quietly, he went up to the teacher's desk at the front of room and quietly shared whatever problem he was having. I have no idea what he said. He may have lost his book. He seemed to be having some mishap that was preventing him from doing whatever the rest of us were doing. Perhaps this was the 50th time this problem had occurred or perhaps he spoke disrespectfully to our teacher. Maybe the teacher just didn't like him. Whatever it was, the teacher erupted. He stood up shouting and came around his desk to be toe to toe with the boy who sat behind me. He had the class's full attention.

Shouting loudly, he poked his finger into the boy's chest, forcing him to take a step backward. He shouted and poked him all the way back down the aisle, backing him up into the boy's own desk, right behind mine. I cowered beneath them as the boy who sat behind me bravely accepted his berating. Then my teacher gave him one more big poke and the boy fell backwards over his desk onto the floor.

And the whole class laughed.

Our class had several lessons reinforced that day. Bigger and stronger people are allowed to mistreat smaller people, especially if those smaller people don't have advocates elsewhere in their lives. Those with less are worth less. Do not interfere with the actions of the authority in the room, because next time it could be you.

I don't know why the class laughed when the boy fell. Perhaps because we were terrified and needed some release. Perhaps because we were glad it wasn't happening to us. Perhaps because we were identifying with the authority and taking a feeling of power from intimidating the weak. I'm not sure. None of it was good. All of it was educational.

The boy was powerless. He was at the mercy of the violent whim of my teacher. He had no choice but to show up again the next day, and every day that year, and accept his lot.

For the teacher's part, he had limited options as well. He had taken on the responsibility of shepherding our motley crew from point A to point B. His job was to maintain order, establish authority and obedience, and get us to memorize the information he put before us. Many teachers resort to yelling to achieve these ends.

No one in this dynamic had a lot of options available to them, including the students like me, holding their breath, waiting for it to be over. Teachers have to corral their students forward using whatever means available, and students have to go along, doing the best they can within the framework.

What would have to change to create healthier dynamics and more empowered relationships between students and teachers? What would have to be let go? Would it be worth it?

If we could go into the past and somehow whisper to my child self as she cowered under my shouting teacher, "Would it be worth it to change the structure here so that this wouldn't happen?" She would whisper back, "Yes, please."

My guess is that the boy who sat behind me would agree.

If we could go back and magically stop time to ask my teacher, "Do you wish that this dynamic was different and that you weren't screaming at this child?" Would he whisper, "Yes, please" too?