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Opinion

Power and Influence

“… don’t underestimate your influence, and to all educators at all levels, allow students to voice their opinions, to disagree among themselves, and add bits of information to the discussion without intruding on their thinking or learning.”

Mary Bisciaio

Of late, I seem to be locked into the paradox of civic education. An educator, now retired, I can’t rest the important issues I hear teachers, parents and legislators debating. Nothing fires my blood more than the role of the teacher in shaping the adults our children will be in the next decade.

This is my starting point for a very good reason. Remember the harassment cases we have been forced to face in the workplace, in the arts, and in our own close-knit spaces. We rushed to pass laws to protect the innocent from unwanted advances, because (and here is the essence of the entire problem) someone with power and influence uses it inappropriately. Influence is defined as the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone. That capacity can take any shape, can be any relationship, and can result in many different outcomes from brainwashing to sexual advances. The employer who sends unwanted messages to an employee. A starlet who wants a career, but her producer wants something else. An intern who’s taken advantage of by a high ranking political figure. When the shock wore off, we agreed the victims needed to be protected. 

In a school setting the least powerful entity is the student. Despite all the trends of late, the child’s mind is open territory easily influenced by a beloved and respected teacher. Even at the university level students have been taught to follow the patterns, to mimic the answers, and kneel at the altar of a gifted professor. As a parent, grandparent, and as a teacher, I cringe when I hear other educators say they make it a practice to tell students their beliefs and “let them make up their own minds”. I call bull on that.

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So, many times I would not allow myself to fall into that self-serving trap. My opinion should be no more relevant than the postman’s when discussing important issues. I was hired to teach, not indoctrinate, and not feed my ego to an adoring audience. It would have been so simple to sway young minds. Too simple as I see today.

The argument that students need to think, I agree with wholeheartedly but consider the college professor who holds the power of the grade. Many students are too intimidated to argue or present an opposing point of view. When the ones with power continue to present their opinions without opposition, the rhetoric becomes gospel. Look at the dissenters on college campuses today. I listen, wondering if they have ever been presented with the other side of the story. I’m guessing not.

To my colleagues, don’t underestimate your influence, and to all educators at all levels, allow students to voice their opinions, to disagree among themselves, and add bits of information to the discussion without intruding on their thinking or learning. Then you’re a true educator, allowing for discourse without your influence and without your ego. 

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