Educational Abuse of Power

Something which has really nagged me about education since I was myself an innocent student subjected to the faulty logic of perhaps a well meaning, yet no less abusive teacher and an issue that still bothers me to this day (except to a much greater extent), is the rampant abuse of power consistent with our profession. Though power imbalance is prevalent in nearly all disciplines, the abuse of power in education is so commonplace that it makes one wonder how/why there aren’t more scandals tied to schools, teachers, psycho principals, pompous professors and self-serving district leaders/school board members who regularly abuse our collective trust.

Honestly, in an industry where the customer is effectively children – it baffles me how there can be so much incompetence routinely swept under the rug or kept out of the public’s purview (like each school’s “dirty little secret”). When in actuality the stuff that we have all witnessed in educational spaces would give even career criminals pause, for its brazen disregard for humanity and decency. Let me not just speak in general terms here though . . . this blog post could honestly be an embarrassingly long testament to malfeasance – and that alone speaks volumes. But, I will attempt to keep my examples here short and specific, to allow for the welcome possibility of a more hopeful counter narrative to this practice. My fear though, is that others are likely to share eerily similar reflections of schools and educators abusing their power, which means that we must all strategize ideas for how to transform this muck and mire in a timely way. It’s high time that we invite another model of excellence in education that can ideally complement a fresh start across today’s seemingly less invasive, virtual platform.

The first realm to be called out for an abuse of power in education is also the most obvious, inescapable dynamic because it lies at the feet of teachers and operates at the high-priced expense of our students’ collective wellbeing. For so long, teachers themselves have been individually allowed (I daresay encouraged), to operate with impunity and utilize their classroom as their own, independent universe in which they, alone, rule supreme. In no other profession is one afforded such free reign of methods, content, rules, best practices and rewarded for results which go against the grain except for the teacher evaluation based, competition driven school environment. In these otherwise dictatorship-ruled spaces, the word of the teacher, far too often the only adult in the room, is absolute law. And their beliefs, ideology, idiosyncrasies (no matter how warped, racist or flawed), are held up as a model of simply “the way things are”. Students literally have no viable escape from the potential abuse of power which can (and in the case of Black and Brown students), often does occur.

Here’s several cases in point: An elementary homeroom teacher once labeled me a troublemaker and behavioral problem, because I didn’t sit idly by after completing my work early (like some of my peers). Typically, after I finished my too easy assignments early and began buzzing about the classroom to help other students struggling with their own work (while my teacher, a young, white woman commenced to permanently cementing her behind to the chair behind her teacher’s desk), my initiative was labeled via a deficit lens of problematic. The novice teacher’s belief that peer-to-peer academic engagement and critical thinking is in fact misbehavior, was undoubtedly fueled by her own bias and otherwise limiting; especially in an inner-city Detroit school with a 100% Black student population who equally required much more stimulation than her brand of passive teaching could provide. This insidious level of unpreparedness is akin to the countless cases of dated enslavement re-enactments and other reprehensible projects which crop up, every year in schools across the country within which racist, white teachers impose taboo assignments (which later require reprimand or apology), simply because there are no existing checks and balances on subjective micro aggressions causing students harm. Finally, in a similar case of lowered expectations, one of my high school English teachers, a meticulously manicured and seemingly highly educated middle aged, Black woman; would perch herself upon her desk and inappropriately cross her long, high-heeled stockinged legs as she proceeded to engage in daily lectures about which of her 9th grade English students would or would not “make it” in college and/or life based upon our work ethic, dress, socio-economic status and/or speech. Her inappropriate, elitist mantra was: “I’ve got mine, so you get yours” and she would regularly dismiss latecomers to class because her particular brand of perfection was the unrealistic ideal upon which we were all expected to aspire to and attain. Certainly, in her alternate world of a classroom, where only the use of the Queen’s English dare cross your lips, there was nothing worse (to her) than operating on CP time – please use your imaginations here. So she punished us unmercifully for what she deemed her duty to prepare us for the “real world”. As you can imagine, rebellious students like myself began skipping her class, 3 out of 5 days a week, because being subjected to her daily tirades of judgmental proportions, appeared to us to be a unique form of punishment. Later, after I was individually reprimanded for the misbehavior (skipping) and shared my rationale for missing class very candidly with both of my parents – who were admittedly strict. My mother then arranged an unscheduled “pop up visit” to observe the class in session and when the teacher inserted her trademark judgmental commentary into instruction, Mama immediately enacted the proper protocol to complain and have me transferred out of the class, effective immediately. The result is that I was upgraded to a much more challenging and developmentally appropriate, advanced placement English class. However for many of my peers the ineffective teacher was neither corrected nor reprimanded because she reportedly continued on with her daily lecturing/non-teaching routines unfazed and was clearly never appropriately held accountable for her actions (thus contributing to the gross mis-education of high-performing scholarly students for multiple years thereafter). In each of these distinct cases, the teacher’s unique ability to wield with absolute power, resulted in a literal atmosphere of hell on Earth for impressionable students. This translates to 6-8 hours per day in an elementary school setting and/or accounts for 1-2 unbearable hours per day in the high school setting. Either model of an abuse of educational power, is unacceptable.

In the case of leadership, in my 20s I once served under a male principal who rather harshly told a scantily clad 3rd grade teacher to “go home for the day” because of her unprofessional dress code. Then later in my 40s, I worked with a male principal who had a sick penchant for sleeping around with countless teachers, support staff parents and even administrative assistants, all while Bible thumping and giving meaningless voice to “family values” especially when his dutiful wife (also an educator), would show up on the school site from time to time. Certainly, both men exerted their leadership power in ways that might be deemed unorthodox from an external albeit feminist point of view, but you can likely guess which school leader ultimately left a powerful legacy of service, commitment and high expectations governing the school in which he founded and the one who is now universally deemed a pariah and is routinely walked out of/released from more administrative positions than the law allows. Speaking of the law, immoral sexual deviance became one of the trademarks of the school led by the imposter leader/preacher in the three-pieced suit. In this school the educational environment became one consistent with rampant gossip, innuendo and sexual harassment lawsuits became the embarrassing norm as countless adults began engaging in clandestine affairs with one another much more openly. No doubt this unhealthy climate was spurred by the flagrant abuse of power at the top – and before long, one of the longtime, highly respected teachers (who was known to have had an affair with a fellow colleague though he too was married), was soon cited for inappropriate relations with many of the underaged girls under his watch. Needless to say, no one suffered in this school atmosphere more than the 450 students under our collective watch who were the unsuspecting victims of the deleterious impact of a focus on everything else BUT their quality education. Smdh . . .

I’ll end with the mention of unforgivable abuses from upper level administrative, central office and school board members, as they are not immune to harsh critique, though somehow these policy makers appear to be sheltered from proper oversight and regulation. In multiple schools, I have been a parent or have worked in, I have had the misfortune to witness such egregious abuses of power from the top, that I began to regard mis-education as much as an inside job as it was a function of institutionalized racism. These abuses have been consistent with damnable misuses of funds and the widespread double standard of the “family and friends” program in which those connected to leadership benefit from the countless contracts, positions, perks and paychecks which each school subjectively wields. One might wonder how board members could engage in such questionable, conflict of interest in explicit ways without checks and balances. But I venture to say the abuses allowed free reign in any given school can almost always be tied to poor oversight from the seemingly independent governing body. Examples of power trips here include board members and administrators who take long-distance, overnight, conference adjacent business trips but who never actually appear in any of the sessions or even bother to register in person. This common pre-pandemic scenario ultimately rendered a school-sponsored educational investment to the meaningless level of a personal vacation for persons misusing the public trust and I have never been more appalled at the wastefulness of it all. There’s also the popular tendency to ensure that the board is armed with enough of your colleagues, extended family and friends – so as to ensure the on-paper legitimacy of votes for policies and contracts in favor of your own people. Meanwhile, such blatant inconsistencies with the limits of the law are modeled in government politics on the regular. Perhaps considered a harmless abuse of power by many, I was also heartbroken to observe a superintendent (who hand-picked the vast majority of their administrative staff), then begin to systematically deem others on staff as undereducated (read Black, male/female teachers), and start to attack them via a highly subjective progressive discipline practice, based solely upon their bias, internalized oppression/racism, and/or favoritism. Teachers nationwide have noticed the trend to replace tenured, higher paid, veteran educator positions with lower paid, inexperienced Teach for America, novice level salaries – and we collectively call foul on this seemingly common abuse of power.

Decisions rooted in an abuse of power have always been in opposition to best practices and often disregard the unique, high integrity needs of Black students and other students of color – who disproportionately suffer from mis-education – but they persist nonetheless. Adding insult to injury, now after having worked in the misnomered “hallowed halls of academia” for several years now, I am also painfully aware of power abuses on this educational platform as well – as underpaid Black and Brown adjuncts bear the brunt of carrying the academic course load while higher paid, tenured professors paint a white, male portrait of privilege that so many other institutionally racist industries mirror. I’m almost certain that others must have similar stories of such legendary abuses of power in educational contexts . . . who is willing to share their horrors? Sadly the dirty little secrets within education will persist until we each regard equity as an action word and disrupt the systems which fail us.

Published by Nefertari Nkenge

Nefertari Nkenge, Ed.D. is a well respected transformative leader in pedagogy. The unique combination of over two decades of classroom instruction, curriculum/professional development innovation, urban school administrative leadership and a lifelong commitment to grassroots activism and social justice - informs the empowering Educate to Liberate model.

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