The Earned Privilege of Teaching

Bryan Slater · December 5, 2017

We’re seeing some pretty dramatic transformations taking place in the 21st century classroom. Many districts are employing 1:1 initiatives where every student, instead of receiving 6+ textbooks to lug around every day, receives a laptop or Chromebook. Our students are glued to their world, which happens to be the size of their palm and doesn’t require a dial-up modem and America Online.

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Boys don’t have to muster up the courage to call their crush, knowing full-well that dad might be the one to answer the only phone in the house; the one in the kitchen with the 30 foot cord that’s a tangled mess. This has in many cases, revolutionized the classroom. Many students use their district-issued laptops to fact-check you as a teacher, on-the-fly, simply by doing a quick Google search. Anyone who currently teaches History can relate to the dreaded hand-raise by Josh in the middle of a lesson followed by the “Uh… Mr. Slater… it says here on Google that…”

And this is a good thing.

Teaching today is different than it was just a few years ago. Today’s generation of students require teachers to earn the privilege of teaching; it’s not automatic anymore. Arguably, it has never been automatic.

And this is a good thing.

Now before I get into depth on this topic, I think it’s important to first establish a central tenet to this essay: teachers must earn the privilege of teaching. I don’t mean this in the literal sense of earning a college degree which allows you to teach - I mean this in the sense of “influence.” Teachers must first earn the privilege of influencing their students which will in turn allow them to teach their content, and perhaps impact the lives of the children they influence in other positive ways as well.

Let’s break this down and get into why I would argue that this approach by students to require their teachers to earn the privilege of influence and ultimately the privilege of "teaching" is not just reasonable (I mean that literally - “able to be reasoned” using logic) but also in accordance with the principles of Servant Leadership. You may have read my previous blog post titled The Duty of First… in which I argued that teachers and other leaders have the duty of being the first actor when it comes to showing respect and the seven other essentials. To dig deeper into how the privilege of teaching goes hand-in-hand with the Duty of Firsts, let’s look at the rationale behind why today’s students have it “right” when it comes to requiring teachers to earn the privilege of teaching.

When looking at privilege, I think we can agree that privilege is something that all people do not have access to. It’s special, in other words. You can really only get privilege in three ways: buying your way into it, inheriting your way into it, or earning your way into it. Consider this: what’s the point of knowing what you know, if those you are teaching have not given you the privilege of teaching them what you know?

Look back at your own generation - broken homes, divided families, poverty, etc. - you’ll see that many of our students are coming from similar homes where the practice of showing kindness, respect, forgiveness, and the other essentials is just not employed on a daily basis. Therefore when a child gets to school and sees that piece of paper on your wall that says you graduated from college and are certified to teach children, all they may see is a piece of paper. That’s it. “Nice work. You graduated from college. Yet there you are, standing there proudly, expecting a cookie and some respect from me as a result? Nope… not today. You gotta earn it.” This developing adolescent consciousness is real; students today really think these things and the faster you accept this, the faster you will earn the privilege of teaching those who think these things. The teachers who stand before a group of students and expect the privilege of teaching without earning it first are confusing what they have accomplished in their lives with the earning of the privilege to teach.

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To help illustrate this, let’s consider a stepfather-stepson relationship. Has an individual who has earned the title of “husband” also earned the role of “father” in the lives of his stepchildren? It all depends, right? It depends on whether the children decide to give him the privilege of being their father. It’s not their mother’s choice, it’s not their stepfather’s choice, it’s the stepfather’s job to earn the privilege of being called “dad.” Maybe he’ll be successful, maybe he won’t be.

Teaching is very similar to the aforementioned scenario. Earning a college degree that entitles you to talk in a classroom is not the same as earning the privilege of teaching. Every student who sits before you has the authority, and the decision, to grant you that privilege. This means you have to earn it. Earning it requires you to act on the Duty of Firsts.

I imagine you might be thinking at this point, “This is wrong. I disagree… I think students should be obliged to show me respect even if I haven’t earned it yet.” But in this retort, I believe you are confusing my position - a teacher has to *earn* the privilege of teaching their students - with the concept of being *worthy* of earning the privilege to teach. Those are not the same things. I tell my students on day one, “Perhaps I have done nothing to earn your respect; but it is unlikely -barring some outside-the-classroom interaction - that I have done anything yet to lose it, either.” In other words, “Don’t confuse my self-imposed necessity of earning your respect as some sort of statement of me not being worthy of it.” To be clear, the intent behind this approach is not to communicate to my students, “You have free rein to abuse me until I’ve earned the privilege of teaching you.”

My point is this: the students who sit before you daily have the authority to give you the privilege to be their “teacher.” It’s not automatic anymore, and arguably, it’s never been automatic. I imagine you could identify right now which teachers you assigned that privilege to and which teachers never earned that privilege in your life. So what’s the hold up? Tell your students you are aware that you have to earn the privilege of influencing them and that it’s an absolute honor to even have the opportunity to earn their respect. Tell them you believe you are worthy of their respect anyway because they *are* worthy, but tell them every day that you’re going to work hard to earn it. Let them know that you are aware of the fact that once you’ve earned the privilege, you are capable of losing it and that if you do lose it, you’d appreciate the opportunity to earn it back. The duty of firsts requires you to be the first actor if you lose the respect of your students, and I imagine if you go all-in with me on acting on the practice of showing it, you’ll find yourself doing a lot more teaching and a lot less talking in your classroom.

And this is a good thing.


Bryan Slater

Bryan Slater is an experienced classroom teacher who has taught high school Social Studies in Tacoma, WA, Lagos, Nigeria, and Sumner, WA since 2002. He currently teaches IB 20th Century Topics, Advanced Leadership, and Theory of Knowledge to 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at Sumner High School. Bryan's passion centers on helping teachers and students understand the importance relationships play in developing a culture of learning and trust in the classroom. He believes the Eight Essentials are the key to those relationships and works hard to challenge his fellow colleagues and students to think about how they are creating their "Character Brand" as teachers and learners through the 1,000's of choices they make each day.