The Erosion of Authority: A teacher’s thoughts on being Googled by his students

Back in my grade school years, it would have been such a phenomenon when any of my classmates would spot a teacher in the mall. Our first reaction? They go to malls! Apparently, yes. And they’re wearing civilian too! *Gasp*

My friends and I had one such experience at the end of 6th grade. We ate at a diner right in front of our school and just at the table from across us? Our teachers. We felt like we found Bigfoot or something. If we had text messaging then, we would’ve asked the entire batch to converge on that diner. Just over ten years ago, it was such a revelation knowing that our teachers live real lives too.

Fast forward to today. The world is flat and our students are skating all over it. This blog has received a lot of hits lately from people searching for “sir martin”, “martin perez”, “sir martin pisay” and “martin perez blog”. With a Page Rank of 6, my blog is relatively easy to find by a group of people with a sudden interest of knowing more about me or someone with the same name as me. Or someone named Martin Pisay.

With at least ten keys pressed on their keyboard and one mouse click, anyone can easily read this blog. My life — or what can be gleamed as my life from the sum total of what I reveal through these entries — is easily an open book.

In traditional power structures, one function of authority is the ability to withhold information. The more you know over someone else, the more powerful you become. That is why teachers of old were very authoritative figures. We knew nothing about them and we were under the impression that they knew everything. The ultimate manifestation of their power over us is in the grades they give. Card giving day was always a frightening time because we felt that we were literally at the mercy of our teachers.

But in the flat world, the power structures have shifted from the vertical to the horizontal. Authority is no longer from the top down, but side to side. What determines the authoritativeness of a source of power is the value other people place in that source. Take Wikipedia authors for example. Look at links and page rank. The more reliable you are, the more powerful you become.

What does this mean for teachers such as I whose lives have become an open book because of the Internet?

For one, I have to shift from being a teacher who lords over information into someone who works with his students. With my thought processes Google-able, there are not too many secrets I can keep. My biases and perspectives are exposed, and I will be more vulnerable to challenges, questions and criticisms. My current students can even chat up with my past students to see how I’m like, and to discuss how best to “beat my class”.

Of course, while there remains an unbreakable institutional wall which clearly draws the line between teacher and student, and which provides ad baculum power to the teacher, it won’t be enough for long. To some degree, I can still impose my authority as a teacher but it may be more difficult for students to take me seriously, knowing what I do during my free time, what music I listen to, and why I’m still single.

Nonetheless, this is not a threat to me and should not be. With power arranged horizontally, I can read their blogs as easily as they can read mine. I too can expose their biases, perspectives and inner most thoughts and feelings. The difference is that as their teacher, it is my task to aggregate whatever I gleam from their blogs — particularly their interests — and channel that knowledge into teaching them better. That is how I generate value as a teacher.

For instance, I’ve already seen a lot of good writers in my upcoming batch. There are also those so interested in Japan, thanks to anime, manga and J-pop. And then there are some who just don’t find any sense in going to school. Period. By showing that I value what my students think and feel — as diverse as they are — I can become a more effective teacher.

Of course, this is nothing new in the realm of education. But what the Internet allows is for the acquaintance and ice-breaking process to happen faster and deeper, while reinforcing everything we do in the classroom. And so when it comes to conducting myself in the room, emphasis must be on being a collaborator and friend, rather than a dictator and foil. This is why, as some noted, we blogging teachers tend to be too at ease with our students in the blogosphere. This is because they don’t work for us, but because we work with them.

Nonetheless, there are several caveats to be made.

Collaborative relationships are still determined by rules, though I prefer the term protocols. It is in laying down these protocols that a teacher assumes the traditional authority figure, but only insofar as to implement and enforce them. Nonetheless, the protocols must not stifle or constrict, and allow for real partnerships to emerge. At the minimum of course, we must impose decorum.

But even the imposition of decorum can be done creatively and in a collaborative manner. For want of not spoiling any surprises, all I will say is that for my upcoming batch, I will be implementing a rule-based system where they earn points for performing specific roles in whatever partnerships they find themselves in. It allows them to maximize their individual talents, and rewards them for collaborating. (I’ll say more on this once I’ve unveiled it.)

Another caveat to be made is with regards to our students. While we may be ready to adopt a collaborative paradigm, they may not be as prepared. Perhaps, some readers of my blog (especially my newest ones) still read these words as coming from an authoritarian source which they cannot question. After all, I am a teacher and that is the mode they are used to seeing their teachers in.

Nonetheless, I believe that trust must, first of all, be established between teacher and student. And that trust-building begins in the classroom. Secondly, the structure of the blogosphere encourages democracy. In these web pages, my students have an extraordinary glimpse into me and hopefully they realize that we’re not that different but not too similar too. After all, to acknowledge your common ground and to stand ground when you differ is the root of democracy.

And my last caveat to be made is that the traditional forms of teacher authority will not completely disappear yet. Underlying this discourse is the assumption that both teacher and student have access to and are literate in the flat world technologies. Clearly, that doesn’t hold true for all teachers and students. Furthermore, there are functions in a school setup that only traditional authority can perform, especially when the students are younger. Such would include handling sensitive students and resolving discipline cases, instances where a professional distance is more helpful than being too close for comfort.

Thus, a healthy balance must be had. On one hand, blogging makes us more accessible to our students. On the other hand, the information we write may betray us and weaken our credibility as teachers. It goes without saying that a teacher must not reveal everything. But more importantly that in everything they reveal, it must be the truth.

Nonetheless, I have figured an approach to blogging that will allow me to write as much as I can and still be followed by a wide readership.

When I began this blog, I had several goals depending on who I am writing as. But as just a writer, my goal is to write in such a way that my pieces can connect to as many people as possible. And in my pieces written for everyone (such as my Confessions of a teacher), I am very conscious of putting layers in my work. I am aware that my blog is read by many people who know me in different ways. Whether it is my students, my friends, my parents, my colleagues, or even total strangers reading this, I try my best that everyone gets something from every entry. And the more you know me, the more you should get out of what I write. I may not always succeed — I can become either too academic or too personal — but the truth is particularly difficult to write.

As a teacher though, that is the best and only guarantee I can give my students. They deserve no less than the truth, and with blogging we can dish out learning on a daily basis! The prospect of that excites me above all.

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4 thoughts on “The Erosion of Authority: A teacher’s thoughts on being Googled by his students

  1. It could work the other way around. When my teachers found out that I have a blog in which I write mostly articles related to my course, they warned me of “leakage” like posting my answers to take home quizzes, or in-class exams after I take them. It’s quite interesting really. And fun!

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