Power and the ‘Big Six’

I grew up as one of three boys, all of us physically active and rambunctious. That meant several things: we were rarely inside the house except to eat and sleep— kind of like a pet cat; a lot of stuff seemed to get broken in our house – windows, drywall, bones, etc.; and I knew where I fit in the social order. I was the youngest and therefore the smallest (until I was an adult; I’m now the biggest when IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER).

As children, my oldest brother was the biggest and strongest and was therefore at the top of the sibling hierarchy. He generally got his way amongst the siblings, while my middle brother just quietly did his own thing and never ruffled any feathers; he seemed to slide into opportunities unnoticed. As the youngest, I knew I had to suck up to my older siblings in order to be included in their shenanigans.

But as we aged, these dynamics changed. Eventually we all grew big enough that the hierarchy couldn’t be maintained with an appeal to mere physical force. My middle brother established himself as the most mechanically minded, which gave him power in our house. I developed as an athlete in sports other than those my brothers played, and I also began to read voraciously. I learned that knowledge has power, but too much knowledge might lead to a headlock and a few punches to the gut. As the three of us have grown into adulthood, the dynamics of power in our relationships continue to change, and even vary depending on the specific context.

I believe that so much of how we interact socially is connected to our own stories, how power manifested itself in our own experiences in homes, churches, community organizations and the like. Think of the power dynamics in your own childhood, the way your parents and grandparents interacted. My guess is that gender probably played a significant role. It did in my home, and I think it was an expression of both my parents’ traditional upbringings alongside their theological (or religious) understanding of the role of men and women in church, society, and the home.

Two key dynamics, then, that influence how power plays out are gender and theological understanding. Now let’s add the layer of cultural norms. I grew up with a Mennonite father and a Scottish mother, one of my close friends grew up in a traditional Sikh household, and another grew up in a traditional Korean household. All of those cultural traditions held specific views of who should wield power and how that power should be wielded. Yes, there are similarities, but there are also some stark differences. While my mother believed my father was the head of the house, there were pretty clear boundaries around that headship (to which my father adjusted well) and by no means did we as boys ever think our maleness gave us any power over our mother. That was not the case for my Sikh friend.

We now have gender, theology, and culture on the table. Our experiences with these throughout our childhood and adulthood are formative in shaping our understandings of power. I also believe there are current realities that shape our view of power. For example, I think one’s standing in both the school community and the broader community is a factor at play in the power dynamics in our schools. I believe those individuals with significant social status have the ability to leverage that status to achieve their desired ends (see definitions of leadership and power from my first blog).

Finally, I believe personal attributes can impact the amount of power ascribed to someone. First, one’s personal charisma, and even their beauty, may influence their access to power, and second, I believe a person’s real or perceived intelligence (see comments re: knowledge is power above) impacts the power afforded to them.

That brings our list of power factors up to six (gender, theology, culture, social standing, charisma, and intelligence). I don’t believe this is an exhaustive list, but I do believe it is a relevant list. As we apply elements of critical theory to this whole idea of power, we’re going to unpack how these factors are at play in our schools and how they affect our leadership. And this is important, because the factors at play in our schools can either enable the flourishing of our mission or play a limiting role. Therefore, they require our attention.

In the coming blogs, we’ll look at some of these factors more specifically. In the meantime, I’d like to encourage you to reflect on your own schools. How do you see “the big six” playing out in your staffroom? How about your classrooms, or the board room, or the parent parking lot?

– David Loewen

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