I didn’t plan to be a teacher. I grew up in Akron, a small city in northeast Ohio, with a Black mother and white stepfather. Our neighborhood straddled two communities, one predominantly white and one traditionally Black. I became deeply connected to both communities, but separately, as though they were divorced.
I had an aptitude and love for science, so when I graduated high school, I enrolled in a nearby university with plans to major in biology. I soon found myself struggling, my professors unresponsive to my needs. I was told that this field of study that I loved and was good at wasn’t a good fit. I switched my major to Africana studies and minored in biology.
Africana studies gave me a language and voice that explained the world and race in new ways. I could enact change on my own terms with an understanding that learning isn’t always accessible. Too often those who want and strive for learning are not given an opportunity; often they are students of color and economically disadvantaged. Clear eyes and a righteousness of purpose aren’t enough. I vowed to do better than my professors.
After college, I moved to Brooklyn, New York, and taught 7th grade science in a progressive 6-12 school. I considered myself a responsive educator to my students. I ate lunch with them, interacted during recess. My door was essentially always open.
Yet that responsiveness ended when instruction started. Middle school kids have a lot of energy and opinions about how things should go. My response was to operate my classroom like a dictator. My students couldn’t move, walk or breathe in certain ways because I believed I needed to assert authority and power. I held this belief for longer than I want to admit, although all along I had this sinking feeling: “This sucks and is wrong.”
It wasn’t until an instructional coach from STEM Ed Innovators visited our school that I saw my dictatorial classroom management as oppressive. He was there to help us shift to a more democratic teaching model.
When he came to my class, I was sure I would blow him away with my creativity and execution in a lesson that had my kids replicate the rock cycle by using sugar cubes. It had elements middle schoolers love: They smashed cubes, poured sugar into a metal tray, lit it on fire, and, as soon as it cooled, broke it up. But I was dictating every aspect: I looked crazy running around the classroom.
At the end of the lesson, my visitor looked at me earnestly and asked: “How do you feel?” In that moment, the only thing I felt was tired. He pointed out that since my lesson was so scripted, it was more like a demonstration my students performed rather than an experience they could learn from. Later, he taught my lesson to another class, opening my eyes to what learning could look like if I trusted my students more.
Experiments should be fun. Science should be fun. Learning is taking the information you have been given and transforming it into knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t come from someone dictating information. It comes from experience, the ability to connect new concepts to what you know, to test assumptions and make sense of how they relate to the world. Teachers can’t force knowledge. When we try, we actually suppress it — and oppress our students.
So what does it mean to “democratize” teaching? There are formal frameworks, too, but it can be as simple as letting students see you make mistakes and modeling how that can be an opportunity to learn. Or acknowledging when you are wrong. Ultimately, however, you want to connect the content of the classroom to their world and lived experiences.
You can shift away from correcting and toward challenging. You can share some of the control, whether that’s classroom management or lesson content. None of this will cause your classroom to devolve into chaos.
I looked crazy running around the classroom. At the end of the lesson, my visitor looked at me earnestly and asked, “How do you feel?” In that moment, the only thing I felt was tired.
Not long ago, my seventh graders were studying interdependent relationships in ecosystems. We investigated our neighborhood and how its food availability affected health outcomes for various populations.
A student raised his hand and asked: “Does diabetes only affect Black people?”
As a Black man well versed in racial stereotypes, my eyebrows furrowed, but before I could open my mouth, another student jumped in: “Why do you think that?”
That led to an honest conversation about diabetes, Black people and our own prejudices and biases. I could not have planned that moment. Those kids were making connections I wasn’t. I had grown. So had they.
Our authority as teachers is directly tied to the respect we earn from our students by respecting their voices, what they bring to learning as people and their ability to struggle and persevere. Our goal should be to celebrate the power that knowledge can give and model how to wield it. Our ever-changing society will soon look to them to be leaders. My hope is that more teachers will relinquish oppressive, dictatorial practices that ultimately hold students back, and allow them instead to help our world become more democratic.
Dierre Taylor is a peer independent evaluator with the New York City Department of Education, a master fellow with STEM Ed Innovators and a former middle school science teacher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story about democratic teaching was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.