The Re-Education of Alex Bruzan – Episode 4: Power and Compliance

I just started my third rental renovation. After finishing most of the renovations on our house, which included pretty much everything from moving a kitchen from the north end to the sound, rerouting the staircase, removing multiple walls, residing the outside, putting a new roof on it, and adding a three car garage out back, I figured starting on another house, the first rental was the next right move to make. The interior of that house has been totally redone, same with the second rental. Both have brand new plumbing and electrical systems. All of the work was done by me, my dad, or my brother in-law Phil.

The third house is about 5 down from our own and was owned by a guy named Charlie. Charlie literally grew up and grew old in that house. For over 80 years he lived in he same home. He was alive when Borchert field (the namesake of our neighborhood and the home to the old Milwaukee Braves) existed down the block from our houses, right where I43 is now laid out. He was there in the early to mid 1960’s when I43 was put in. Sitting on our porches today, the view is a highway. Before 1963 the view was a neighborhood. There is no 7th St. or 7th Ln. anymore where we live, there is a highway.

I was talking to a guy a met a week or so ago on my run and he told me that in 1963 he was drafted into the service. I have been spending more talking to my neighbors, well usually it is just listening. I have some things to add to the conversation, but usually I am better off if I just keep my mouth shut and let them talk. I am sure I have way more to learn from them than they have to learn from me. Standing in front of his house, which is also on my street – just farther south – he told me that when he came home in 1965, after serving our country, there was a hole where his neighborhood used to be. Instead of houses where his friends lived there was nothing. Where there was once a thriving Black neighborhood there was now a hole in the ground. He went on to tell me about a couple of friends that he had back then, friends that he had no idea where they lived because their houses were now dismantled and carried off to a dump somewhere far away.

I like working on houses because I think the act of building or creating is something that is innately in all of us. Not necessarily that all of us should be renovating houses or doing home repair, but the idea that we all have the power to create. Charlie’s house is in immaculate condition and the story of Charlie is for another day. The first two rentals were dumps. I did a terrible job back during the first renovation of documenting the work I did. The very first thing I should have done was take pictures of the upstairs unit of the duplex. I doubt that pictures would do justice to the amount of filth and garbage and overall nastiness that had built up over the years of the previous tenant and landlord not taking care of the place. Appalling is probably a good word to describe the living conditions of the home located right behind mine.  What is more appalling is that children lived there. There is a ton of beauty living in the inner city. There are life experiences and relationships and a level of realness that is hard to find outside of places like this. There are also heart breaking, no that isn’t it, more like heart destroying, conditions brought on by a mix of poverty and mental health issues all around me. The condition of that house is a reminder to me that any student, might be coming to school from a place like that. Most are not, but some of them are. Some of them are living in duplexes where I literally had to scoop mouse shit out of cabinets with a small shovel. Some of them are living in duplexes with no beds, or maybe just a dirty mattress on the floor. When some of them move most of the things they own are left behind in a big pile. It’s not even that I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up in a home like that, it’s that I don’t want to imagine all of the bullshit that would go along with living in a place like that first rental, it hurts too much. It hurts too much and all I did was renovate the place, I didn’t have to live there.

Renovations, like a lot of things in life, give us an opportunity to create. In fact, I would say we have the power to create. There is something very primal or maybe even spiritual about taking something that was once destroyed and creating something beautiful from it. I spent over a year renovating that house and now it is home to two families that have access to a high quality rental unit for a very reasonable price. Where someone was once using their power to destroy the place, power was used to reclaim it – to create something new.

As educators, and human beings in general, we have the power to create and the power to destroy. In school we are creating little adults that will someday grow up into being big adults. We have the power to create engineers and doctors and electricians. We have the power to create individuals that are critical thinkers and we have the power to create kind, empathic, and caring human beings. In every instance that we have the power to create something out of what sits in a desk in front of us, we simultaneously have the power to destroy. I can create confidence in a student by doing x, y, and z and I can destroy confidence by doing a, b, or c. I have the power to help create a dream for a kid’s future and I have the power to decimate that dream, with as little as one comment.

We cannot talk about power and compliance without first understanding the immense power we have as classroom teachers and administrators. We have the power to build a life or destroy a life. Usually it’s a little more subtle and not so dramatic sounding, but every interaction between a teacher and a student is doing one of those two things. You are either building the kid up into the fulfillment of their innate potential or you are destroying them by blocking the fulfillment of their potential.

Power also takes a different form, specifically when we talk about rules and compliance, more specifically using ones power to force compliance. To talk about that we have to name the typical power structure that exists in many school settings. There are mandates dictated from somewhere inside of the state capital. In Wisconsin the Department of Public Instruction dictates a lot of the rules and compliance based requirements for schools. You need to have this many minutes and teach this many things and we are going assess your success based on these couple of factors. The rules seem arbitrary and disengaged from the actual purpose of school (see episode 3). The rules are always well intentioned and are used to ensure there is an appropriate level of student achievement. Higher level school administrators then take those mandates and develop other rules and compliance based requirements and those are dictated to the leaders on a building level and measurements for success are created. These rules can sometimes seem arbitrary and disengaged from the actual purpose of school. Those mandates form new ones and those are then dictated to teachers where the rules and directives can seem arbitrary and disengaged from the actual purpose of school. Further mandates are then dictated to children, which, you guessed it, can seem arbitrary and disengaged from the actual purpose of school – to give students access to marketable skills so when they leave our system they are equipped to go on and live their own lives.

I know that the dynamic of using power to force compliance exists within this structure because in any interaction where power is used to force action, fear is the result, fear that the lack of compliance will result in a use of force in the form of a consequence by the next level up. If you are reading or listening to this and you are in education the biggest complaint you have heard about classroom observations is that they do not represent the overall quality of what the educator is doing. They are snapshot of one lesson on one day, and teachers are terrified of being seen as outside of the compliance dictated to them and the resulting ramifications of being outside of compliance.

Using power to force compliance takes the focus off of the purpose, making good adults, and builds in a layer of resentment or even thoughts of retaliation to that use of force.

My wife is a web designer and runs her own web design business out of our house. She has had a couple of interns but primarily does all of the work herself. 7 years ago when my son was born we made the decision for her to start the business and at least see where she could take it. At the time we thought calling it Milwaukee Web Designs was a good idea. It gave the illusion of an established company even though it was just her sitting at the kitchen counter for hours on end while taking care of our then infant son. Apparently at the same time some guy named Brian that lives in a Waukesha, a suburb of Milwaukee, had the idea to also start a business and call it Milwaukee Website Design. Brian claims that he started his business first and is demanding that we change the name of her business. It’s entirely possible that he started his business before my wifes. However, I have no idea if that is the case because instead of having a conversation with us about it, he got a lawyer and tried to force her to change the name by filing a complaint with the hosting company all of her sites are hosted on. We have talked about changing the name of the business to something that better represents her, since she is the brand and what people keep coming back for, not the name. However, because he went the route of using power (a lawyer and contacting Bluehost) we were forced to respond in one of two ways, be scared into compliance or forced into compliance while simultaneously hating Brian and considering ways to screw him over in the long run. If you know me, you can guess which route we are tempted to go. Brian literally could have had what he wanted if he would have just called her on the phone and asked for it. Instead he used a bunch of force and pissed off someone that could use their own power to retaliate.

The use of power to force compliance has been at the forefront of news headlines lately and for good reason. We have a system for forcing compliance to rules in society in general. I believe school is just a microcosm of society in general. It’s just the young people that will grow up to contribute to the larger societal structure in whatever place they end up living. The system we have for forcing compliance is law enforcement, they enforce the laws, hence the name. The use of power to force compliance can lead to the abuse of power to force compliance. Abuse of power results in fear and eventually that fear leads to retaliation.

I think that is what happens when I kid tells a teacher to f*ck off. Among other things, I think the kid is so tired of the use of power to force compliance that they are no longer afraid and then want to retaliate. My wife’s initial thought was to be afraid of Brian from Waukesha. Then when she realized he didn’t hold the same power over her that she initially thought, she immediately went into retaliation mode. It wouldn’t surprise me if someday we own, so watch for that.

It might seem like I am making the case that we shouldn’t use our power to force compliance from kids in a classroom, and I guess I am sort of. I don’t actually care what happens in an individual classroom at an individual school is some school district in a random part of the country. If that is how a particular group of people want to organize their systems and structures, to be based around compliance, they can deal with the resulting fear and retaliation. By the way, it’s worth stating that the opposite of using power to force compliance is empowering to “force” compliance. Force is in quotes because the thing we are forcing to make happen is actually the thing we are trying to do, give kids access to obtaining a marketable skill. Using power to force compliance destroys access, even just a little, to obtaining a marketable skill because kids don’t separate the two things. They don’t necessarily see compliance as in their best interest. They do not see their compliance as helpful in the overall success or failure in their ability to garner a marketable skill. I suppose I can’t blame them though, if they haven’t been explicitly told that this was the purpose for all of the work they were doing in the first place .

Anyways, force compliance through power or “force” compliance through empowerment, either one is fine with me. You do you, except we have inequities in our compliance data. Subsets of our population are more likely to be punished for non-compliance. Shoot, that now makes it an equity issue. That is true in general society. Half of the Black men living in my zipcode (53206) have been or are currently incarcerated.  Black students are suspended at a higher rate than White students. One belief I have about equity is that we kind of start out the same.  I think it’s like saying we are all just a product of our life circumstances and experiences mixed with a little of our individual personalities. That is why I have no issue exposing anyone to the reality that, living where we do, my son who is White would have a 50/50 chance of being incarcerated at some point in his life if he were Black, based solely on the statistics around where we live. I should mention too that not a single person that is a part of a marginalized group, woke up and decided to be marginalized. They were forced into that space by repeated uses of power by those in the non-marginalized group either intentionally or unintentionally.

Sitting in my backyard writing this, I can look at houses that contain people that are living in the margins. Little by little power was used to force their compliance into those margins. The building of the highway forced a lot of my neighbors a little farther into the margins by turning their neighborhood into a hole in the ground and then a highway. School systems that failed to provide easy access to marketable skills forced them a little more. Terrible landlords that allow kids to live in filth forced it a little more. The use of power to force compliance resulting in fear that moves into retaliation and the resulting over cosequenting (yeah, not a word) disproportionally forces non-White students into the margins.

So how do we fix this. Instead of using power to force compliance we use empowerment. In later episodes I think Ill talk about empowerment, seeing students as assets, student centered design, and the prevention of unmet potential but we should talk empowerment real quick by using one example that might help us rethink about how we promote equity. Students of color get suspended more than White students. It happens. A great goal around equity would be to try and make the suspension rate equal or better yet flipped where students of color are suspended less frequently than White students. The easy solution would be to just stop suspending certain groups of students. The better solution is the empowerment route.

Here is a different way to think about it. We want students to not commit suspendible offenses. So we have to convince students to not do something that requires an administrative action (a suspension). How do you convince someone to not want to do something suspendible? We create greater ownership over the shared spaces and the interactions within those spaces that the student and other students occupy. How do you build ownership? You honor individuality, since the individual is the one taking ownership of the space. How do you honor and develop individuality, you purposefully and intentionally build up a student. What does building up a student look like? You celebrate the achievements and accomplishments of that student. How do you set a kid up to achieve and accomplish? You create spaces for them to do great work outside of compliance based systems. How do you get great production outside of compliance? You tap into the intrinsic motivation of the student by providing individualized educational experiences where they can show mastery of content through using their own creativity that aligns with their self identified identity (the definition of deeper learning) because when we have a clearly defined purpose for what the 13 or more years of public education are for, the last thing we would ever want to do is alienate anyone from the goal of ease of access to marketable skill attainment and even worse than alienating one kid, would be alienating a group of kids with similar physical characteristics.