Power in schools: An ex-teacher returns as a researcher

By Dave McPartlan

    Power in schools: An ex-teacher returns as a researcher

    About the Author

    Dave McPartlan
    PhD Student
    Hexham, ENG, GB
    1 Article Published
    Dave McPartlan

    Following a career of over 35 years as a teacher, I am now pursuing a PhD and becoming a researcher. With the current research I will be returning to the school where I last taught to facilitate a participatory action research project involving 6th form students examining aspects of school mental health.

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    Project Summary

    This writing is for teachers who are either returning to schools to conduct research or are hoping to conduct research within their own institution. I explore how my previous role may have been seen by the young people within the school and how that impacted on the young people’s perceptions of me. The aim of the writing is to reflect on my preparation to conduct qualitative research on power in a school where I previously worked and was in charge of the school’s discipline systems. It is my belief that school staff holds the major positions of power within schools and a hierarchy filters down from the headteacher to the remainder of the staff, with some staff holding more power than others but all staff having a greater power base than the students. It is my hope that by reflecting on issues of school power we will gain a greater understanding of the tensions at play in schools. In particular, I want to focus on whether someone with my background can return to a school where he previously worked to undertake qualitative research in collaboration with the students from the school.

    Project Context

    This writing is part of my PhD process. I am an ex-teacher about to return to a school where I was on the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) for over 10 years and now interested in conducting qualitative research in collaboration with the school’s students. During my prior time at the school, I had responsibility for the pastoral area of school, which included being strategic lead for student welfare and behaviour, liaising with external support services and running a large team of pastoral staff within the school. As part of SLT I was in charge of ‘student behaviour’. As such I designed the behaviour systems, I oversaw them and implemented them. This responsibility put me in a powerful position in the school. As the ‘behaviour head’ I was someone who would ultimately have to make decisions around discipline that would often bring me in to conflict with students. The role I held also meant that I needed to give unpopular messages to the whole student population, thus having the potential to impact upon my relationship with the students. I am now returning to the school as a researcher. Prior to beginning the research I am exploring in this paper the potential issues between the aforementioned positions and my new role. For my research to be both authentic and honest I believe it is essential that I examine these issues. Once the research begins, I will need to conduct a continuous reflexive process to ensure that issues of power in an education setting do not interfere with my intention to produce trustworthy conclusions to the research I conduct. This paper describes an initial step in that process.

    Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Aims, Background, and Literature Review

    The aim of the writing is to reflect on my preparation to conduct qualitative research on power in a school where I previously worked and was in charge of the school’s discipline systems. This paper aims to explore aspects of how a position I previously held at a school might influence my return to the school to conduct educational research. I begin with a description of my prior role within the school, before reviewing some academic literature that focusses on power distribution. Finally, I consider how to address potential issues that might threaten the trustworthiness of the research I intend to conduct. 

    Prior Role in the School

    As a member of the Senior Leadership team (SLT) with pastoral responsibility, it is unsurprising that I was seen by many of the young people (YP) attending the school as a ‘powerful’ staff member. Being at the top of the behaviour referral systems brought me into conflict with a small number of students and likely impacted upon my relationship with the wider school. As SLT I was someone who led the school behaviour agendas and designed and implemented the rules; in this sense I was central to school culture as I embedded and upheld structures that had a positive intent whilst also constraining some choices for YP. The dynamics associated with the power I held in the school, and with power relations in general, have a long history of research and theory.  

    Power relations in School: Literature Review and Instances

    At the turn of the 19th Century sociologists were altering perspectives of society by suggesting that individuals were created by their environment and their society (Durkheim, 1982). Described as functionalism or structural functionalism, Durkheim, 1858-1917, highlighted power as being a key to how society functions within its unique structures. Positioning power centrally in society enabled systematic thinking about how power and society interact. However, these views had limitations as the ‘state’ was overemphasised at the cost of the population who were seen as ‘objects’. Durkheim argued from a functionalist perspective that society creates roles for individuals and that the interplay of these roles enables a society to function, with the noncompliant seen in the role of deviants. Building on Durkheim’s work, Parsons (1937) presented a different view. Whilst he agreed with Durkheim that ‘structures’ were central to societal processes, he also argued that the status quo within society was maintained by individuals accepting their prescribed roles. He believed that as ‘actors’ we ‘choose’ our societal roles and that the role of the elite was to uphold society as the lower classes were not intelligent enough to do this. Although this ‘classist’ theory subsequently came under severe criticism, in its time it could be seen as a rationale for rule by elites.

    The complexity and limitations of young people’s choices and hence the constraints on the roles they may take on as actors is quite evident in schools and in the relations between home and school. Having worked with youth and families for many years I have seen firsthand how young people’s choices can be narrowed by life circumstance. The example of Steph (a pseudonym), from my pastoral work in school illustrates these limitations. From my personal journal, kept as a part of my work at the school, I note:

     “Steph, was a student of mine who ended up permanently excluded from school. Since then she has become addicted to heroin, been the victim of domestic abuse and hospitalised on a number of occasions. Her daughter who is on the child protection register, is now at school. She has witnessed fighting at home and the death of her mum’s friend from an overdose. She has been arrested for shoplifting and has started experimenting with drugs.”

    I would argue that Steph’s daughter has seriously restricted ‘choice’ when it comes to the direction of her life. As it is, her life is structured around social deviancy, disadvantage, and chaos. These are, Durkheim might say, the ‘social facts’ of this young person’s life. In a larger sense, structures both develop a society’s culture and are created by the society; they are factors that control individuals, including norms, rules, laws and discourses etc.; they are what is ‘accepted’ as the way things are (Maynard & Stuart, 2017). It seems naïve to me for anyone to think that such restrictions do not impact the school experiences of someone like Steph’s daughter.

    My role in discipline in the school was inextricably linked with power, and this role is perceived as an efficient way of both controlling large numbers of people and achieving control (Foucault, 1995). Here is an instance of my SLT position that shows how power played a role in students’ perceptions of me.

    My first role as pastoral assistant headteacher was to design a new behaviour structure. After a consultative process, a ‘Consequences system’ that all staff were required to follow and all students needed to comprehend was introduced. On September 1st 2018, 15yrs after its introduction, a new student explained the system clearly and succinctly to me. He went on to say that his dad, who I also taught, had told him about ‘Mr. McPartlan’s Consequences’ and suggested that he learn them to stay out of trouble.”

    Bourdieu (2000) addresses social inequalities and how power can help reproduce inequality. In my experience in education all staff are ‘power’ laden. However, as SLT and from a ‘privileged’ background with high ‘capital’, it is most likely that I was perceived as one who ‘dominates’ and consequently some YP may have seen themselves as the ones who were dominated. Some see power as a negative force and controlling factor, while Foucault (1991) regards it also as an enabling force within society (Gaventa, 2003). Foucault (1991) believed that language around power needed to change and argued that it shouldn’t always be expressed as: ‘excludes’, ‘represses’, ‘censors’, ‘masks’, ‘conceals’. He also believed that power transcended politics and was embedded within society. In my experience, whilst some YP see only a school’s negative power dynamic, others choose to become empowered within such structures. For example, I observed the following when I was SLT:

    “In producing monthly behaviour reports for the school, the one thing that struck me was that only 3%-5% of students were ever excluded from school; 95% therefore were never excluded. The same pattern was true for consequences as only a minority of the students ever received serious sanctions; the vast majority of students had however learnt to play by the rules.” 

    Gramsci, (1971) agreed with Bourdieu’s (2000) views regarding ruling classes and their manipulation of the masses. Gramsci introduced cultural hegemony to explain how the powerful ruling classes imposed on society to protect the status quo and thus retain power. He believed that a struggle is created when revolutionaries advance alternatives under a banner of social justice. I believe the same could be said for struggles in schools. Some YP are regularly excluded and receive ‘messages’ that they don’t ‘fit in’; although not full-scale revolutionaries by any means, excluded youth advance their alternative views through rebellious behaviours that challenge the status quo. Overall, while some YP just ‘fit in’, others seem to be uncomfortable with the imposed order of school hegemony and seek to create an alternative culture of ‘us and them’.

    The research I intend to undertake will be about social justice and will focus on the most vulnerable group of YP, many of whom don’t ‘fit in’ to the ‘middle class’ hegemony of the school. This provides a research context for the study.  Teacher-student relationships are often seen as interpersonal (Frymier & Houser, 2000) and research has shown that teachers use their social influence to persuade YP to be obedient, comply with school and classroom rules (Richmond & McCroskey, 1984) and learn (Richmond, 1990). However, there is also evidence that YP also apply social influence thus developing power to sway teachers (French, & Raven, 1959; Golish, 1999; Golish & Olson, 2000). The somewhat complex boundaries between social influence and power can get blurred; teachers may use both but YP generally lack legitimate power and so rely on social influence to get their way. The question then arises as to how this impacts on the power dynamics between students and teachers?   Power can be used for pro-social and anti-social effect, and French and Raven (1959) suggested various relational bases for this; how teachers may exert influence can be portrayed by five of their relational bases, three of which are pro-social power and two anti-social power. 

           Pro-social power:

    • Reward power – students learn to get teacher rewards by performing to their expectations, which in turn motivates them to work for this teacher.
    • Expert power – students recognize the expert knowledge of the teacher and so do as they are told.
    • Referent power – students do as they are told as they respect and admire the teacher.

           Anti-social power:

    • Coercive power – students avoid punishment as they have learnt that teachers punish when students cross given boundary.
    • Legitimate power – students expect teachers to have authority over them and they therefore accept all that comes with the teacher’s role and are compliant with teacher demands.

    Shift in Attitudes toward Power

    Time has seen a shift in attitudes toward power that have been mirrored by changes in the discipline structures in schools. My own experience ranged from being a pupil who received corporal punishment (possibly the ultimate exertion of school power) to being a senior leader of a more progressive, pro-social leaning school. As attitudes have changed, anti-social use of power has been discouraged as alternatives to corporal punishment have been suggested (Maurer, 1984). Schools have moved towards supporting YP as opposed to punishing them. Initiatives such as Social and Emotional Learning (Department for Children Schools and Families [DCSF], 2007), that have focused on child wellbeing, were introduced as an alternative to  sanctions-led approaches. More recently the introduction of restorative approaches (RA) has aimed to help YP to understand how their behaviour impacts on others (Hopkins, 2002). This approach was adopted by the school where I will conduct my research with the aim of shifting the school’s power relationship dynamics. It introduced an element of fairness into disciplinary procedures by ensuring that incidents, and their impact, were understood by all involved; crucially it also has given YP a voice and therefore shifted the teacher dominated power dynamic. It would be misguided to imagine that these changes have been appreciated by all YP as some still have rejected the idea of school rules and sanctions.

    The RA also acknowledges that teachers and YP share power and cooperate (Devine, 2003). Whilst a teacher’s power over YP is often implicit and invisible (Bernstein, 1977), it can often shift and change. As Woods (1980) indicated, power-sharing and conflict are not mutually exclusive as teachers and YP continually create and change their relationships. The RA attempts to acknowledge such changes and work with them.

    Context, Perception, and Power Relationships

    As schools have been described as “significant agents of culture and economic reproduction” (Apple, 1979), I would argue that power relationships in schools can be viewed in societal terms. Bernstein (1977) posits that society is defined in the way it exerts social control and how it selects, classifies, transmits and evaluates educational knowledge. Schools are sometimes criticised as production lines ‘filling’ students with knowledge (Freire, 1996) whilst Shor (1996) argues for social change through the emancipation and democratisation of schools. The context of the school and the power relationships within it are therefore pertinent to my research. In conducting my research I need to be cognisant of the likelihood that students may be critical of the school and the structures that I set up and upheld within it in my previous role. This example, from a recent visit to the school, demonstrates a student’s view of the power imbalance between myself and participants in the study.

    “Having left the school 18 months ago I recently visited to recruit participants.  I met a student for the first time who asked whether ‘she was in trouble’. Although we had never met, she obviously remembers the job I used to do. Quite a sobering incident for me!” 

    Although in this paper, I have made a deliberate focus on negative YP-teacher power relationships, it is also important for me to acknowledge that many students expect to have rules (Kim, 1998) and that they have confidence both in the rules and in the teachers (Cullingford,1988). Research also suggests that students judge their teachers in terms of honesty and are critical of ‘unfair’ treatment (Devine, 2003); conversely, when teacher-student relationships are infused with honesty and fairness the relationships are seen as positive and supportive. I believe this to be true for the relationships that I had developed during my previous time at the school.

    Addressing Potential Power Imbalances during the Research Process

    Through this reflection process I have concluded that a collaborative action research approach based on me closely collaborating with a youth research team (YRT) will be the most impactful way of exploring the power issues I have raised. The focus will be on open and honest dialogue. The aim is to first explore and deconstruct power issues through dialogue that then leads to true partnership working with the YRT.

    My intention is to work with the YRT over a period of months, allowing them to inform the research design, data collection and analysis. In this way I intend to cast off the position of one who has dominated by developing a research partnership. This will be achieved by consultation, listening and trusting YP and by jointly celebrating success and learning from the failures. The participants come from a group of disadvantaged YP who often struggle to ‘fit in’ and as such this makes them prone to an intersection of powerless positions. What I saw in my previous day-to-day interactions with them is what Bourdieu (2000) described as “bodily emotion”, taking the form of embarrassment, lack of confidence and sometimes poor behaviour, I observed the following: 

    “What struck me when working with children on free school meals was the way they often presented as embarrassed or ashamed. They would often stand hunched, bent and at times cowed, their body language seemed to reflect how they felt about their position in school and possibly in society in general.”

    As someone who was part of the design of the school’s ‘capital culture’, a culture that espouses middle-class norms (Mills, 2008), it could be argued that I was complicit in the reproduction of an educational status quo (Thomson, 2014) that disempowered students while maintaining the status quo of staff domination. This research is therefore my opportunity to overcome the power imbalance that I unwittingly propagated for over 35 years. By working with an YRT to engage and nurture disadvantaged young people I have the opportunity to be instrumental in transforming lives and contributing to restorative justice through this research. 


    This paper has examined some issues of power that adhere to teacher/student relationships, and how such issues can impact a relationship between a teacher-researcher and the students he wishes to connect with in a research process. As discussed in the paper, there are likely to be power issues at play for me returning as a researcher to the school. As research that aims to be socially just, it is paramount that I actively work to address the structures that may be a legacy of my past; I need to use both explicit and implicit means to divorce myself from my history. This paper highlights power relationships as a major influence in this research. In order to address these issues I believe I need to practice a systematic form of self-reflection and commit myself to honest and authentic dialogue with the students involved.                                            


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    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    McPartlan, D. (2021, January 10). Power in schools: An ex-teacher returns as a researcher. Social Publishers Foundation.   https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/power-in-schools-an-ex-teacher-returns-as-a-researcher/

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