TEACHERS: Speak to Students as if They Are Your Employer!

Karen Kilbane
Mar 8 · 6 min read

Equal rights…
How do we define them?
How do we achieve them?


Well, the only actual thing humans are capable of is interpreting information and then coming up with predictions for what to do next. Our brain, with the help of our nervous system, does absolutely everything else! We don’t move our muscles to achieve our predictions, our brain coordinates all that jazz. We just have to supply a constant string of directives to our powerful (and incredibly controlling) brain by constantly making predictions for what to do next. The brain takes over as soon as it receives the prediction.

To be equals, therefore, we humans must all be given equal rights to interpret information in the ways we are ABLE to in order to make our predictions MATCH our interpretations. This means no single person’s predictions will ever automatically receive more weight, more validity, or more rightness than any other person simply because they have the most power in the room.

Nowadays we teachers say we individualize instruction, but as teachers we are only taught to manage individual students and groups by ensuring they interpret information exactly like we do. Like entitled behavior tzars, we are taught to give punitive consequences or deny rewards to students whose interpretations and predictions don’t MATCH ours.


When we teachers pre-decide how children should sense, analyze, predict, respond and behave in response to our lesson, then we are not allowing for how differently each one of our students is able to interpret information and arrive at predictions. The latest buzzword trending in education is expected behaviors. This term is one of many we have inherited from psychological theorists that rely on power imbalances to be interpreted and applied. Behaviors are involuntary responses to how one is sensing and organizing information and making predictions, therefore different thinkers will display different behaviors. Children can’t just press a button and change their behaviors to turn them into expected behaviors. Children can change their concepts, which will in turn cause behavioral changes, but they cannot magically change their behaviors.

Again, to manifest expected behaviors and to remain in compliance with one’s teachers children MUST think in conceptually similar ways to their teachers. This is the only way to stay on a teacher’s good side.

So what about the child who does not have the cognitive capacity to think like her teachers? What will become of her? Well, I will tell you. This student will suffer constant punishments in response to how she IS capable of thinking and behaving. She will be put in double binds and double binds often cause tremendous anxiety and/or mental illness.

When we instruct teachers to use their powers to coerce students to think and respond in expected ways just like they do, it is terrible for student mental health. This dynamic causes the kinds of personality confusion that can lead to mental illness and it is unpleasant for students who cannot think like their teachers. Iis also unpleasant for those who can because it is an arduous chore to do so. It is an odd dynamic all the way around.

This dynamic of making students think like their teacher is clearest when a child comes up with a different response or behavior to a lesson than the teacher expected. For example, when Gus keeps tapping his pencil on the desk while doing math and we punish him, we are in effect measuring his choice to pencil tap against our predetermined belief pencil tapping is inconsiderate and therefore not an expected behavior. If Gus is told not to pencil tap but continues, psychologists have told us Gus must then be defiant, oppositional, unexpected, inappropriate, disordered, abnormal, bad, inadequate, and/or cognitively inferior, etc. Psychologists don’t say, Gus must have a reason for tapping his pencil while he does paperwork so let’s try to figure out how pencil tapping helps him think. Instead, psychologists expect teachers to use their power to define Gus against their predetermined notions for what is an acceptable way to behave and what is not.

This teacher could easily give Gus a quiet fidget to help him do paperwork, but this would mean Gus is her equal. Teachers have no modeling or instruction for how to treat students as equals. They were not treated as equals as children and were methodically taught how to leverage their power imbalance as a teacher to make children comply with their behavioral demands.

This odd dynamic in every classroom in America goes on to replicate itself in the form of societal inequities we simply cannot solve for. We can’t un-program a child to coexist as an equal in the adult world when we have programmed him for 12 plus years to be either a dictator or a submissive.

When I figured this out after 30ish years in the teaching biz, it was quite a deliberate undertaking to take myself out of the dictator role and to take my students out of the submissive role because I had to re-analyze every interaction I had in real time. I got better with each passing month, but it took a lot of mental effort for me to disrupt conceptual schemas I had been using for over 40 years. But then I thought of a trick to help me make the transition more quickly.

I imagined my students were my bosses. I did not have to be submissive to them, but I did have to respect them and treat them as equals to me. Here is the kind of thing that would happen during my first attempts at treating students as equals. Let’s say Angela threw her chalk in the garbage instead of writing her spelling words on the board. My automatic reaction would be anger. How dare she do something so disrespectful to me and to classroom materials! Then I would say, wait a minute, hold the phone, Angela is my boss. This would remind me to fully consider her vantage point.

I am guessing the existence of a chalkboard is the most shocking element in this story, but when I treated Angela as my boss who was my equal, I asked myself, “Why did it make more sense for Angela to throw her chalk away than write out her words.” When I asked this question, I considered all the possible obstacles Angela might have been experiencing. It took me a few seconds to remember Angela had on brand new glasses. I asked her how they were working. She said with a soft, sad voice, “I don’t know.” I asked her to name a few letters on the board for me. She couldn’t do it. Sure enough, after checking out her glasses Angela and I discovered she had been given the wrong lenses.

Angela had some communication difficulties and under duress had trouble expressing herself. She couldn’t write her words on the chalkboard and the stress it caused inhibited her speech. When I treated Angela as an equal, as my employer, instead of a punishment and a dose of my dictatorial irritation, Angela received my help and understanding.

When I started aggressively treating children as equals to me, incidences like the one with Angela happened constantly. I always found a valid reason for why a child exhibited a particular behavior. I no longer use the terms expected or unexpected behavior with my students. I now find these terms unconscionable.

What if we teachers imagined our students as our employers? How would we speak to them? How would we treat their concerns, their successes, their failures?


We are taught to treat students as if they must comply with our every whim. But what if we scrap that model and work towards collaboration with our students? Instead of elaborate DIY behavior charts, what if we put that time into assessing how each of our students is ABLE to understand and organize information. What if we make cognitive maps to help us meet each student’s cognitive needs instead of behavior charts so they can meet ours?

Karen Kilbane

Written by

My students with special needs have led me to develop a hypothesis for a brain-compatible theory of personality. Reach me at karenkilbane1234@gmail.com

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