The Democratic Classroom

  • by: Steve Bailey

Excerpts from “Democratic Classroom” Workshop
Administrators and classroom teachers acknowledge that effective, successful teaching requires two dynamics: process and structure. By process, we mean the interpersonal relationship between the teacher and student as reflected in the educator’s verbal and non-verbal interactions with the student, within and outside the classroom. Developmental and educational psychologists have described the dynamics most salient in teacher-student processes, such as attitudes of caring and concern, respect, empathy, effective communication skills, knowledge and understanding of adolescent emotional and cognitive dynamics as well as maturity of judgment. The structure of teaching relates to structural elements like particular curriculum goals and structure, didactic methods, classroom teaching strategies—both formal and informal—and classroom management policies.
The two dynamics of process and structure cannot be separated in the educational experience. Interpersonal processes infuse structure and are crucial to influencing student motivation and attitudes, irrespective of the particular structure that is presented.
A fundamental belief woven through this entire project is that it is critical for teachers and administrators who work with teen-agers to understand the basic nature of adolescent psychological developmental processes and the maturing nature of the adolescent. If the goal in Jewish education is to help shape the moral and ethical character of the student, interpersonal interactions between teacher and student become a critical necessary condition for teacher influence. To that end, I will discuss four characteristic areas of adolescent processes of particular relevance to educators:

  • Self-Esteem
  • Thinking  Styles
  • Defense Mechanisms
  • Values

Adolescent issues are fairly universal and a teacher’s knowledge of these basic developmental processes will help greatly in relating to the student effectively. The challenge to educators is to minimize the negative expressions of adolescent dynamics and encourage the positive expressions. In order to do this, it is necessary to learn about the ways adults—especially educators—can encourage the positive expressions of adolescent growth and minimize the negative.


There are five areas of adult relationships with teen-agers that will encourage positive growth: communication, respect, empowerment, support and modeling.
The challenge to educators is to minimize the negative expressions of adolescent dynamics and encourage the positive expressions. In order to do this, it is necessary to learn about the ways adults—especially educators—can encourage the positive expressions of adolescent growth and minimize the negative. We will discuss five areas of adult relationships with teen-agers that will encourage positive development and that should characterize a school’s administration, staff and faculty in the Just Community: effective communication, respect, empowerment, encouragement and modeling.

  1. Communication

It is not uncommon to hear a frustrated teacher tell a student who has not complied with a test instruction, “But you should have known that; I don’t have to explain everything!” The teacher may be right, but she still is not going to get a fair estimate of the student’s knowledge on the test. Teachers are not likely to get what they want from students when they depend on the student to remember instructions from last time, to anticipate what the teacher expects or to guess what the teacher’s priorities are. Instead, if the teacher directly communicates instructions, boundaries and expectations, a great deal of after-the-fact debates about fairness and justice are eliminated and more time is available for actual teaching.
Clear communication, with specific language that expresses needs, expectations and behavior, counteracts the adolescent tendency towards the distorted thinking discussed earlier. One of the most valuable communication strategies a teacher can use in the classroom is the presentation and discussion of written classroom policies during the first week of classes. This represents a major contribution to the potential success of the student in the classroom and enhances the development of self-esteem. Later we will discuss how this strategy is the cornerstone of the Democratic Classroom.

  1. Respect

Some teachers and administrators see respect in school as a one-way street. As an educator devoted to student achievement and teacher of proper social and religious values, the teacher sees himself as deserving respect from all students under all conditions. However, in healthy adult-child relationships—in the home and at school—respect goes both ways. In contemporary society and in the contemporary classroom, respect is not a given, it needs to be earned.
Why do we hesitate to accept the notion of mutual respect? Typically because to many educators, it represents a loss of power. They believe that the teacher or administrator needs to be the absolute authority or else non-compliance may wreak havoc in the school. They feel justified in using threats and punishments as the way to maintain order and demand respect. Ironically, the truth is the opposite: mutual respect increases compliance to school rules and policies, and increases student motivation.
What mutual respect means is that teachers, administrators and students all have a right to be treated with dignity and fairness. All have the right to express their opinions inappropriate ways and to have their concerns heard. This shows itself in a classroom where the student is taken seriously and is respected so that just as a teacher will not be spoken to in a rude or disrespectful manner by a student, so too, a student has the right to be spoken to in a “menschlich” way, avoiding shame and embarrassment. One can see how treating adolescents respectfully encourages the development of a positive identity and a healthy self-image.

  1. Empowerment

One of the most prominent manifestations of the adolescent search for identity is for the adolescent to control his or her own life. Adolescents need to feel that they can make choices, shape their destiny, change things that are not working and do things that make them feel good. This power over one’s life is a key component to self-esteem. Empowerment for the adolescent, then, is experiencing the ability to make a difference in her life and in the life of those around her.
As we discussed, many educators fear that not demanding a student’s respect threatens the authority of the teacher, so too, they fear that empowering students reflects a loss of their authority. Once again, the opposite is true. Encouraging teen-agers to experience a sense of power over their own lives teaches them that privileges come with responsibility and choices have consequences. It is easy for students to project blame on teachers and administrators who retain all the power in a classroom or a school.  Under such conditions the responsibility for boring classes, lack of school spirit, disorganization, mediocrity and a host of other ills are placed exclusively on the school. However, in a school that honestly empowers it students to assume responsibility for much of the school atmosphere and gives them the power to problem-solve and change existing conditions, students become active, responsible partners in their own education.
Of course such student empowerment is not unconditional. Adolescents are not equal partners in education. Empowering students does not mean disempowering the administration and faculty! The school still decides what is and what is not negotiable but, at the same time, strives to compromise rather than create win-lose situations. To be sure, the needs of all parties may not be met in a given situation and ultimately the school remains the party responsible for the effective education of the students, but there are many areas in which students and faculty can work together in a constructive partnership to affect continuous growth and change in the school community. The discussion of Fritz Oser’s “Full Discourse” method of resolving dilemmas, in a later chapter, is an example of healthy empowerment. Empowering students in a healthy, realistic way is one of the most powerful means a school has to encourage adolescent self-esteem.

  1. Encouragement

As teachers and administrators, we are natural advise-givers and problem-solvers. We are quick to advise a student to do homework, hand in papers on time, pay attention to instructions, answer clearly and study hard. At the same time, we hear the student respond with “yes, but…” and list reasons why this particular solution has not worked or is not likely to work in the future.
What we need to realize is that in providing solutions for student problems, we are robbing the student of the opportunity to take responsibility for himself. We also need to realize we are not abandoning a student by not solving his problem, rather we are just taking on a different role to affect a more positive outcome. What we want to do is to become a guide or encourager who assists the student in exploring and discovering various solutions to his own problem. Then the student can experience the sense of self-competence and success so necessary for self-esteem.
Instead of advising, “Don’t leave your homework for the last minute”, the teacher could say, “What kinds of things do you think you could do to make sure you hand in your homework on time?” Instead of, “Study longer for the test the next time”, a more constructive response would be, “What different strategies could you use to prepare better for the test?” What the teacher is doing is encouraging the student to explore alternatives that he himself proposes. This not only encourages personal responsibility but makes it more likely that the student will follow through, since he himself suggested possible resolutions. In such a scenario, the adolescent feels a sense of control over his life and can take credit for positive changes, thus positively affecting his sense of competence and success. This process, too, is crucial for the Democratic Classroom.
Veteran teachers realize that the greatest influence they have on students does not come from the material they teach but from who they are and how they act. Long after students forget math, chemistry or grammar, they will remember comments the teacher made, what the teacher valued and how the teacher related to the them—for better or for worse.
A teacher cannot help but be a model to students. As adolescents strive to develop an identity they carefully observe and absorb everything that goes on around them. A teacher is an important adult figure in their lives, sometimes more influential than family. Especially in a Jewish school which is inherently concerned with the ethical development of the student, the teacher’s moral and ethical conduct becomes a key teaching dynamic, consciously or unconsciously.
What can a teacher do to encourage the healthy development of adolescent “menschlichkeit”? The basic rule is: talk and act as you would have your students talk and act. Do you want your students to learn to be sensitive to the feelings of others? Do you want your students to be fair and honest? Do you want your students to be responsible and trustworthy? Do you want your students to be courteous and respectful? You will not achieve this by exhorting them; you need to model these virtues to the best of your ability. If you consistently model fair and ethical behavior, sensitivity and trustworthiness, you have contributed to the healthy development of your students. To be sure, teachers need not be angels. Needless to say there will be times you are impatient or irritable, but students learn from patterns, not from an occasional lapse. It is the responsibility of teachers to try their best to express integrity and “menschlichkeit” in and out of the classroom. No matter what you say, the real message that is heard is conveyed by actions.


The Democratic Classroom is an Authoritative Democracy. As such it presents students with the opportunity for their reasonable needs to be heard and taken seriously, and to be treated respectfully and fairly. No other place is this more critical than in the classroom. We also argued that while teachers should not indoctrinate based on asserting their personal power of authority, they should represent the school’s ethical norms that appeal to the moral reasoning of the group and transmit these norms to the group. Therefore, the classroom policies need to be a model of ethical reasoning and democratic values to the students. Additionally, we stressed the need for the teacher to understand adolescent dynamics and respond to adolescent needs seriously and genuinely.
We also discussed Oser’s concept of ‘professional morality”, where teachers have to deal with competing claims for justice, care and truthfulness, using the “Full Discourse’ method of presenting classroom policies to students for open discussion, respectfully listening to student views and striving to balance competing needs. Finally, we discussed the need for clearly defined and equitable discipline policies that are consistently followed-through. The combination of all these processes create a Democratic Classroom which reflects the goal of an ethical system representing democratic values of mutual rights and responsibilities.
From the students’ side, students learn to take the perspective of the teacher, to balance her needs and theirs, to develop a sense of trust, to propose their own solutions and to become sensitized to personal responsibility.
The Democratic Classroom is reflected in two major ways: written classroom policies and teaching methodology.
Written Classroom Policies – During the first few days of school, the teacher distributes a written statement of policies and procedures for each specific class. The policies cover as many areas of classroom procedures as possible relevant to the particular course. Although it may appear overly detailed, the more detail, the less likely misunderstanding and debate in the future. Some of the classroom policies that must be included are the following:

  • classroom preparation (what must a student bring to class)
  • homework (how often, what kind and when due)
  • attendance (excused and unexcused absences)
  • lateness
  • what is considered disruptive behavior and its consequences
  • what is considered plagiarism and cheating and their consequences
  • what is considered respectful behavior among students and between student and teacher (like listening to others, not interrupting, raising hands to speak, etc.)
  • requirements for papers, reports, tests, quizzes and projects
  • consequences for missed deadlines or missed quizzes and tests
  • restroom policy (how often and for how long a student may leave the classroom) grading.

This written form is presented to the class for open and serious discussion. The teacher presents a rationale for each of the policies based on fairness and mutual rights and responsibilities and students can comment, respectfully, on those policies they see as unfair, based on reasonable justification. The teacher and students work on modifying policies that need modification and by the end of the discussion, policies need to be accepted by all parties. If there is no consensus, an administrator, trained in the Democratic Classroom, is invited to the classroom to play the role of impartial mediator. (see attached example)
Democratic Teaching Methodology – Keeping in mind the processes of an Authoritative Democracy, the teacher needs to teach in a manner which conveys fairness, respect and sensitivity to students, while maintaining the teacher’s authority. The use of embarrassment, sarcasm, ridicule and other hurtful statements are not part of this approach, even when a teacher believes they may serve to motivate a particular child. Remember that the teacher is a model, and students judge by what they see — not by what the teacher may intend. The teacher must also allow the student to ask questions (within limits) and to express opinions which are firmly founded on relevant supportive material.
Additionally, the teacher needs to use a methodology which challenges the student to creative and critical thinking, since those cognitive processes serve to stimulate more mature moral thinking. Frontal lecturing, with little discussion and much verbatim transcribing is discouraged.