Tender Authority – Our Development Edge Session for the AR+E(co)Retreat

Victor Friedman, Michal Razer and Gili Talmor David share their work on “tender authority” which has emerged from 30 years of action research with schools. This work in helping teachers work more effectively with their most difficult students is described in their book Exclusion to Excellence: Building Restorative Relationships to Create Inclusive Schools

They explain: “While our approach is focused on inclusive education, the reflexive inquiry processes we will illustrate in our “Developmental Edge Practice Attractors” session are relevant for transformations in many contexts. You get a glimpse at our video snippet below.

We have chosen the term “excluded” to describe these students, because it focuses on the relationship between them, their teachers, the school, and the larger social context. Excluded students somehow do not fit in – because of poverty, discrimination, distress at home, disability and/or just about any reason – and they often come to school experiencing great distress. Then they fail and act out and are punished – and their distress gets worse.

For a long time, the biggest obstacle to our work was the attitude among teachers and administrators that it isn’t really their job to educate these students, who make their lives miserable. Furthermore, schools are judged and rewarded by test score results, so educators feel they can work for either inclusion or excellence, but not both. In recent years, however, things have changed; more and more schools want to be inclusive. However, most educators just don’t know how to deal with these students. The very first thing teachers say when we begin working with them is “we want to understand these kids and meet their needs, but we’ve got set limits! Otherwise it’s chaos!”

Because of this change, we chose a new name for the Hebrew version (2020): Tender authority: Building Restorative Relationships to Create Inclusive Schools (https://store.macam.ac.il/store/books/3237/).

Tender authority is based on two ideas. The first is that these students really need teachers, no matter how much their behavior seems to push teachers away. The second is that students also need limits, but that limit setting does not have to involve punishment, which only leads students to feel more excluded. The alternative is “empathic limit setting” – a set of concrete practices for setting and enforcing clear limits while at the same time addressing students’ distress and needs.

One of the most interesting things we have found is that teachers often experience exclusion themselves in working with these kids. Feelings of failure, helplessness, anger, fear, and/or humiliation are part of their everyday life in school. In fact, students and teachers are often caught up in a cycle of mutual exclusion. Therefore, the emotional world of teachers needs to be addressed if they are going to be able to address the needs of their students.

Tender authority is not just a behavior skill because there are certain “frames” of thinking that lead teachers and principals to get stuck when working with these students. When educators enact these frames, they also reinforce the “field” that limits their vision and makes change seem impossible. Through processes of reflexive inquiry, educators can become aware of their frames, free themselves, and reframe situations in ways that enable them to expand the realm of the possible – and even change the field.