Who eats first in your class? Thoughts on status roles at school

Cover photo by frankie cordoba on Unsplash

Want a glimpse into the undercurrent controlling everyone you know? Picture a group of students you work with, and ask yourself, Who tries to get who in trouble?

Say a certain student swears. Does half the class shout that SO-AND-SO SWORE, or does everyone let it go?

Say two students are in a disagreement. Which side does the class support?

What do these situations reveal? The status of each student.

Wait, what kind of status? Had you considered the power of status in governing your group? I think in the midst of our obsession with collaboration, we, as educators, have overlooked status for far too long.

What is status?

Status roles are a part of every human interaction. They are how we determine who’s up and who’s down. Who we listen to, and who we ignore. Who it’s okay to make fun of, and who we don’t talk about like that. Who eats first, and who gets the scraps.

Negotiating status happens in our classrooms, in our group work, and in our staff rooms. But do we notice it?

  • Why won’t Julie work with Gregg? Because it will lower her status.
  • Why won’t Jay stop blurting out? Because it’s the only way he knows how to get status.
  • You automatically laugh at a joke your boss makes…because you want status too.

Having status in a group is a deep, ancient need, but constant posturing for status disrupts learning. We need to deal with status issues before we can expect students to do their best work.

Where does status come from in school?

My matrix of where status comes from in school.

There are two measures of status in a classroom: social standing, and academic competence. The student with the highest status does well academically without trying (because not trying = cool). The lowest status student struggles socially, and does poorly on academic tasks. Like Jay in our example above, if you have low status on one spectrum (like academics), you can gain status on the other spectrum, like by being the class clown.

Status roles are inescapable, and hard to change. Researchers have found that you can predict a student’s academic achievement in high school based on their social acceptance and reading ability in first grade. That means a child’s status when they are 6 determines their future for the next 10+ years.

So what do we do for the kids who started off on the wrong foot?

How does a child change their status?

Well, it’s hard. Most movies feature someone changing status (e.g. Wonder, Mean Girls, The Lion King), but these tend to be through exceptional means that make good stories.

Changing Social Status

On the social spectrum, teaching social-emotional skills can help a child learn basic rules for interacting with others, which should improve their social standing. Other aspects of social status, however, are out of our reach as teachers (e.g. all the things teens care about like clothes, money, drinking, etc.)

Changing Academic Status

Unfortunately, academic competence is complicated too. Academic status tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy as students age. A student knows peers think she’s dumb, so she talks less in class to avoid making herself look dumb, but this leads peers to confirm their beliefs that she is dumb. Peers continue treating her as low status, which reinforces her self-narrative that she is dumb, and the cycle repeats.

As the teacher, you need a genuine way to show the student’s competence. Below are two options, from Elizabeth G. Cohen’s book, Designing Groupwork.

1) Make the student an expert

Assign a group task where you know the student will do better than peers. But be careful: it can’t be something stereotypical, and you need to be certain the student actually has competence in the area, or you’ll make things worse.

For example, allowing students of African descent to show off basketball skills can backfire in multiple ways. First, not all black kids like basketball, so you need to check that assumption. Second, since most students already assume the students of African descent are good at basketball, excelling in this area won’t change the black students’ status. Similarly, showing off the ability to speak their native language doesn’t change the status of an ESL student. You need to show off the student as an expert in an unexpected area.

A personal example

Traditional Kente cloth. Courtesy of kentecloth.net

I succeeded at this once, by accident. In grade 7 math, we were looking at Kente cloth, and I had asked if anyone knew which colour represented royalty. In that moment, the way to hold academic status was by having expertise about colours (This is important! Colour is general, African culture would be a stereotype). A white girl answered purple. I said yes, that’s true for European cultures, but not African cultures. A student of African descent (who looks a lot like this model) raised his hand and explained yellow represents royalty, because it’s closest to gold. You could feel the energy of the class shift. This boy, who was near the bottom of the barrel in math, suddenly became the most knowledgeable person in the room.

2) Value multiple abilities

This method is much more straightforward than the previous one. You teach students through discussion that there are lots of ways to be good at any given task, and they begin to think this way themselves.

This is best done when first introducing group work, but before and after any assignment will do. Before students begin, you discuss as a group specific intellectual abilities and skills that they think they’ll need, and then during the wrap-up, you go over which skills were used.

You must be specific about the intellectual skills. We tend to say we need “creativity,” or “logic,” but we have to explicate these vague ideas for kids. For example, “spatial reasoning” includes the abilities of drawing a mathematical concept, optimizing the layout of a space, designing a model, recreating a concept with technology, and imagining how things would look from another perspective. Five different skills to master makes it difficult to be either good or bad at spatial reasoning.

A phrase that emphasizes this is:

“No one person will be good at all these abilities, but each person will be good on at least one.”

Tammivaara, 1982, p. 216

During the task, students are much more likely to value other’s contributions, and show equal status behaviours. Afterward, as a low status student feels more academically competent, their self-image and behaviours change, reversing the cycle.

Photo by frankie cordoba on Unsplash

Conclusion: What’s the point here?

Even if you don’t implement any of these ideas, commit to being more aware of status roles. Remember that every time you ask students to interact, some will be made to feel superior about their status, and some will feel shame at their lowly status. The more you can minimize these emotional detours during the day, the more success everyone will have.