Authority. It’s a ugly word for some people, especially when used in the context of education. For some reason, this word really draws the ire of some people (especially on Twitter), who think that teachers having authority necessarily means that students are stifled and suffocated by over-bearing adults that limit their creativity and potential. These kinds of people usually don’t even work in education and, for the record, I think they’re idiots. If you do work in education though (and if you’re not an idiot), you’ll know that by the very nature of our work, this word is critical to just being able to do our jobs effectively. So today, I want to talk to you a little bit about authority.
Let’s delve into its meaning(s). It has different ones. As we go on, I’m going to give my thoughts on the different connotations it has for you and me, as teachers.
1) “The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.“
2) “The right to act in a specified way, delegated from one person or organisation to another.”
3) “Official permission; sanction.”
Now pay attention, class. These three definitions of authority fall straight into the category of what the school (i.e. the organisation) gives you by the nature of your role as a teacher. This is authority that is officially delegated to you from the organisation to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. If the organisation didn’t give you this authority (permission), you wouldn’t be able to just walk in off the street and start handing out detentions, or telling a student to sit up straight and not sleep during your lesson. By extension, this also means that the nature of your job warrants that you
a) Will do this – i.e. give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience; and
b) Can do you this effectively.
If you’re deficient or uncomfortable with either of those two things, it’s a problem. It’s a problem not only for your effectiveness and your basic sanity (because the kids will eat you alive), but also for your students because your lack of ability in these areas will ultimately diminish the quality of education they receive at your hands, which will affect their life chances (no pressure).
Authority also means the following:
3) “The power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognised knowledge about something.”
4) “The confidence resulting from personal expertise.”
5) “A person with extensive or specialised knowledge about a subject; an expert.”
6) “A source able to supply reliable information or evidence.”
And THIS is what you’re going to have to develop if you are to be effective in your role. Authority delegated by the organisation in the sense of role power just isn’t enough nowadays. Students aren’t deferential to teachers. Parents aren’t deferential to teachers. Hell, no one is – not the politicians, not the milkman. You can shout from the rooftops, “I’m a teacher, damnit!” … Okay… and..? The authority that’s given because of your job role will allow you the right to give commands and enforce things, but this won’t sustain you in the long run. The authority you develop because of your expertise and effectiveness will be the one to benefit you in the long run, because it creates an environment in which you seen in a certain light – that of being a step above. That makes you respected. You have to be comfortable being above your students in terms of status, because you are. You’re meant to be the authority – ipso facto, you’re not equal to your students. You are in terms of dignity and self-worth, but definitely not in terms of status.
So, how does one go about obtaining this kind of authority?
A lot of this comes down to mentality. You’re already an expert. You’re an expert in your subject area (aren’t you?) and you’re an expert in pedagogy. If you’ve found yourself saying “no” to either of those things, then that’s the first place to start. So much of the talk around curriculum these days is focused on the need for teachers to engage with their subject specialisms on a continued basis. This is important, because your knowledge gives you gravitas. You’ll find yourself talking with more authority as you become more of an expert you become in your field. Don’t be shy talking to your students as the authority in your subject. Alright, you might not have a PhD, but you got this far. Your professional development (self-led or otherwise) should also include best practice in pedagogy. I can openly talk to my students about how and why I’ve shaped the lessons the way I have; why they’re having to sit tests; why I’m questioning them in the ways that I am. It adds to the perception of you as an authority, because students can be confident in your expertise. That confidence in you provides security to them. They can trust you to lead them. No one wants to be led by someone incompetent. That trust goes a long way.
So… authority. Your role power and its consistent and fair application will provide students with a secure atmosphere in which behaviour is managed and responded to, which enables learning to take place. Your authority as an expert will enable students to trust you to lead them on a journey of improvement in your subject area. Your job is to develop competence and confidence in both areas. I hope that makes sense. Peace out.
Thanks for calling attention towards those positive attributes of authority, which I sometimes overlook.
Love your analysis on teacher authority. I remember one of my mentors would tell me that I am the “alpha” in the room. Trust and authority does go hand in hand. However, I think teaching credential programs and schools have been trying focus more on “teacher as the facilitator” these days, and how much authority should be questioned…