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Classroom Authority

Posted By: Martha Murphy on May 15, 2003
I too am a bit puzzled by your question and wonder if your fruitless search is a matter of choosing the wrong key words. Are you referring to the teacher's physical/ legal authority or the way we use the term in the phrase "authority on the subject," meaning "expert?" The first type of authority we would commonly term "classroom management." You might want to use that term in a search of the literature. It seems to me in America we use the term "discipline" to mean punishment or negative consequences for misbehavior.

Many years ago I was a teaching assistant for a teacher who had been trained as an elementary teacher in Germany, but was hired to teach middle school in the United States. The students' behavior was totally out of control -- to the point that it was dangerous to their safety. She asked me to take responsibility for the students' behavior while she taught the content of the classes. I quickly discovered it could not be done! Managing students' classroom behavior cannot be separated from teaching the curriculum. Students (at least American students) will misbehave or tune out unless they are engaged in learning. A simple way to say it might be, "If the students are not learning, the teacher is not teaching."

I have done a great deal of substitute teaching in middle and high school classrooms. I learned that the teacher must quickly establish a personal rapport or mutually respectful relationship with the students. A smile and a joke help a lot, just as with any other kind of public speaking! As a sub, I used to ask them to help me out with classroom procedures. I greeted the students warmly, by name if I knew their names. I showed enthusiasm for the subject they were studying, even if it was not within my personal expertise. I asked individual students to respond to questions instead of directing questions to the whole class. I complimented them on correct answers and thanked them for cooperation and good behavior.

On the few occasions when I had students behave very badly I believe it was the culture of the whole school that was at fault. They had learned through experience that they could get away with bad behavior. I tried not to take their behavior personally or get angry. I offered them choices with consequences and tried to follow through with negative consequences for bad behavior as much as it was in my power to do so, not as punishment, but in order that students would be better-equipped to handle social situations in the future. In doing so, I usually found that the peers of the misbehaving students would back me up.

I do believe there are some people who command respect -- perhaps that could be called "personal authority." I think it has to do with projecting to the students that we both care for them and expect good behavior from them. If we greet them with an "authoritarian" attitude, they will interpret that we are expecting misbehavior from them, and they will oblige.

I am in my 50s and would say we have gone in my lifetime from a culture where the parents were the "authority" and expected their children to behave well in school to a culture where many parents will defend their children against disciplinary procedures by the school. Ideally, of course, both parents and teachers would be working toward helping students achieve self-discipline, good manners, social skills, and respect for others as important aspects of maturity and to make them better and more successful people. I believe if we had consistent high expectations in these areas, the issue of "authority" would become a non-issue.

It may be that the cultural situation is very different in other countries.
Thread Hierarchy
 classroom authority in practice by David Gehle on April 9, 2003
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