“You Can’t Control Me!” Cultivating Authority in a Struggling Urban High School
by Erika M. Kitzmiller — 2013
Background/Context: Current research on urban school reform has stressed the importance of strong student–teacher relationships in creating engaging learning environments for students. This article contributes to this growing literature by showing the challenges and possibilities as teachers tried to reclaim authority and cultivate strong student–teacher relationships after a violent teacher assault and subsequent reform efforts stripped them of the remaining vestiges of their institutional authority.
Focus of Study: This research examines seven classrooms at an urban, comprehensive high school one year after a teacher attack occurred at the school. Drawing on various theories about power and authority in schools, I argue that Weber’s distinction between power and authority is critical for teachers who work in schools that are struggling with similar circumstances. In doing so, I show that the degree to which these different approaches created engaging learning environments and restored meaningful teacher–student relationships depended on the type of authority structures that the teachers used.
Research Design: Qualitative, ethnographic methods were used to explore and analyze the various approaches that teachers used in their classrooms to restore order and reclaim their authority. Purposive sampling was used to represent the range of approaches that teachers used. Classroom observations and semi-structured interviews with teachers and youth were conducted on a regular basis during the yearlong study. Observations and interviews were coded and analyzed to understand the benefits and limitations of the various approaches that teachers used in their classrooms.
Findings/Results: I describe and analyze seven approaches that I witnessed during my observations at Washington High School. The first three approaches illustrate teachers who relied on power, instead of authority, to control their classrooms. These teachers fall into the following categories: abdicated power, autocratic power, and relinquished power. The next three approaches depict teachers who tried to cultivate authority, yet failed because students did not recognize their authority as legitimate. I refer to these as thwarted authority, partitioned authority, and goal-oriented authority. In contrast, the last example, apprenticed authority, describes a teacher who used legitimate authority to control his classroom. This example suggests that if the students genuinely recognize the teacher’s authority as legitimate, then the classroom will become a meaningful learning environment for students despite the overwhelming challenges at this school.
Conclusions/Recommendations: The findings from this study suggest that many of these approaches failed to generate the authority necessary to restore relational trust and student engagement. However, the one teacher who used what I called apprenticed authority created an engaging classroom environment by providing his students with real, but limited, forms of authority in his classroom. Focusing on the relationship between teachers and students, this study provides scholars and practitioners with a way to understand how Weber’s distinction between power and authority is critical for educators who wish to find a way to create authority in institutions, like this struggling high school, where they have lost the institutional authority that teachers normally possess.
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