On Authority and Classroom Management

Dynamics & Diversity in the College Classroom
Journal #1
When I read Savage’s “Establishing teacher leadership and authority,” I was reminded of some of the first instances in which I realized that teacher authority is not automatic.
Before I began my career at the Cegep level, I worked as a substitute teacher at the elementary level. I was never under any delusions about making elementary school a permanent home; I took the job in order to build up my resumé with some teaching experience. Prior to the Performa program, I had no training as a teacher, but I was able to consult with my aunt, who is an elementary school teacher. Armed with her suggestions, and the lesson plans of the teachers I was replacing, I thought I was ready. After two months of fairly regular work, I told the school to take my name of the list, and I’m ashamed to admit they were only too happy to do so. I had no control over those classes, and found myself frequently resorting to coercive authority, with very little effect. In retrospect, it’s clear that the students were quick to peg me as some one who did not merit expert authority – not only did I have no teacher training, I was asked to substitute for teachers at all levels, from Kindergarten to Grade 6, and more than once, for the gym teacher. Because I so often resorted to coercive authority, I didn’t merit any referent authority, either – in short, I was doomed!

When I started teaching at the Cegep level, everything fell into place. I felt confident and in control, since the material was my area of expertise; furthermore, since I was “the” teacher, rather than the substitute, I was relying on a certain level of legitimate authority. Also, unlike the elementary school experience, I felt well-prepared, since I had the luxury of a few weeks to prepare my classes, with model outlines and clear objectives as my guides, as well as departmental norming sessions, which assured me that I was neither too hard nor too lenient a marker. Naturally, my stomach was filled with butterflies in my first classes of that semester (and the first classes of every semester since!), but regardless, it worked – I was given authority almost without question, and the few pockets of resistance were relatively easy to handle.
I assumed, then, that as long as one was teaching at the right level, with the right content knowledge, that classroom management was fairly straightforward. I learned this was not the case in my second year of teaching, when I collaborated with two other teachers on a project aimed to help second-language students succeed in their first year. About halfway through the semester, we conducted a survey with the students; one of my colleagues came into my classroom to distribute the surveys. The class was relatively small, with about 20 students, and the only real ‘problem’ I had encountered with the students was getting them to speak English in class. When my colleague addressed the room, however, the atmosphere changed noticeably; the students turned their focus away from the teacher and toward each other, and began talking to each other, in French, about their weekend plans, their upcoming gym class, and so on. I was flabbergasted – I was standing at the front of the room and I couldn’t hear my colleague over the student chatter! I signalled him to stop for a moment, and told the class that I expected them to give the same attention to him that they had always given me, which they then did, thankfully.
The teacher in question was at least ten years my senior, and definitely an expert in his field, yet the students apparently did not accord him the same authority they were willing to give me. Afterward, he said to me “your students really respect you,” with genuine surprise in his voice. Other subsequent instances with other colleagues confirmed that his was not an isolated, anomalous case; Cegep students are just as quick to withdraw legitimate authority with teachers who somehow communicate inexperience or ineptness (I’m trying really hard not to use the old chestnut “they can smell fear”). In course evaluations, I have had more than one student comment that I “know my stuff,” “obviously love” my job, and “really care” about my students; upon reflection, I think these comments suggest that my students have granted me expert authority, as well as referent authority. This is not to suggest that I have nothing left to learn in this area; so far, the material in this course is fascinating, and certainly those aforementioned pockets of resistance are inevitable. Last summer’s psychology course was useful in that it helped me understand some student behaviour on an individual level; I think this course will prove at least as useful in understanding some of the external factors that influence their behaviour.

2 Replies to “On Authority and Classroom Management”

  1. Thanks for your question, Cedrick.
    I think the key to establishing one’s authority in the classroom is to merit it ~ by knowing the material, by knowing how that material should matter to the students, by respecting and caring for the students, and by comporting oneself appropriately. If I went into a Physics classroom, I wouldn’t expect to get the same respect from the students as I do in my English classroom, because I couldn’t present myself as an “expert.” Similarly, if I communicated to the students that I was only going through the motions (which, for some teachers nearing retirement, or for whom teaching is just a requirement by the institution for which they’re researching, is all too prevalent) I couldn’t expect any referent authority.
    If you’re asking about specific instances of classroom management, obviously, there’s more to it than that. I have had to deal with instances of disruption or behaviour that I think might jeopardize the student’s success in the course; in those instances, I always try to appeal to the student’s sense of cooperation first – this is our class, and we’re here together, let’s make the most of it – and if that doesn’t work, I fall back on what I think is a very important truth: this is my workplace, and I need – and deserve – to feel comfortable in it. If a student’s behaviour is creating a problem for me, and for the other students, then it is my responsibility to address that behaviour. I’ve pointed out to students in these instances that while we’re working together, it’s still my classroom, and if a student doesn’t come to class, the class still happens, but if I don’t show up, there is no class – which means that I get to call the shots, if the shots must be called.
    I have also dealt with more serious problems, as have we all, and my best piece of advice is RECORD: I communicate frequently with students via e-mail, and in the one or two cases where a student’s behaviour has made me very uncomfortable (major disruptions or aggressive behaviour, for instance), I have expressed my concerns through an e-mail copied to my department chair and the faculty dean. I make sure to point out to the student that these other people are being informed, and I detail exactly what behaviour is at issue, and my proposed solution to the problem. So far, this has been very effective, and both “higher-ups” have completely supported my actions – and I should add that their intervention has never actually been required.
    I’m not sure if this e-mail thing might be considered a relinquishing of control; I think that the power behind it is that in including titled people, I’m communicating to the student that I am confident in my position, and that I cannot be intimidated.
    I hope this makes sense! If there’s something more specific you’re thinking of, please let me know. I’d also encourage you to check out other educators’ blogs, such as Siobhan Curious.

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