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How to assert teacher authority

Perhaps the biggest challenge for today’s educators is to establish the right amount of authority within their classrooms. 

On the one hand, the authoritarian approach that so many of us were raised with simply doesn’t work. Authoritarian teachers rely on copious rules which they religiously enforce. In a classroom setting, the authoritarian is a dictator who frequently lectures, seldom interacts and encourages intense competition among students. Inevitably, the classroom atmosphere is fearful and punitive, as this teacher exercises rigorous control but shows little interest in involvement. Their rules and drive for compliance trumps any desire for teaching as well as student engagement and support. 

Permissive teachers sit on the other side of the equation. They rarely insist on compliance. This approach may serve very mature, independent learners, but not others. Many students struggle because they haven’t had the parental figures that they’ve needed. They lack the guidance, direction, sense of respect, courage and support that generally comes from a strong parental backbone. This is how parents traditionally contribute to the learning and development of children. Students yearn for this kind of structure; they want a leader they can look up to and relate with. Permissive teaching fails to provide that.

Neither teaching style is ideal for maximal student academic performance or social-emotional development. Authoritarian teachers erect barriers to student-teacher involvement, which keeps them from creating personal connections. Permissive teachers are generally popular but they make few demands on students. Their hands-off, apathetic approach limits student progress and creates discipline problems in the classroom. 

The authoritative teacher is the best of both worlds regarding control and student involvement. She establishes high behavioral expectations and promotes classroom rigor and relationships. She encourages interactions and has a warm and inviting demeanor. She praises and motivates often. She nurtures respect and cooperative learning among students. She is a reliable role model. 

At its core, teacher authority must be about two things. One is the creation of an educational environment that is conducive to learning. Students cannot learn in a space that does not foster respect and compliance. The other is to provide them with healthy adult-child connections that offer guidance, love and support, particularly to students who do not receive ample quantities of these at home.

On the environmental side, I’d like to suggest three strategies:

  1. Establishing school or classroom values. 

  2. Leading by example.

  3. Setting boundaries. 

When I was head of school, I worked with my admin team, teachers and faculty to establish a PBIS-style program in our school that would promote a series of identified core values. The ones we chose were Safe, Friendly, Respectful, and Responsible. We called it the SeFeRR Program, and it was a way that we came to define who we were as people and the kind of behaviors we wanted to see in our school. The program allowed us to refer to any behavior as being consistent or inconsistent with the values that we established. 

So, we asked, what does safety look like in the bathroom, on the school bus, in the common grounds and the play area? What does respect and responsibility look like? Et cetera, et cetera. We had the values. Then we applied them. And we were able to reinforce objectively, not subjectively because we had those values. 

The same concept applies in the classroom. Have a conversation with your students. What are the values that we want in our classroom? We want a classroom where we feel safe. We want a classroom where we feel respected. We want a classroom where we have open lines of communication. Educate your students by the values you establish.

That’s the first piece. The second one is to lead by example. You must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. If you want to be respected, be prepared to demonstrate respect. If you want your students to care, model what care looks and feels like.

The last one on the side of education is to set boundaries and rules. This may seem obvious, but what is less obvious is the need to limit rules to focus only on the most important things that prevent learning and also the importance of communicating said rules in a manner that demonstrates care rather than authority. 

The second necessary component for teacher success is connection. Here are three ways teachers can become more influential:

  1. Become great listeners and create a safe space for children. 

  2. Demonstrate love, not a desire for control.

  3. Personalize relationships and approaches with each student. 

As teachers, we must be able to listen to our students, especially those who are doing things that are not super comfortable for us. Students need for us to be listeners and they need us to be able to genuinely listen, not listen to be able to respond, but listen to be able to listen. Listen to just be there for them. 

So often, students that fall or fail out felt that they couldn’t confide in adults at a time that they were vulnerable. They didn’t feel that their parents and teachers understood them. They didn’t feel that they really wanted to hear from them. They felt that the adults in their lives just wanted to tell them differently. 

The second way to become more influential is to demonstrate love and not a desire for control. 

One rainy day during the Revolutionary War, George Washington rode up to a group of soldiers attempting to raise a wooden beam to a high position. The corporal in charge was shouting encouragement, but the soldiers still couldn’t position it correctly. General Washington asked the corporal why he didn’t join in and help, to which the corporal replied, “Don’t you realize that I am the corporal?” 

Very politely, Washington replied, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Corporal, I did.” Washington dismounted his horse and went to work with the soldiers to get the oak beam in position. As they finished, Washington said “If you should need help again, call on Washington, your commander-in-chief, and I will come.”

Imagine the impression that Washington made on those men. Any doubt whether these soldiers gave their all on the battlefield for their commander-in-chief? 

Successful teaching is not about pulling rank but using our power and demonstrations of concern to improve students’ conditions.

And then the last one is the need to differentiate. Every student wants to be treated as an individual and oftentimes we have this tendency to engage with and instruct all of them with one approach. Learn more about each student’s personal story, interests and learning profile. Then use that information to create a personalized learning experience that goes much deeper that the universal informational dissemination that marked so many of our own educational experiences.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) ) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, "Becoming the New Boss." Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new eBook, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”

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