Authority Means Never Having to Say You're the Teacher
Recently, I worked with some secondary educators who were interested in developing behavioral strategies for their more difficult students, particular as it pertained to students’ disrespect of the teachers. I observed several classes over the span of a semester, and I noticed that many teachers would state the obvious in an attempt to gain control of their classes. They would say things like, “I am the teacher, and this is my class. You cannot talk to me that way.”
This approach didn’t stop students’ disrespectful behavior; if anything, the interruptions, talking back, mocking, and mumbling escalated. Further, those teachers struggling the most with student behavior made these statements more often than their counterparts who were having less trouble. So, why did they resort to stating the obvious? Why does a teacher feel the need to proclaim that he or she is the teacher when responding to student disrespect?
These statements (coined as authority statements by Laitin, 1977) seem to be offered as a justification for making the corrective statement that follows. The underlying thinking seems to be — Because I’m the teacher and you are the student, you need to stop doing X and/or start doing Y— an overt reminder that one of you is a subordinate.
However, the use of explicit authority statements is ineffective. They work a lot like “but” statements: I love you, but you’re too impulsive. The listener only hears you’re too impulsive; the but negates the I love you. Similarly, explicitly stating your obvious and inherently authoritative role negates the more important information that follows it: I am the teacher. I am trying to teach. You keep interrupting me. Adolescent students probably don’t hear the important part (you keep interrupting me) over the sound of their eyes rolling.
Imagine your principal telling you: I am the principal, and I want everyone on board for the roll-out of this new system. Wouldn’t you kind of get stuck on the idea of the principal making a hoopla about being the principal?
The use of this phrasing comes across as weak and ineffectual. No wonder students just smirk or yawn when they hear it. If you’ve reached that level of frustration and start spouting out the obvious, consider that what you’re really doing (most likely) is reminding yourself that you’re in charge.
Stop saying you’re the teacher and go for the nub.
What do you want the student to do or not do?
Teachers using explicit authority statements may not realize the greater effectiveness of simply implying them. Harmin and Toth (2006) define authority statements as “making a simple direct statement of our authority as teachers” (p. 439). The following are some examples in their Inspiring Active Learning handbook for educators:
I do not want even minor distractions or disruptions in our lessons.
I need you to stop talking to your neighbors. It’s time to control that.
We do not do that here. (Harmin & Toth, 2006, pp. 111-112)
These examples differ from explicit authority statements in that no explicit mention of the role of teacher is made. Though Harmin and Toth’s (2006) definition states that the statement is of our authority, these examples more aptly reflect a statement from our authority. This distinction is important. We don't have to say it. We just have to be it. Implying authority carries more weight, and though decidedly unspoken in the examples above, “I am the teacher” is nonetheless clearly asserted.
Words matter, and what we say conveys how we feel about ourselves and our role in the classroom. You don’t have to say you’re the teacher. You are.
Harmin, M., & Toth, M. (2006). Inspiring active learning: A complete handbook for today's teachers (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
Laitin, D. D. (1977). Politics, language, and thought: The Somali experience. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.