Asserting teacher authority without being authoritarian

Classroom teachers should avoid being authoritarian or permissive. Instead, the right amount of authority lies in being authoritative.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in schools is establishing the right amount of teacher authority within 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 that they religiously enforce. In a classroom setting, the authoritarian is a dictator who frequently lectures, seldom encourages interaction and establishes intense competition among students. Inevitably, the classroom atmosphere is fearful and punitive, as this teacher exercises rigorous control but shows little interest in involvement.

Permissive teachers are generally popular but tend to experience discipline problems in the classroom. They make few demands on students, and their hands-off, apathetic approach limits student progress.

What’s the right amount of authority?

Neither teaching style is ideal for maximal student academic performance nor social-emotional development. Authoritarian teachers erect challenging barriers to student-teacher involvement, which effectively distance them from personal connection to pupils. Their rules and drive for compliance trump any desire for teaching, as well as student engagement and support.

Permissive teachers sit on the other side of the equation and rarely insist on compliance. This approach may serve very mature, independent learners, but not others. Many of our students are struggling because they haven’t had the parental figures in their lives that they needed. They have lacked the strong parental backbone that has traditionally given children the necessary degree of guidance, direction, sense of respect, courage, and support that was traditionally the parental contribution to the learning and development of children. They yearn for structure and a leader whom they can look up to and relate with. Permissive teaching fails to provide that.

The authoritative teacher, on the other hand, manages 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 is warm and inviting to students. She is open and friendly and serves as a steady and reliable role model. An authoritative teacher praises and motivates students. She encourages respect and cooperative learning among students.

The keys to teacher authority

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.

The values

When I was head of school, I worked with my admin team, teachers and faculty to establish a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports-style program in our school that would promote a series of identified core values. The ones we chose — safe, friendly, respectful and responsible — 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 we established and was a different way of approaching teacher authority.

So, we asked, what does safety look like in the bathroom, on the school bus, in the common grounds and in 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, and let them guide your teacher authority.

The  modeling

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 boundaries

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 then communicate those rules in a manner that demonstrates care rather than authority.

Creating better connections with students

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.

How to listen

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 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 who fall or fail out feel that they couldn’t confide in adults at a time when 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.

Show you care

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

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.

Recognize their individuality

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 than the universal informational dissemination that marked so many of our own educational experiences.

These approaches all add up to providing the right amount of teacher authority in the classroom — the one that will bring students the most success.