Teacher Authority and the Business of School

Sitting in the speaker’s chair at morning meeting Claire presented a yellow silk scarf to her class. As she spoke she floated it through her hands and around her neck, all eyes of her second grade classmates were on her.

When she was finished talking, she asked: “Does anyone have a question?” and when six hands went up she hesitated, looking at each one before calling on James, who asked, “Did you ever think of using it in a dance?”

For ten minutes the questions kept coming. Ginny, the teacher, was particularly happy when she heard “Why do you think it’s so expensive?” because she saw an opportunity to make a connection to the study of silk worms she was planning for the afternoon.

Claire spoke quietly but with authority and everyone listened. It felt good to be someone who knew something that interested others. With each question Claire’s authority grew, and her way encouraged the inquiry of others.

I was reminded of this moment during a conversation with John Richard, a photographer in his thirties and my seat mate on a flight from New York to Chicago two months ago.

Our conversation about education took a turn for the deeper when John said, “The core problem with education today is authority. These days, students don’t respect teacher authority. Students tune them out and turn to some other source of knowledge.”

We all have the same the image in our head when we hear that statement: a generic high school teacher trying to lead a generic class of adolescents who could care less. The image springs, if not from our own experience, then from watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” or any number of movies with scenes from high school.

My daughter the professor of political theory at Vanderbilt feels this lack of automatic authority, herself. She is well aware that she is competing for her students’ attention. She’s concerned that her students might be on their smart phones while she is teaching, but she takes it as a challenge rather than an insult.

There are those who blame “the parents” for the fact that “kids don’t respect authority” anymore. But before we jump at scapegoats there are some questions it would be wise to ask, questions like:

What is authority today? Where does it come from? As our world changes should teachers and schools stay the same?

In talking with John about these questions, Claire’s authority and the way Claire’s teacher envisioned her job came to mind and made me ask: “If someone talks and no one listens, does he have authority?”

Obviously it’s a rhetorical question with one answer: of course not. You are no leader if you have no followers. The relationship between author and audience is symbiotic. Authority is not simply based on knowing stuff; it is based on knowing stuff that is of interest and benefit to others–as they define “benefit.” A teacher’s attempt to input knowledge outside the context of a student’s sense of purpose is my idea of a waste of time.

A generation after teacher authority based on position was replaced by authority based on knowledge, authority based on knowledge is also risk. Today, by the time children are thirteen they know that there are many ways to acquire knowledge (Google, Wikipedia, YouTube and Texting to name a few) and teachers are usually “not your best source.”

If knowledge can be gained easily without going to school, what is the point of school? This question is analogous to what railroad people should have asked themselves as soon as the first airplane took passengers from New York to Chicago. Is transporting people around the country the highest and best use of a railroad?

Residents of St. Louis should have asked such a question as soon as they heard of a railroad track being built down the Mississippi on the other side. Is getting goods and people to New Orleans the highest and best use of a riverboat?

These questions were asked too late. If the acquisition of knowledge is not the highest and best use of school, then what is? Perhaps a school is a vehicle for bringing people together for the purpose of growing their authority. If so, then, what’s the highest and best use of a teacher?

Claire’s authority is built on her ability to increase the authority of her classmates. Ginny’s authority is based on her ability to organize activities that will give her students opportunities to grow their authority.

If building authority in others is the business of education, then there are radical implications for the training of teachers and the reorganization of schools.

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11 thoughts on “Teacher Authority and the Business of School

  1. …fabulous article, Rick! Good questions for ALL OF US to be asking, whether we be in business or education or politics or government. I’d love to see this reprinted in the HBR. Give it a shot…nothing to loose, everything for a larger audience to gain. ~ MER (Still looking forward to chatting with you about Deerfield & Eaglebrook!)

  2. Nice article! However, the question about winning a fight makes me want to say that it doesn’t have to be a fight and there do not have to be winners and losers.
    A teacher’s authority is an authentic self and when you bring that into the classroom every day and model it for kids, they soon learn that their power comes from their being the best, most honest, and most real person possible. And, they also learn that not everyone will necessarily accept that but in the long run, that behavior will get more mileage than anything else I know about.

  3. Hmmm…Claire used a prop to get her peers’ attention. It’s a strategy that teachers should use more often. It’s called backwards teaching – peaking interest, and then proceeding from there.

    I see the most successful of educators as the ones who think like writers of fiction. Their first paragraph has to pull the reader in (like the scarf did). Many of them don’t, and that’s why many kids are turned off to reading entirely.

    I agree that authority, and a general lack of respect, is an issue these days. However, teachers have to realize that children are exposed to so much advanced tech (intense visual stimulation and passive learning) these days that they must work even harder to engage them. Elementary teachers have an even tougher time, since they have to keep them interested all day, every day.

    Teaching, when done right, requires a lot of passion, enthusiasm, and creativity. It’s a high energy job that not everyone will excel at. It’s the rare educator who makes it fun and finds creative ways to pull students in who will truly gain the respect of students.

    I like how your daughter sees it all as a challenge. That’s exactly the right attitude! And one that parents can learn from too.

    Thanks for fueling our thoughts once again, Rick!

  4. Great piece! But i have one pretty central issue. The authority of teachers (and adults in general) is highly relative to the specific culture in which the children live. Children who live in traditional cultures have far more respect for authority than those in non-traditional cultures like the US. This is very true in the context of schools as well, and not only in relation to the upbringing of the students (i.e., middle class students are more responsive to authority in the classroom, economically deprived students less). The larger factor is the classroom culture. If a new students enters a classroom, either as a kindergartener or experienced student, that makes sense to the student, where the tasks seem authentic, engaging and relevant and the teacher is an agent of this empowering order, little authority is needed. If not, either effective boot camp or chaos.

    Here’s a series of short videos showing 50 1st-2nd graders in a Title I school together in a room. By all rights, they should be running around screaming. See for yourself: http://www.is.gd/Leonardo.

    We have to get the debate about school reform on the right footing or we will continue to slide backwards. The authority issue is an example of a dangerous red herring – a real problem being looked at the wrong way.

  5. Thought provoking comment, Hugh.
    1) We agree that we need to look at the problem differently, but I am suggesting that changing our understanding of the source of authority is one of the conceptual moves that has to be made.
    2) When you use the word authority, you are using it a way that I am saying is archaic (“…where the tasks seem authentic, engaging and relevant and the teacher is an agent of this empowering order, little authority is needed.”) I am proposing that we finish your sentence with “with this kind of teaching teach authority is enhanced”). I am proposing that authority is not a scarce commodity, but something that grows for everyone if properly exercised.
    3) Why are middle class students more respectful for “authority” (archaic meaning of the word) than economically deprived? I am suggesting it is because middle class students experience the authorities in their lives as working in their interests and less advantaged students have learned by high school at least in school, there is nothing in it for them.
    4) You and I agree on what we would like to see in the classroom, and You and I agree that respect for authority grows with good pedagogy. Impoverished pedagogy (https://www.ithaca.edu/compass/pdf/pedagogy.pdf) produces teachers with no authority.

  6. Dawn, Great thoughts. I am picking up on:
    “children are exposed to so much advanced tech (intense visual stimulation and passive learning) these days that they must work even harder to engage them,” and want to add that I am suggesting they not work harder, but smarter. e.g by using a scarf, or thinking of themselves as writers of fiction, or (as Gary suggests authentic authorities), or leaders who have the primary responsibility of growing the authority of their students–that that concept might help them to work smarter (as in Hugh’s example of good teaching.)

  7. From Michael Silver (He’s shy)
    They could start by treating each child as an individual, not expecting them to be many shaped human pegs to be fitted into uniformly square or round holes! They are different shaped STARS! each with unique talents, passions and circumstances. STAR refers in part to “individual genius,” a concept in the school’s mission statement.

  8. Sorry friends; authority is far from “the core problem” with education. Montessori classrooms over 105 years, and common sense and common observation for much longer, demonstrate this.
    AUTOMATIC AUTHORITY, the subject of these postings, shouldn’t be confused with EARNED AUTHORITY; one is necessary for traffic control and protection from predators, the other is key to the next phase of learning, to continuing learning.
    Surely educating homo sapiens is not programming a robot; isn’t it the process of learning? … a process that goes something like this? …
    First the knowledge provider needs to have students’ ATTENTION for long enough to find or cultivate some individual INTEREST, as Claire did with her yellow silk scarf.
    With interest in place, in the right environment, KNOWLEDGE transfers to the student. The mature student WORKS with that knowledge until she or he UNDERSTANDS it and its uses,
    And then the student APPLIES the knowledge to a particular opportunity or problem. OBSERVATION of the RESULTS of this APPLICATION is followed by a REVIEW; self and peer criticism, and consideration of any change needed for next time.
    When a student recognizes that the major source of her or his SUCCESS is the parent, teacher or professor, then that educator has EARNED AUTHORITY and can readily INTEREST that student in the next phase of learning. The concept of “authority based on success” resonates in today’s entertainment, pop-star and sports cultures and so students relate to it instantly.
    Certainly over-extended professional educators may feel that their “students tune them out and turn to some other sources of knowledge.” I ask you to rise above the angst and frustration, and EMBRACE technology; encourage and guide your mature students to utilize today’s tools to access the world’s knowledge and knowledge makers. Think of electronics as a teaching aid to be used to advantage; really technology today is no more your competitor than Gutenberg’s first printing press was to teachers in 1450.
    The enlightened teacher and mature student know that knowledge per se is so much space junk unless and until one can use it to move forward in the moment, or in life. Enlightened parents and educators follow Montessori principles and techniques, knowing that their charges will become talented and competent mature students, and successes in life.
    As a professor of political theory at a major university, Rick’s daughter clearly faces students who are far from mature. I think she is wrong to “take (smart phone use in class) as a challenge.” Her students, indeed all students, have choices and consequences; here it is Pay Attention and learn or Be Distracted and not learn. Why should she expend time and effort to fight delinquent students when her energies are appreciated by her attentive students? …
    (How-to suggestions for her consideration are best shared in a separate posting. But I’ll warrant her problem is as old as education itself, dating back to the day when tribal man first appointed the tribe’s first teacher and specified the cave that became the first classroom. Over the ages, the real difference to student attentiveness is, surely, the number of distractions per hour.)
    Thanks to Mary for pointing out that these matters are important to business, politics and government too (advertisers spending $3.5 million on Super Bowl advertising, political parties spending hundreds of millions to lure votes, and governments spending vast wealth and people’s lives too … to do what governments do; ugh!).
    Gary’s reminder “it doesn’t have to be a fight and there do not have to be winners and losers” hits home forcibly.
    Thanks, Dawn, for pointing us to “backwards teaching” and “think like writers … the first paragraph has to pull the reader in.” And for saying (traditional) elementary teachers have a tough time (best they become Montessori qualified and, with an assistant and mixed-age class, delegate their work load to hands better able to execute it!).
    As Hugh concluded; “The authority issue is an example of a dangerous red herring – a real problem being looked at in the wrong way” … at the expense of students and taxpayers everywhere!
    If you’re read this far, I sincerely thank you for your patience and persistence! This piece is WAY too long; I must confess Rick inspired me and I got carried away!!
    Respectfully offered by,
    Montessori-AMI Parent Peter in Toronto, Canada.

  9. I LOVE this! This sparks my thoughts and provides a lovely debate/conversation!
    This has my brain moving today!

  10. Peter-
    Thank you for taking the time and energy to write at length about the issues at hand. Your thoughts about authority are very close to my thoughts – even though I am of the generation that fears technology. Everyone involved in the conversation had interesting ideas that forward the process of communication such that thinking about education is transformed. Some suggestions for reading: All books by or about Dr. Maria Montessori, Soul’s Code by James Hillman.

  11. Great discussion, everyone. Thank you.
    And now on to today’s post on empathy, emotional intelligence and how children become thoughtful of others.

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