Claiming Your Authority in the Classroom
by Cynthia Brame, CFT Assistant Director
One of the most persistent questions about college teaching is how to establish authority while being student-centered and giving your students voice. It ranks right up there with—and is related to—questions about how to engage students.
For a scholarly perspective, we can turn to a model proposed by Paul Schrodt, Paul Witt, and Paul Turman that identifies five sources of power for college teachers:
- Reward power, or the ability to give positive feedback in the form of points, comments, or other valuable commodities;
- Coercive power, or the ability to exact penalties for undesirable behavior;
- Legitimate power, or the authority associated with the position to make assignments, set standards, etc.;
- Referent power that results from students’ regard or admiration for the teacher;
- Expert power, derived from the teacher’s expertise (content, pedagogical, or both);
While all of these can contribute to your authority in a class, they’re a little hard for me to work with when I think about my own classroom authority. I want my authority to grow from a deeper place than my ability to give and take away points.
Instead, I have developed an approach that has at its core a deep respect for my students. One of the clearest expressions of that respect—and one of my most trusted avenues to authority—is that I try to be transparent with students about where we are going and why we are doing the things we do to get there. This is true in ways large and small.
In the large sense, I tell my students that we are uncovering a story over the course of the semester—that there’s a story arc, with introduction of characters and subplots along the way that all contribute to the climax at the end. Now, I teach biochemistry, so I don’t use this language—my students might think that I had lost my mind—but that’s the way I think of it and that’s the way I talk about it, as if we are always building toward a satisfying and fulfilling conclusion. This approach contributes to my authority because it gives the students a sense that I have constructed the elements of the class to reveal something important that I want to share with them. It’s a fairly subtle but powerful way to say that I have authority within this discipline.
I am also transparent with my students about smaller decisions as well—about what I want them to be able to do within a given unit and about why I have them do certain things. For example, I begin each class with a short list of learning objectives that tells the students what I want them to be able to do, and that list presages what we talk about and what I have them do in class, as well as the types of things they can expect to do on exams and other assessments. How does this support me as an authority? It conveys to students that I have thought about what I want them to be able to do—that I’m not just in service to a list of topics, but instead have considered what is important for students to be able to do with those topics.
Perhaps just as important, I use these learning objectives as jumping off points to explain why I ask students to engage in various active learning approaches. For example, when I have students recall information that they know about a topic before we talk about it in class, I tell them that each of us constructs knowledge by connecting new information to existing knowledge structures, and that pulling those knowledge structures back into working memory enables them to forge new connections. When I have students do a think-pair-share, I tell them that articulating their understanding or lack of understanding helps clarify their thinking and promotes learning (and I give them a link to an article supporting that assertion). When I have students predict steps in a metabolic pathway, I tell them that the kind of deep engagement required to predict behavior helps test mental models and leads to better and more robust understanding –and thus better performance on exams. I make these explanations frequently and relatively casually, and I firmly believe that they strengthen my position as an authority in the classroom. My students understand that I not only have a good grasp on the subject, but also on how they learn the subject. I also think this approach sets us up as allies—we all want them to learn and to do well, and we’re all working together to make that happen.
There are certainly other ways to claim authority in the classroom. A few years ago, I attended a Teaching Visit hosted by another woman faculty member. She had a wonderful, engaging way of interacting with her students and a casual but informative way of sprinkling references to her scholarship and funding history into the conversation. The result was that students in the class knew that they were engaging in discussion with a widely respected scholar in their field of study. There were two elements that were important for making this a successful way to communicate authority: the easy, friendly interaction and the references to scholarly work. This colleague’s status as a scholar was a mantle she could wear lightly but confidently as she engaged with students.
In the Schrodt/Witt/Turman model, both this colleague and I use signals to indicate our expertise, albeit somewhat differently. In both cases, however, that expert power does not exist in a vacuum but instead is part of a larger relationship between the students and instructor based on mutual respect and regard. That is, the way that I communicate my expertise, and the way that I saw my colleague communicate hers, is intended to show respect for the students and their intellect. This approach can promote a two-way referent power, where the instructor’s regard for the students enhances the students’ regard for the instructor—and helps to establish a learning environment where the authority of both the teacher and the student is respected.
I have multiple characteristics that could lead students (read: people; let’s not kid ourselves) to question my authority. Some of these I can’t change and others I choose not to hide. Rather than rely on external signals—manipulation of points, changes in stance or vocalization—to try to combat students’ response to these characteristics, I have instead come to rely on communicating a deep respect for my students, in large part by being transparent and intentional in my choices about the class. For me, it is serving as an effective model. I’d love to hear about yours.
Questions you might consider when thinking about your authority in the classroom:
What leads you to respect another instructor’s authority? What parts of this promote real learning and what parts promote performance of learning?
How can you, as a teacher, also give your students authority that derives from their experiences? How can you construct your course so that your students’ authority is a complement rather than a challenge to yours?
How do you deal with challenges to your authority? What’s usually the source of these challenges?
Paul Schrodt, Paul L. Witt, and Paul D. Turman (2007). Reconsidering the measurement of teacher power use in the college classroom. Communication Education 56: 308-332.