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Authority—the Elements of Teaching 4.1

DISCUSSIONS OF TEACHING seldom include any mention of authority. Yet we cannot teach without it. It is at the center of all our efforts in the classroom, the workshop, and the office. A teacher's instruction may lack many of the other useful elements of instruction and still have some beneficial effect, but teaching without authority ceases to be teaching at all. If teachers have no command of their classrooms, their students ignore their knowledge, and their compassion for their students' efforts is pointless. Yet what is authority, and why is it so important to teaching?


Authority in teaching, as in anything else, is legitimate influence over others. It is not mere power. It differs from power in its moral component and because, while power may be used for good or ill, authority does not connote coercion. Authority has the unusual quality of being dual, or reciprocal, and thus dependent upon others for its fulfillment;1. in the classroom, it is composed both of a teacher's knowledge, character, and conduct and of students' respect given back to the teacher in free acknowledgement of the teacher's greater understanding of the subject at hand and greater ability to convey it. Power, on the other hand, is coercive force-the exertion of will to command action-whose basis is dependency and often fear. As such,2.power has no place in teaching; its use is contrary to students' interests.


The distinction between power and authority in a teacher is crucial to understanding the true nature of teaching. In the classroom as elsewhere, one may have power without the authority to exercise it; such power without authority is little more than force. But authority can exist without power because of its moral nature, because of its relationship to equity, empathy, and truth. Authority is thus an attribute that a teacher gains, if only indirectly, by deserving it; it is an aspect of personal character. When students have long forgotten much of the subject a teacher has taught, they will remember and perhaps reflect the teacher's bearing toward knowledge and life.


Much confusion exists about the origins and nature of teachers' authority. Many teachers- being employees of some public agency, such as a school board or a public university -are technically civil officers. Consequently, their authority may legally originate in the official source of their employment, and their responsibility may seem to consist in their strict fidelity to community norms, rather than in other equally or more insistent claims, such as to their students' welfare. Teachers' authority over their students is also limited by the involvement of families and the state in students' lives; whether they like it or not, teachers share responsibility with others who may intervene in students' behalf for their well-being.

In addition, teachers' authority cannot arise, as does that of other professionals, from the independence of expert and client, each of whom may leave the other. Like physicians toward their patients and attorneys toward their clients, teachers are bound to prescribe, on the basis of their knowledge and experience, what is in their students' best interests; they must teach students what they believe students must know, not what students may wish to know. But unlike medical patients and legal clients, students cannot readily refuse a teacher's advice or, at least in primary and secondary schools in most places, legally leave school; students are their instructors' captives, at least for a time. It is this dependence of students that places special obligations upon their teachers.


Moreover, teachers are custodians of culture. They are responsible for passing on and helping students to absorb and learn to evaluate the beliefs and traditions of the society of which they are members. Though teachers share this task with others, they are charged by the community with special responsibility for instilling the skills (such as literacy), knowledge, intellectual powers, and norms that the community itself holds most important. It is therefore their particular obligation both to help convey tradition and history to their students and to assess the validity of customs and community norms with dispassion, sympathy, and understanding. In return for expecting the community to give them some leeway in accomplishing this delicate task, teachers must be mindful that their authority to do so hinges in part upon the seriousness, the balance, and, above all, the knowledge they bring to it.

Because of this, while teachers have a profound responsibility for students' intellectual and moral nurture, as well as responsibility toward the society and culture of which the students are a part, they have this responsibility without the full liberties and independence of other professionals. Often, they are not free to teach anything they want in the manner they think is in their students' best interests. This lack of complete freedom makes the preservation of their authority so important; their authority rests primarily on their own qualities as a person- on their thoughtfulness, dignity, and knowledge - not on their professional independence.

What, then, can teachers do to gain, foster, deserve, and sustain their authority?

Authority requires a climate for serious learning. It does not depend on controlling a classroom or making students behave, although both may result from authority born of teachers' learning, stature, and behavior. Rather, authority grows from a moral bearing toward knowledge, from grayitas-actions and words that convey teachers' inner convictions about the worth and use of knowledge, as well as the determination to impart what they know and a willingness to admit to their own ignorance or doubt. A teacher cannot flaunt authority or insist upon it. If it is forced, students sense immediately its origins in insecurity, its inauthenticity-that is, the absence of the sense of self that underlies all genuine authority.

Instead, teachers' authority must arise from the seriousness of purpose they convey to their students-a seriousness that can be conveyed as much through laughter as through gravity. But it must in all cases be linked to students' own well-being in such a way that 1.they are drawn to knowledge, not forced to swallow it. For instance, 2.it is probably better to try to attract students to chemistry by expressing the hope that they will find it fascinating and useful rather than by insisting on the importance of chemistry and the necessity of learning it.


Authority means mastery of a subject. A natural gift of physical stature or a distinctive voice may confer some measure of authority on some people. But for most teachers, substantial knowledge of the subjects they teach is the foundation of their stature. Those who have full command of their subjects are able to present them in a variety of aspects and forms and can distinguish what their students know and what they do not. These teachers can modify their approaches to their subjects according to the differences in each group of students. They are able to use their students' questions and uncertainties as launching pads for further inquiry and discussion. This means that they can present a variety of viewpoints where interpretation is called for, without indicating to students which one is their own-a matter of great ethical importance.


Authority—the Elements of Teaching 4.1
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