Coming from a girl who had a “Question Authority” bumper sticker for years, “Exercising Authority in the Classroom” may seem like an unlikely topic for me to cover. However, if you happened to catch my latest webinar, fresh from the 2019 Share My Lesson Virtual Conference, Tell Your Story: The Impact of Personal Connection in the Classroom, you can sigh with relief. (In case you missed the session, it is available on demand for the same PD as the live version.) The webinar focused on sharing ourselves with our students to inspire them and connect, but I also shared Dennis Wrong’s “five forms of teacher authority.” The types he describes are: personal, legitimate, competent, coercive and inducement—in my opinion going from the best types to the unconscionable, though none of them quite fits what I hope to do in my classroom. Gale Macleod, a researcher and senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, has added another form of authority, one I can get 100 percent behind: the authority of care.
The authority of care, as Macleod describes it in 12 Things Students Remember Most About Good Teachers: “This goes beyond what Wrong calls personal authority. ... It isn’t about young people doing what they’re told because they want the adult to like them; they do what they’re told because they feel that the adult already does like them.” This description perfectly fits what I’ve been trying to do in my classroom for the last several years since becoming involved with SEL (social emotional learning) and writing The Flexible SEL Classroom.
With an “authority of care,” I set about planning engaging lessons for students, creating a safe and comfortable environment for students with flexible seating, and greeting them with an unfaltering, if slightly embarrassing for all of us, “I’m your person” speech on the first day of school. My room itself is so different from what they have experienced in the middle school, so as eighth-graders they already are able to discern that I might do things differently. I want them to know (before I have even learned their names) that I will be there for them. I already care for them. The speech goes something like this:
"I know this sounds weird, but you all know by now that school isn’t always the easiest place to be when you have things going on in your life. And don’t we all? I hated middle school, so I want you to know that I’m going to be “your person.” You probably think I’m nuts, but hopefully you’ve had a sibling or friend who has been one of my kiddos, and they have told you the truth: I will be there for you when you are in the bathroom too long, and you know your next teacher is going to need a pass, and you aren’t really up for explaining. I’ve helped students who have ripped their pants, broken the news to a boy’s parents that he didn’t make the basketball team, and intervened when a student was given a consequence that didn’t fit what they’d done to get it. I’ve eaten lunch with kiddos who don’t have anyone to sit with. This all may sound strange, but sooner or later—hopefully never—you’ll probably need someone who will be “your person.” Just remember where to find me, and I’ll take care of whatI can to make your day OK."
I’m not sure when I first started giving this little speech, but the reaction over the years has changed. Now, there are students who know other students who have experienced a problem I’ve helped with, an embarrassment I’ve covered for, or have found out that I’m pretty passionate about equity for all students. I know this blog might sound more like a “first days of school” topic, but the truth is you need to show your “authority of care,” because there are students who could use you right now. Don’t miss the chance to be someone’s “person.”