49/365 We Must Stop Confusing ‘Authoritarian’ and ‘Authority’

Sit and watch any group of novice teachers – those in their first few years, those student teaching, those teaching a new grade level for the first time – and you’re likely to here some variation of the following, “Yeah, most days, it’s all I can do just to get control of the class.” It’s a frequent question asked of mentor teachers, “How do you get control of the kids?”

Lest you think such speech is solely the domain of novice teachers, try speaking at a conference sesssion or staff development meeting and advocating a shift in practice that would mean giving students more choice in the classroom. Within seconds, a few hands will be raised, one will be called on, and a veteran teacher will say, “Yeah, that sounds great and all, but if we did what you’re suggesting our classrooms would be madhouses. It’d be too difficult to keep control.”


There is a difference between being an authority and being authoritarian (and we should shoot for the former).

If the bulk of teacher’s practices are geared around maintaining control of the classroom or control of the students, then they’ve lost sight of what’s possible in schools. Scott Paris and Julienne Turner give four key components of this in their piece “Situated Motivation.

Sometimes, we say motivation as a white washed way of thinking about control, “That student is really motivated,” or “That teacher is very motivational.” Replace “motivation” with “control” in those two students and you get to the meat of the meaning.

Paris and Turner found out motivation, like control, is not inherent in the individual. Anyone who has planned an amazingly successful lesson one day and then felt like a ringmaster the next knows this to be true. Instead, Paris and Turner found that motivation is situated in the context of an activity. Activities, it turns out, are motivational.

Well, they can be if they include four key components – choice, challenge, collaboration, and control. The more of these components a teacher builds in to a learning experience, the more likely they are to find a class that might be construed as being in their control. Structuring lessons to include choice, challenge, collaboration, and control will move the teacher to a different role than that of authoritarian. He will find himself as he should be – an authority.

The teacher as authority knows the content of the day, knows his students, knows the community, and knows how to structure a learning experience that will produce motivation in his students. This is the role of the teacher. Contrary to the tener of much of the driving conversation about teachers, we are authorities. We are authorities of education and we must be willing to stand up and say as much.

Sadly, it is not only the reformist/traditionalist camps that are wearing away the authority of teachers, though they are those whose practice tends toward authoritarianism.

Progressives have long contrued the works of John Dewey to suggest that teachers should step back, hide their authority and let students fail as they will without assistance. This is decidedly neither what Dewey meant nor what he wrote.

Writing in his small but powerful Experience & Education, Dewey wrote, “On the contrary, basing education upon personal experience may mean more multiplied and more intimate contacts between the mature and the immature than ever existed in the traditional school, and consequently more, rather than less, guidance by others.”

What Dewey was certainly arguing against, and what does not become a great school or great community is teacher as authoritarian, dictating actions, answers, and access with little-to-know regard for students’ abilities to navigate those spaces on their own.

Control is a tempting mistress. In the absense of wisdom and the ability or will to structure motivating learning experiences for students, it is frequently the goal of many classroom teachers of all stripes. To build the schools we need, though, we must be authorities within a democracy.

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