Chapter Seven: Teachers, Students, and Teaching

7.8 Classroom Control, Teacher Authority, and the Effort Bargain

Although teachers have formal authority in the classroom, the atmosphere of any class is also powerfully shaped by students. As teachers well know, a group of students who want to make a teacher’s life difficult can certainly do so, and the teacher may have very little recourse. The treatment of substitute teachers by some classes of students is a case in point. Indeed, one might wonder how it is that teachers are able to command students’ attention at all. Why is it that students so often do agree to do what teachers tell them?

There are several sources of teacher authority. In Chapter 6, three ways of thinking about the authority of school administrators were described. These same categories—traditional, legal, and charismatic—can be applied to teachers and students. At a basic level, teachers have coercive legal power over students. They can influence students through detentions, complaints to parents, and through formal disciplinary action such as suspensions. However, coercion is not a desirable way to manage a classroom because it is antithetical to the development of the kind of relationship between teacher and students that is conducive to learning. Effective teaching and learning require mutual trust and open communication. One can help people learn, motivate people to learn, and support people in the learning process, but one cannot make people learn. To be effective, teachers’ authority must be consented to by students because it is the students who must do the learning. One of the key factors, however, is that much of that student consent is granted only if students perceive that teacher authority is exercised fairly and/or it also serves some of their own purposes (receiving better grades to acquire scholarships, etc.). Much of it is a  complex and largely unacknowledged negotiation process between students and teachers, dependent on their values, interests, and factors influencing their lived experiences.


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