Claiming Authority in the Classroom

s200_robyn-whitaker“Don’t ever take baked goods to your class,” I was told one day by a well-meaning colleague. “It’s a thing only women faculty do and it completely undermines us.” My brain flicked through the myriad of times I’ve presented my classes with cupcakes, slices, or muffins to prop them up towards the end of term, reward them for enthusiastically attending 8am language classes three times a week, or simply wanted to care for stressed out, badly fed students. You see, I like to bake and I like to feed people. Little did I know I was apparently undermining my authority as a female professor.

There are many theories about how to claim authority in the classroom (see here for example) and even more when it comes to being female. Here are a few thoughts from my experience as a teacher, mostly in seminary or Div School settings, so I acknowledge that some of the dynamics are different for those who teach undergrads.

In my experience the challenge to authority comes in two forms. Firstly, that student who doesn’t really want to be there and whose body language is signaling that loud and clear. These I mostly ignore. My job is to prepare the most engaging class I can, but I cannot force a disengaged student to learn (I might however follow up with them privately). Second is the student who wants to challenge you, who sees the classroom as a chance to show what they know, or to take on the teacher. There is a particular manifestation of this last type in religion departments and seminaries where (usually) men feel the need to tell (usually) female faculty what the real “truth” is. In this case, it might be a matter of rising above and not letting such a person push your buttons, but we’ll address this person further below.

Here are some of my “rules” for claiming authority:

1. Set clear ground rules

This means being clear about your expectations from the first class. I tell students to be punctual (and make sure I am), I tell them what to call me, and I use the syllabus as a way to establish a set of expectations about their own conduct, obligations, and academic standards. In Australia we tend to be casual so students call me “Robyn” at my invitation. Check what the culture is at your institution and, particularly if you are a woman, demand the equivalent title to the male professors.

I usually start semester with a conversation about in-class method. I mostly teach Bible classes to students who come with their own deeply embedded belief systems and ideas about the Bible. I use this excellent piece about not being entitled to your own opinion in my classroom as a way to talk about the kinds of argument one can mount on the basis of evidence (i.e. the text). I also reassure them that I am not interested in all students having my theology, but rather that they know how to argue and think for themselves. It can undermine the attempts of that second type of student who wants to challenge your “truth” with his or have a theological argument.

2. The classroom is not a combat zone

One way to diffuse any potentially combative student is to take the approach that the classroom is not a combat zone. This relates to what we are trying to do as teachers. My model is to think of myself as facilitator and coach (as cheesy as those terms are). It means when challenged by that obnoxious student I don’t take it personally but see it as a chance to further someone’s learning. So I acknowledge them for their knowledge and preparation (if appropriate), or for a challenging question or willingness to engage, but I also challenge them to think more deeply and point out if they are being obnoxious or bullying to other students in an attempt to help them learn appropriate adult ways to disagree. Of course, you can still expect rigorous debate, but sometimes we have to show how it is done.  

3. Respect is mutual

Too often I see faculty complain they don’t get respect when they don’t respect the students. Respect is mutual. One of the ways I respect students is to learn their names and something about them as a person. It also helps to remember being a young person who was so desperately trying to figure out their place in the world. I show respect by making sure I am punctual, prepared and dressed like a professional. Don’t dress like a student and then complain when you are treated like one!

Part of respect relates to #1 and the expectations of the classroom. I say something like this to students on day one: “if I see you on facebook or texting during class I’ll assume you would rather be doing something else with your time and I’ll ask you to leave so that you can do that. If you are here, respect me and your classmates by being present.” See how I made that about respecting peers and not just the teacher?

3. Have good boundaries

Lastly, know your role. You are not a friend or mother/father: you are responsible for student learning in one particular subject area. No matter what you do not every student will like you and that is ok. Remind yourself that you successfully completed a PhD and bring real knowledge to the room. Equally you don’t have all knowledge. Admitting what you don’t know something can be powerful modelling. It allows for a conversation about how you’d find X out and approach research, and it empowers students to learn for themselves (and frees us from such expectations!).

4. Pick your battles

If the above does not create the classroom culture you’d like it is definitely not worth having a power battle with a student in front of everyone. Have the confidence to shut it down and say “let’s continue that conversation after class, we need to move on.” I find many of the students who like to grandstand in public are far less comfortable with a one-on-one combative conversation. Moreover, the other students will appreciate that you are valuing their time by managing the class and not letting it be hijacked.

Lastly, walk into your classroom with confidence – back straight, head up, voice slow, and a smile on your face. If need be, fake it until it’s real. And, if you feel so moved, take cupcakes to class. Not because you need to be liked, but because we are all human beings and sometimes sugar = happiness.

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