Authority Means Never Having to Say You’re the Teacher

Recently, I worked with some secondary educators who were interested in developing behavioral strategies for their more difficult students, particular as it pertained to students’ disrespect of the teachers.  I observed several classes over the span of a semester, and I noticed that many teachers would state the obvious in an attempt to gain control of their classes. They would say things like, “I am the teacher, and this is my class. You cannot talk to me that way.”

This approach didn’t stop students’ disrespectful behavior; if anything, the interruptions, talking back, mocking, and mumbling escalated. Further, those teachers struggling the most with student behavior made these statements more often than their counterparts who were having less trouble. So, why did they resort to stating the obvious? Why does a teacher feel the need to proclaim that he or she is the teacher when responding to student disrespect?

These statements (coined as authority statements by Laitin, 1977) seem to be offered as a justification for making the corrective statement that follows. The underlying thinking seems to be — Because I’m the teacher and you are the student, you need to stop doing X and/or start doing Y an overt reminder that one of you is a subordinate.  

However, the use of explicit authority statements is ineffective. They work a lot like “but” statements: I love you, but you’re too impulsive.  The listener only hears you’re too impulsive; the but negates the I love you.  Similarly, explicitly stating your obvious and inherently authoritative role negates the more important information that follows it: I am the teacher. I am trying to teach. You keep interrupting me.  Adolescent students probably don’t hear the important part (you keep interrupting me) over the sound of their eyes rolling. 

Imagine your principal telling you: I am the principal, and I want everyone on board for the roll-out of this new system.  Wouldn’t you kind of get stuck on the idea of the principal making a hoopla about being the principal?     

The use of this phrasing comes across as weak and ineffectual.  No wonder students just smirk or yawn when they hear it. If you’ve reached that level of frustration and start spouting out the obvious, consider that what you’re really doing (most likely) is reminding yourself that you’re in charge.

Stop saying you’re the teacher and go for the nub.
What do you want the student to do or not do?

Teachers using explicit authority statements may not realize the greater effectiveness of simply implying them. Harmin and Toth (2006) define authority statements as “making a simple direct statement of our authority as teachers” (p. 439).  The following are some examples in their Inspiring Active Learning handbook for educators:

         I do not want even minor distractions or disruptions in our lessons.
         I need you to stop talking to your neighbors. It’s time to control that.
        We do not do that here. (Harmin & Toth, 2006, pp. 111-112)

These examples differ from explicit authority statements in that no explicit mention of the role of teacher is made. Though Harmin and Toth’s (2006) definition states that the statement is of our authority, these examples more aptly reflect a statement from our authority.  This distinction is important. We don't have to say it. We just have to be it. Implying authority carries more weight, and though decidedly unspoken in the examples above, “I am the teacher” is nonetheless clearly asserted.

Words matter, and what we say conveys how we feel about ourselves and our role in the classroom. You don’t have to say you’re the teacher.  You are.


Harmin, M., & Toth, M. (2006). Inspiring active learning: A complete handbook for today's teachers (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Laitin, D. D. (1977).  Politics, language, and thought: The Somali experience. Chicago, IL:  University of Chicago Press.

Mindy and some of her former students wrote Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school.


“I don’t believe in philosophies of education anymore.”

This statement, from an instructional coach, really surprised me. Her reasoning was, essentially, that once a teacher is faced with the reality of the classroom, a philosophy is useless. She argued, “Knowing that you have the task of motivating those students to learn, managing a group of children, or tweens, or teens who could conceivably turn on you at any point. Trust me. By minute two of that experience, all the philosophy statements you’ve ever written are forgotten.”

Respectfully, I disagree.

Maybe it’s because it isn’t the writing of the philosophy that’s the important thing. After all, writing it down doesn’t mean much. It’s the living of the philosophy that makes it your philosophy, and my colleague implies that a living of a philosophy isn’t possible when faced with reality.


If the philosophy is so far removed from reality that it cannot be lived, then, sure. It’s a messed-up philosophy, and she made a valid point about preservice educators and new teachers being asked to write down a philosophy when they had not experienced the classroom. Sure, I can follow why that might be an issue, but new teachers have to start somewhere. They have to be able to articulate what they're thinking in order to adjust that thinking.

Because a philosophy of education isn’t a stagnant mode of thinking. It’s flexible and changing. So it makes even more sense, then, that experienced educators who have lived the reality (as my colleague has), DO have a philosophy of education. A real, workable philosophy. One that they can convey every day.

My philosophy of education relies on my authenticity with my students at all times, particularly when I am unsure, stressed, or completely wrong because students don’t need a teacher to be perfect. They need to see a mature adult working through what is not perfect.  They need to see how to handle things when those things don’t go “right.”  And if we go off-track, but immediately verbalize awareness of that lapse or error to move back on track, we have taught those students the most valuable lesson of all:  how to be a life-long learner.

A large part of this philosophy entails the willingness of the teacher to be a fellow learner with students.  A sense of community brought into the classroom stems from that teacher as student. In our collaborative book, one of my former students wrote:

You learned from us.  You made us feel like our input mattered.  As you taught us, you also thrived on our myriad perspectives.  Due to this simple characteristic, you managed to reach me more than any other teacher had.  Because while other exceptional teachers may have managed to draw out our interest as students, they were the teacher and we, the students.  Not THEIR students, merely THE students.

But with you, we were all in it together.  We thrived and grew off of each other.  And while you were clearly the authority, the source of our knowledge, our teacher, you were also our mentor.  There with us.  Growing with us. ~Daniel

This sense of “all in it together” is a powerful force to embrace, particularly as we find ourselves in the Digital Age. Helping students understand that technology is a tool that can be molded, wielded, created, and enhanced is where teachers are at this moment in education. Integrating technology in curriculum is not an “extra” to be tagged onto a lesson, nor is it something just for the privileged or gifted. If teachers are to ensure that they have adequately prepared students for the kinds of problems that they will encounter in the future, then we must be prepared to learn alongside them, work through the glitches and our own mistakes, and find the balance between what is known and what can be.  I want to continue to thrive and grow with my students.

Philosophies of education can aid new and struggling teachers, but they have to have the opportunity to develop them and live them, not just write them down.  And certainly, not dispense with the exercising of this thought because it requires an adjustment of perspective. To the contrary, that is why teachers should be asked to reflect on their philosophy, again and again. 

Mindy and some of her former students wrote Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school.