We Are All Students, We Are All Teachers. Part 3: Authority Vs. Ego

Authority Vs. Ego

For my first lesson of the year, I like to post the below picture:

The boss would like to see you...
The boss would like to see you…


I then ask the students to answer two questions:

  1. Which person would you rather work for, a boss or a leader?  Why?
  2. Which type of teacher do you think Mr. Sugar wants to be?  Why?

I use the above questioning to set the tone for how the class should run.  I use it as a lead into expectations for student and teacher, as well as introduce the universal classroom rule: Respect Everything: The people, the materials, the content, everything.

As any kindergartner can tell you, public school teachers often have considerable age over their pupils.  This age difference has both positive and negative consequences. Learning from our life’s moments can provide us with unique wisdom in a multitude of situations.  As they say: with age comes experience.  Unfortunately, both tragic and joyous experiences affect psychological reactions in social situations.

As I have gotten older, I am more and more aware of the wealth of experiences that I have accumulated.  Obviously, this translates well when guiding young people.  When I teach my class about the War On Terror, for instance, I speak as someone with vivid memories of the 9-1-1 attacks.  Most of my students were babies when this event happened, so their knowledge of 9-1-1 comes from textbooks or the first-hand accounts of their elders.  Moreover, when I teach about the Neolithic Revolution (the human shift from hunter/gatherer society to a farming society), I am able to speak as someone with the opportunity to research the topic – even if I was not physically present 12,000+ years ago.  In this sense, my age is an advantage for teacher and student both.

Young people have advantages over their older teachers as well.  Students are often more in tune with what appeals to young people – popular culture and the like.  But also, they are able to remind us of what it was like to be a developing young person. Moreover, the student teaches the teacher.  If a student is struggling to master the content of a lesson, a conscientious teacher will change their instructional approach.

Experience allows us to speak with authority on academic content, yes, but experience also ideally prepares us to notice when we’ve reacted inappropriately in a social situation with a student.  I argue that as human beings, the best trait that human beings can have is honesty.  We all have bad days.  We all make mistakes in reacting to behaviors – and many of these reactions are generated by experiences we’ve endured previously in life.

Every public school teacher has had a student that goes out of their way disrupt the course of a lesson.  Some teachers are quick to yell or insult students.  Others prefer exile from class, detention, or out-of-school suspension for the same negative behaviors that in another teacher’s class would result in a call home or a parent-teacher conference.  As guides, role-models and mentors, we are not perfect beings.  A true role model demonstrates proper behavior of contrition when they make mistakes!

Is it June, yet?
Is it June, yet?

I admit that I have made horrible decisions in addressing negative student behavior!  In one case, I was disciplined for reacting inappropriately to one of my long-standing students.  It happened while I was reading a passage aloud to my class and a student named Ed decided to spit on my new sweater.  I had already asked Ed three times to stop interrupting the reading, and he responded by spitting on me.  In this case, I decided to roll up the piece of paper I was reading and swat Ed in the face with it.  It wasn’t hard, and I barely touched Ed’s cheek.

Ed’s reaction was extreme.  He stormed out of class and I was called down to the principal’s office.  It didn’t matter that Ed had spat on me – I was the teacher and I had touched a student inappropriately.  I would add that Ed’s family and I got along very well, and that he had been my student for a few years already (Ed was 18 years old at the time).  I called Ed’s father and apologized for my reaction.  Ed’s father apologized for my sweater, and also, spoke to the principal on my behalf!

From this experience, I learned that I have to maintain my professional facade at all times – even if I know the student very well, and no matter how the student acts.  I could have certainly addressed Ed in another fashion, but I believe it took this experience for me to understand the level of appropriateness in relating to students.  Also, I realized, that only a teacher would think that they could get away with swatting a student with a piece of rolled up paper and not generate some type of reaction.

From my experience with Ed, I understand the difference between authority and ego.  A student decides to learn (or not learn) from a teacher, based upon the authority of that teacher.  Teachers can demand respect, in order to suit their egos, or, they can command respect by the nature of their behavior.  The longer I teach, the more aware I am of the need to speak with an authority that respects my students.  The question is: how does a teacher derive that authority in healthy manner?

I'll make you an offer you can't refuse.
I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.

The answer, as far as I can tell, centers around how a teacher approaches the relationship between themselves and a novice.  An ole skool math teacher once told me: “Don’t let the students see you smile until the second semester.”  A fellow science teacher here at American High School is infamous for her torrential shouting at students and staff alike.  While these approaches may suit the ego of these teachers (and potentially even keep the class in line), I wonder what the psychological effect is on young learners?

According to 1980s linguist Stephen Krashen, language learning occurs when students are engaged – both consciously and subconsciously – in making connections between prior knowledge and new concepts.  He argued for the existence of an “affective filter”, or a multi-faceted psychological barrier that impedes language and content acquisition when students are: A) Emotionally Insecure B) Unengaged C) Under Anxiety. (Krashen 1988)  If students are intimidated, it is logical to posit that their minds are not operating at peak academic performance!

For reasons of academic scholarship alone, I argue against a Machiavellian classroom ruled by fear of the teacher.  If we must refer to a literary example, I would much prefer John Locke’s ideas of life and liberty.  After all, what would one teacher truly be able to do if 34 students decided to simultaneously walk out of the classroom?  For one, that’s a lot of paperwork and calls to parents.  Second, administration would immediately question what led up to said walk-out.  While a military academy may necessitate an authoritarian classroom model while training cadets for the stress of combat, public schools are academic institutions designed to foster the intellectual development of all pupils.  In this regard, students need an environment that encourages them to take risks and regard their teachers as guides, not totalitarian dictators.

“And then we said, finish it for homework!”

While a public school student, I myself experienced a great deal of anxiety from emotionally aggressive, socially disrespectful teachers. My anxiety was coupled with the influence of ADHD, which already caused tension between myself and certain types of teachers.  Some teachers couldn’t handle that I would inadvertently talk or read a book when I finished my worksheet early (to say nothing of the error of relying too heavily on worksheets).  Other teachers loved my level of energy and encouraged me to help classmates or read ahead in the textbook.  I will let the readers guess which of the two aforementioned classes I excelled in, and which classes I barely passed.

Remember too, that by their very nature, young people are developing their identities and feel a sense of insecurity about the world.  Each one of us recalls the awkwardness of adolescence!  So, I cannot help but question the reason that a teacher would try to shout-down or insult a student.  I admit that I have a sarcastic sense of humor, and that my students and I are known to trade a few barbs with each other.  This past week, one student said that I have a haircut like Count Dracula.  In reply, I asked the student whether that last insult was an example of a simile or a metaphor.

If a teacher gets into an argument with a student, the teacher can either immediately assume that they, as the adult, are correct – or – attempt to mediate the situation as the teacher would with a fellow adult.  By mediating, the teacher is not only able to evaluate where they may have erred in the social situation, but also, develops the respect of the student.  Some of my most loyal students have developed as a result of our disagreements.

So, true authority is developed over time by a teacher that demonstrates their commitment to the success of every student.  The teacher should have high behavioral and academic expectations.  Moreover, the teacher should explain the reason for these expectations.  Sound behavior is expected, so that pupils will know how to act professionally when the time comes.  Academic dedication is necessary, so that students learn as much as possible in preparation for more rigorous skills and concepts.

A student that falls short of either type of expectations should be guided respectfully by the teacher, and also, have the rationale for the expectations reiterated.  Should the teacher fall short of the class expectations – behavioral or academic – the student(s) involved deserve an apology, as well as a plan of how the teacher will repair the lapse in expectations.  This is the basis of professional, respectful behavior between adults – so why should it be any different between students and teachers?

Again, teaching is both modeling concepts and explicitly instructing them.  An adult teacher that makes a mistake must model appropriate behavior of how to rectify the mistake.  A teacher without an ego will do so willingly, because they have violated their own human morals.  Moreover, none of us are perfect.  It should not bruise our self-worth to admit when we made a mistake and then demonstrate what we learned from it.

In closing, I would like to return to the idea that all people are students and all are teachers.  My students have taught me a great deal: about the newest trends; how to speak to people outside of my age, gender and culture; and what students mean when they say “I can’t do this”, “this is boring” or “I don’t understand.”  They also have taught me about what they are afraid of as they move into adulthood.

All of these lessons have shown me that the traditional authoritarian model of public education is flawed.  Our classroom social dynamics, combined with a wealth of other indicators, has convinced me that the education system of the United States is broken.  In my next post, I will illustrate these indicators, in order to justify the need for an educational revolution in this country.

Scholarly Sources For This Post:

Krashen, Stephen D.  Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning.  Prentice-Hall International, 1988.

Author: Doctor Sugar

Disabled. Hyperactive. Disorganized. Anti-Authoritarian. Highly Effective*. I am an instructor of English as a New Language (ENL/TESOL) to exceptional learners ("Special Education") at American High School in Bronx, New York. My joy is guiding teenagers towards literacy and productive lives. In my spare time, I rhyme, study the martial sciences, cook for my wife, and play with my daughter. This blog is informed by my own experiences as: 1) An adult with multiple learning disabilities. 2) A doctoral student (ongoing). 3) A former lobbyist for higher education and public school reform. 4) A Teacher's Union Organizer in multiple states. 5) An educational sales rep for corporate America. 6) A private tutor, both for the privileged and undeserved alike. The purpose of this blog is threefold: 1. To model my experiences for the students and educators that I mentor. 2. To document my personal experiences as I grow as an educator, while commenting on education, labor, and society. 3. To provide public accountability so that I reach my personal goals. 4. To mock, satirize, jive, jeer, jest, jeckle, heckle, hoodwink, bamboozle and flim-flam banal aspects of academic life.** Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. Peace. Love. Respect. Jacob Sugar *According to the Danielson Rubric For Teaching, I am rated as a "Highly Effective" teacher on the basis of classroom instructional observations. Combined with the standardized test scores of my students, I am just barely rated as "Highly Effective." According to the NYS battery of teacher examinations, I am in the 96th percentile in every subject area. My GRE scores place me in the bottom 25th percentile for Verbal Reasoning AND Mathematical Reasoning. My credit score is in the Good range, with a poor debt-to-income ratio (you read that part about the Master's Degree and Ph.D, yes?). **Did you see what I did there?

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