From a young age, we are told to respect this word. Follow it. Obey it without question.
Great minds like Oscar Wilde and Albert Einstein told us to resist it. Defy it. Stand up and fight it. We like it when we have it, but hate it when it’s used against us. What is that term, I hear you ask?
That word is ‘authority.’
In our civilised societies, we don’t do authority well. We have a really dysfunctional, ‘Ross-and-Rachel-from-Friends’ type relationship with it without the happy ending. Teachers have it, but either use it poorly or wield it like Thanos with his Infinity Gauntlet.
But this lack of understanding makes us poor at managing classroom behaviour - and we need to fix that.
Dear teachers, in this blogpost, we will take a deep dive into this tricky term. We will look at:
What authority actually is.
The different parts that make-up authority and how they work together.
And most importantly,
How we can build our authority and use it to become respected leaders of our classrooms.
With this new understanding, you will be one step closer to becoming a behaviour management master. Let’s proceed.
What is Authority?
Think of a famous historical leader who had authority. Who came to mind? Adolf Hitler? Saddam Hussein? Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons? These folks tend not to be the cute and cuddly types...
‘Authority’ has become the naughty nickname of ‘power’ and now receives the same distrust. In our time, societies around the world have become more sensitive to people and institutions that abuse their position. More than ever, people are more prepared to question and challenge the-powers-that-be and hold them to account — which of course is the right thing to do.
But before we kick ‘Authority’ out of the house, change the door locks and talk to our lawyers, let’s take a closer look at what the word actually means. The Oxford Dictionary Online has several definitions of the term1:
1. The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.
Yikes. This is the ‘scary’ authority that we were talking about. But wait, there’s more.
3. The power to influence others, especially because of one's commanding manner or one's recognised knowledge about something.
‘he has the natural authority of one who is used to being obeyed’
3.1 The confidence resulting from personal expertise.
‘he hit the ball with authority’
3.2 A person with extensive or specialised knowledge about a subject; an expert.
‘he was an authority on the stock market’
I love those definitions. ‘Authority’ is so much more than barking orders and making people kneel before you. Your authority includes your expertise, wisdom and your ability to pass on your knowledge to your students.
If you want further proof about the power of positive authority, I want you to imagine you are on your way to work and you see a stranger lying in the road, unconscious and clearly in a bad way. You freeze — apart from the basic First Aid training you learnt at the Cadets, you don’t know how you can help this person.
All of a sudden, a stranger sprints up to you, explaining she’s a doctor. She checks the patient at lightning speed and reassures him that help is on the way. She tells you to help her treat the victim while instructing people in the crowd to call the ambulance. When help does arrive, she perfectly relays to the paramedics his prognosis, all in a graceful and efficient manner.
The Doctor was calm, assertive and totally in control of the situation. Throughout the crisis, she kept it together and lead a team of strangers to save the person’s life. She went beyond having authority — she became a leader.
Many men and women a lot smarter than me, have discussed and wrote about this subject for centuries. But for this blogpost, I just want to talk about two flavours: Positional Authority and Personal Authority.
This is also known as ‘Institutional Authority.’ This is the authority that is bestowed on you by having a certain position, title or social standing.
Positional Authority is very closely related to power, which is the ability to make people do what you want, whether they like it or not. In most societies, the more Positional Power you have, the more money, connections and fame you receive.
This type of authority is external — other people can see it and in some cases, must obey it. For example, The UK Prime Minister has more Positional Authority than the Mayor of London.
Authority doesn’t only exist in Politics but anywhere where there is a group of people. Wherever you get a coalition of individuals acting together, there will always be a leader and others that must follow.
As a teacher in charge of students, you are naturally in a position of authority. You are responsible for their wellbeing and safety and you are the ‘top dog’ in your class. But Positional Authority is not enough by itself to lead successfully in the long term.
With the internet, our tech-savvy students have been given a platform to voice their opinions more than any youths in human history and they expect to be listened to — whether we, the adults, like it or not.
If you only use Positional Authority to ‘get your way,’ the most you will ever get is compliance. The moment your Positional Authority waivers, they will rebel against you. But that’s not the end of the story.
Personal Authority is an entirely different beast. Leadership expert Robert C. Maxwell called this ‘influence’ in his book “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.” Maxwell describes it as follows:
“Character - who you are
Relationships - who you know
Knowledge - what you know
Intuition - what you feel
Experience - where you have been
Past success — what you’ve done
Ability - what you can do2.”
Personal Authority is the quieter, but just as confident sibling, to Positional Authority. This authority comes from who you are as a person, rather than the title that you hold. Personal Authority is internal - it may not be seen but can be felt by the people in the room.
The beautiful thing about Personal Authority is you don’t need anyone to give it to you - you can build it wherever you are. Plus, if you get really master it, your Personal Authority can outshine those who are higher up the totem pole than you are.
Greta Thunberg is a 16-year-old environmental activist, who doesn’t hold a political office, yet her passionate speeches and extraordinary ability to connect to the youth has swept her into the highest corridors of power, addressing world leaders and celebrities alike. What did you do when you were 16?
Here’s how to turbocharge your Personal Authority.
1) Become a better communicator - You have to learn to be able to communicate your ideas and thoughts in a confident and engaging way. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and President Barack Obama changed the course of history by speaking brilliantly.
If you speak with the excitement of a librarian ordering a new pack of handwriting pens, your students will start an uprising. You need to be able to tell compelling stories, sell your ideas and use your body and voice to inspire and motivate your learners.
2) Build better relationships - The more you get to know and understand your students, the more opportunities that you will have to influence them. It’s that simple.
As my mentor once said to me, “no one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” You have to be able to get into the skin of the people that you teach and know how they tick. Do this well and your students will think you are Professor Xavier, but with better hair.
Positional Authority may get you to the front of the house but its Personal Authority that unlocks the door. If you are a teacher, lecturer or mentor you already have bags of Positional Authority. To promote positive behaviour in the long term, you need to build your personal authority like an athlete builds their body in the gym. If you master both parts of authority, you will not only have their attention but their hearts and minds as well.
So remember this equation:
AUTHORITY = Position (your role) + Personality (who you are, what you do and how you do it).
We've covered one area but a single blogpost is not enough. This is just the garlic bread at the beginning of a three-course meal. Subscribe to this blog below to get the latest updates, freebies and giveaways to make you the action hero of your classroom.
Karl from the actionheroteacher.com
1. Oxford Dictionary. 2018. Definition of authority in English. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/authority.
2. Maxwell, R., 2007. The 21 Irrefutable Laws Of Leadership. 2nd ed. Nashville, Tennesse, USA: Thomas Nelson. Page 21