Don’t Fall For Authoritarian Language

A young teacher in Philadelphia I know recently liked one of those teacher posters on Facebook. It was one of the ones that was a “I am a no-nonsense teacher, here to make sure you learn” posters. It included the line, “My classroom is not a democracy,” and other chestnuts of autocratic teacher-language.

I want this teacher — and all teachers — to be better than that.

I want her to understand that the choices she makes as a teacher will be better if she listens to students, not just about the questions they ask about math or science or English, but the meta-questions they ask as well.

I want her to understand her authority as a teacher doesn’t come from being “tough,” but rather being caring.

I want her to understand that when we use language that denies students agency, there will be students in that classroom that will view us as more concerned with our subjects than with them, no matter how much we tell them that we can about them in other moments.

I want her to understand that, yes, we need to hold kids accountable for their work, but if we do not listen to why an assignment was missed, we may lose a moment to understand our students better.

I want her to understand that our classrooms are about the intersections of our needs and our student’s needs, and in too many classes, the question, “What do you need right now?” is never asked.

I want her to understand that structures can be democratic, so that students can learn how and when and why to use their voice in learning — and all — spaces.

I want her to understand that posters like the one she liked is dangerously seductive, because as a young teacher who doesn’t feel fully at home in her “teacher-self” yet, the idea that we can be the authoritarian figures in our classrooms feels comforting and empowering, but the empowerment that poster was offering  comes at the cost of the agency of our students.

I want her to understand that she can be a teacher who has the respect of her students, who can create smart systems and structures that allow all students to learn, who can have a classroom that is a place of powerful learning, and who can listen to students’ needs at the same time. And while that might seem really daunting, especially in that first year, it is always, always worth it.

15 thoughts on “Don’t Fall For Authoritarian Language

  1. I wonder about the system that has mentored and trained this young teacher. If she was guided in a way that left her with the impression that children should be oppressed and control of one’s classroom needs to be firmly taken by the teacher, with no concern for individuals’ needs then I say this system must be changed.

  2. As a new teacher myself, I’m finding that it feels like the authoritarian discourse on education is everywhere– particularly many of the schools that are hiring. So I guess my question is, how do new teachers maintain a belief in that democratic vision of education you talk about, when the authoritarian language is who’s hiring, who’s in the news, and who’s supported by the government?

    In other words, in today’s school reform climate, what alternatives/role models do new teachers like me have to look to? While there are many older, more experienced educators (such as the video above) who can talk beautifully about democratic education, it’s been harder for me to find models of young teachers trying to figure this all out. For that matter, how did new progressive teachers avoid this kind of discourse in the past? As you know, I have a strong foundation from the progressive educators and activists that I’ve been around my whole life, and even with that I understand the temptation.

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  5. I fully agree that students need democracy in their classrooms; that they need a welcoming, and safe environment to experiment, and to learn. In my class, I try to let my students make as many decisions as they can. They are given options for their learning, and for what they want to learn, if it fits the resources we have (IE: computer time, classroom time, reporting timeframes). I am not a teacher who focuses on the negative, or complains about individual kids in my spare time. I do not ‘stress’ about having my curriculum covered; if I can spend an extra day or week on a concept, to further student learning and inquiry, I will.

    Despite all this ‘enlightened-ness’, and wanting to put the student first, I do still see a place for an authoritative role, when it is needed. I teach 14 year olds, who, by nature, push and test the rules (that often, they set up in the first place). Good classroom management sets the tone for more non-traditional traditional teaching methods in class. I wouldn’t be able to have the kids do some of the activities we do in class, if I did not wear the authoritarian hat, from time to time. Is there no place anymore for a stern glare, or a strict verbal warning?

    Mark Palma, 12 year teacher, London, Canada.

    • Oh, it definitely has its place. It’s about disposition, I think. It’s about your overall sense of your classroom. There are times when we have to be stern, but if that is your default mode, that’s a problem. For me, there’s a huge difference between authoritative and authoritarian.

      • Chris – yes, if there’s a better illustration of the power of the English language than your differentiation between “authoritative” and “authoritarian”, I would like to see it.
        A fellow teacher here in the UK describes (only half jokingly) the need to avoid smiling contact for the first 2 or 3 weeks with her (challenging) new classes in September. Thereafter she can revert to her default charming mode with confidence. Seems to work – her results are among the best in the school…

        • That is a common theory, here in Ontario, Canada too. I do not subscribe to it. I think there are times to be collegial with students, and times to be authoritative. (13-14 year olds) It is a difficult line to walk…. but it suits my personality better.

    • In my classroom, students can determine the volume of their voice, not by getting louder, rather, by managing their own behavior and the climate so we can all move on to more important things. Young adolescents seem hardwired to seek the boundaries of adult behavior, and many have nearly none at home. It is our responsibility to help them see where these boundaries belong. Yes, there is a place for authority. Without it chaos would ensue.

      Sadly, there are too few public education critics who have enough langage or critical thinking skills to discern the difference between authoritarian and authoritative.

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