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What is the best way to establish your authority as the instructor in a classroom?

I am asking from the perspective of a graduate student who will be TA-ing a large class for the first time. But I think similar advice could be said for new assistant professors who still look like students.

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    Highly recommended: Stephen Krantz, How to Teach Mathematics (AMS). – Daniel R. Collins Mar 25 '17 at 14:40
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    Make sure you're comfortable using the blackboard or whatever you're going to use. You could practice, by putting a friend in the middle of an empty classroom, or at the back. Have your friend give you a signal if it's hard to hear you. // If you want the students to respond to something you say, make sure you clearly state a question. – aparente001 Mar 26 '17 at 3:02
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    dress properly. Nothing like first impressions. – user67075 Mar 26 '17 at 19:40
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    You should try and figure out what authority you actually have before worrying about how to establish it. Can you throw students out of class for serious misbehavior? Are you more knowledgeable than the vast majority of your students (on this topic)? Is this class a mere requirement that many of the students already have mastered as far as they care to (do they really need this class)? How much of the grading is your decision? How much of the syllabus is your decision? Knowing the limits of your authority is a good first step towards establishing it. (not assuming you don't already know this) – Jeutnarg Mar 27 '17 at 16:52
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    s2.quickmeme.com/img/aa/… – Scott Seidman Mar 27 '17 at 18:43
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The position of TA automatically comes with a certain amount of authority, which is referred to as legitimate power. Having said that, you can increase your perceived amount of authority by demonstrating expertise in the subject area (expert power). Expertise needs to be combined with the ability to actually communicate the complex material as well. It is much harder to communicate complex information than it is to be an expert in complex information.

In addition to these skills, authority can be further enhanced through softer skills such as demonstrating care for the students and providing additional support when necessary (referent power).

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    And confidence. Be confident not just in the subject matter, but in your presentation and manner. Know how to use whatever technology is being used - connecting a laptop to a projector, using whatever LMS, etc. – ivanivan Mar 26 '17 at 2:08
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    "you can increase your perceived amount of authority by demonstrating expertise in the subject area (expert power)" - but be careful. Don't try to rest on your "expertise" as a crutch for dismissing student concerns or failing to acknowledge mistakes. Students have a right to be critical to a certain degree of the information they are receiving, in fact, as part of the learning process, they need it. Potential objections and counterobjections need to be addressed respectfully, and not drowned out by force of authority, so that students can fully engage with the material and (cont'd.) – silvascientist Mar 26 '17 at 7:23
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    (cont'd) ... understand all of its intricacies and nuances. Otherwise, they are left with nagging doubts, confusion and misunderstanding. – silvascientist Mar 26 '17 at 7:24
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    @silvascientist Thinking back to my undergraduate days, I think the quickest path toward losing respect for an instructor would have been their failure to understand the legitimate criticism/confusion of a classmate, even if it originated from the student's misunderstanding. Enforcing your authority as an expert can be self-defeating and makes it seem like your expertise derives not from mastery of the subject but from memorization of the flow of the lecture plans. – Bryan Krause Mar 27 '17 at 23:22
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For the large majority of students who are in the class because they want to learn, you don't need to "establish" your authority. You already have it at the start of the course, simply because you are the TA. The thing you have to do is to avoid losing that established authority.

There are two important ways not to lose it. The first (which may only be obvious to you after somebody has stated the obvious!) is to be aware that you already have it, in exactly the same way that if somebody walks into a room wearing a police uniform, they already have authority simply because of "that badge." Of course TA's don't usually wear any distinctive uniform, but it should be clear enough to most people that you are the TA, and not just another student taking the course!

The second way is basically common sense: don't ask the students to do stupid stuff, and don't behave in generally unpredictable or irrational ways.

If you are the person "in charge", other people will expect you to take charge, and tell them what you want them to do - they aren't mind readers! If you have progressed through the education system as far as becoming a TA, you already have a lot of experience of other teachers and lecturers demonstrating that type of behavior (some more competently than others, of course). The only unfamiliar part of the scenario is that you are now the person in charge, not somebody else!

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    This is the answer. As a TA, you already have the authority, unless you do something to lose it. – David Richerby Mar 26 '17 at 9:34
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Acting is a big part of teaching. Thus, I strongly recommend the following book

which contains gems such as these:


We've all observed different kinds of teachers, so if I describe three types of status players commonly found in the teaching profession you may find that you already know exactly what I mean.

I remember one teacher, whom we liked but who couldn't keep discipline. The Headmaster made it obvious that he wanted to fire him, and we decided we'd better behave. Next lesson we sat in a spooky silence for about five minutes, and then one by one we began to fool about — boys jumping from table to table, acetylene-gas exploding in the sink, and so on. Finally, our teacher was given an excellent reference just to get rid of him, and he landed a headmastership at the other end of the county. We were left with the paradox that our behaviour had nothing to do with our conscious intention.

Another teacher, who was generally disliked, never punished and yet exerted a ruthless discipline. In the street he walked with fixity of purpose, striding along and stabbing people with his eyes. Without punishing, or making threats, he filled us with terror. We discussed with awe how terrible life must be for his own children.

A third teacher, who was much loved, never punished but kept excellent discipline, while remaining very human. He would joke with us, and then impose a mysterious stillness. In the street he looked upright, but relaxed, and he smiled easily.

I thought about these teachers a lot, but I couldn't understand the forces operating on us. I would now say that the incompetent teacher was a low-status player: he twitched, he made many unnecessary movements, he went red at the slightest annoyance, and he always seemed like an intruder in the classroom. The one who filled us with terror was a compulsive high-status player. The third was a status expert, raising and lowering his status with great skill. The pleasure attached to misbehaving comes partly from the status changes you make in your teacher. All those jokes on teacher are to make him drop in status. The third teacher could cope easily with any situation by changing his status first.


Again I change my behaviour and become authoritative. I ask them what I've done to create this change in my relation with them, and whatever they guess to be the reason — 'You're holding eye contact', 'You're sitting straighter' — I stop doing, yet the effect continues. Finally I explain that I'm keeping my head still whenever I speak, and that this produces great changes in the way I perceive myself and am perceived by others. I suggest you try it now with anyone you're with. Some people find it impossible to speak with a still head, and more curiously, some students maintain that it's still while they're actually jerking it about. I let such students practise in front of a mirror, or I use videotape. Actors needing authority — tragic heroes and so on — have to learn this still head trick. You can talk and waggle your head about if you play the gravedigger, but not if you play Hamlet. Officers are trained not to move the head while issuing commands.


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Make it clear to the students that attendance is not factored into their grade. If students are being disruptive, remind them that they can leave if they don't want to be there, but if they stay, you expect not to have to talk over them. This speech has solved every behavior problem I've ever had to deal with, but if the problem persists after that, you can make the implicit threat explicit by docking points from whoever is causing problems. (Make sure you have authority to do this.)

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    +1 I like this advice. But make sure to check that "attendance is not factored" is actually allowed at one's institution; in some places that is not a prerogative of the instructor. – Daniel R. Collins Mar 26 '17 at 1:44
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    @BobBrown Note that that cannot be applied in general because not everywhere in the world there are campus cops. In several (many) countries there is no police at all in the university premises. And to be honest I think that that just established that the professor has no authority at all over the students because they have to resort to cops. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 26 '17 at 5:22
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    @BobBrown You want to involve the police to deal with disruptive students?! This seems like an enormous overreaction... I think I would immediately lose all respect for a professor who used such threats of violence to control students (because there is an implicit threat of violence: if you don't comply with the cops, what is going to happen?). – user9646 Mar 26 '17 at 8:50
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    @BobBrown To be honest, regardless of university policies, I find it very disturbing and shocking involving police to deal with noisy students. It may be a cultural difference, but in my view of the world police should be involved only with criminals, and I wouldn't classify chatting students among them. I think, absolutely think, that involving police doesn't establish authority, but just fear. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 26 '17 at 18:55
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    Campus "police" in many places are just a hired security guard, or an experienced person who keeps an eye on CCTV in case any actual police are needed. They have no more legal authority, and in many respects a lot more restriction on what they may or must do, than anybody else. – Nij Mar 27 '17 at 9:25
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I believe that authority can be established, as I believe the question was directed more at the onset of authority in a single class type setting (eg: right before class begins, chaotic scene/ everyone talking amongst themselves) quickly by the instructor/teacher noticeably raising his/her voice louder than the conversational volume, and addressing then group in a louder, deeper, authoritative tone.

Not certain if I remember correctly reading the works of the Lakov, which defines the common audio boundaries we have and set, makes for very interesting reading nonetheless.

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I think a mix of knowledge/competence in ones field of study and confidence are key.

You want to not appear incompetent to keep your initial authority. You want to bring up new and interesting things in the subject of study to motivate and inspire, which is only possible if one with sufficient knowledge of the subject.

As an example: If asked a question, admitting you do not know is better than bs- ing. But knowing the answer is still better.

Leading by example is best. Certain things are permissible and go unsaid. But if being interrupted, one needs enough authority to lay down some laws/ ground rules. Speak loudly and clearly to command attention and have the back of the class hear you without being dictatorial.

Relatability can help. Ask how their day is going and aim for natural human connections more than a business relationship. This can give you respect without "asking" to command it.

Lastly, pay attention to their reactions. Are they paying attention or distracted? Do they understand and follow what you are saying? It's best to think of how you were in a similar class as an undergrad student.

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Don't allow people to interrupt you when you are being instructive. Other than that, being good at explaining things helps a lot. While the students might not seem like it, they do want to learn the material. At least insofar as is necessary for the assignments.

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Know how the class was taught in the past and what students may be expecting. If the class has been taught in a specific way in the past, there will be expectations about how it will run and be taught. These may be good (if the class was taught well and run well) or they may be bad (if the class was not previously taught or run very well). Taking into account what the students expect or hope for will help to establish you as an effective (and thus authoritative) teacher.

Also, as others have mentioned: know how to use the teaching materials. If you use a whiteboard/blackboard: start at one side, use it however you want but then erase the whole thing or a panel at a time and continue on. Dont empty a small space in the middle and continue writing in the small space...

This is an unusual example, but it was the downfall of one of my professors: We had a 2-semester project as part of the final degree requirement and there was a class that went along with this. In the first semester it was only actually held about once a month and only for about 15-30 minutes out of its hour slot. This was sufficient for the instructor to communicate what was needed for the project deadlines and to answer questions. In the second semester we had a new professor teaching it and he really tried so hard but due to the expectation that it would be an infrequent and short class... he failed hard and no one really put effort into the things he assigned past getting the "tick marks" to get the grade. Students felt as if the extended classes were not useful and wasteful of their project-time... I feel bad for him as students were actually quite rude to him in communicating this.

(The relevance of this is that he was NOT respected by the students in this class because the students felt as if the class was wasting their time.)

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I can give you some (humorous but valid) advice on what not to do, based on our teaching workshops. These are from decades ago, but they have stuck with me:

  1. If you are short in stature, do not jump to erase writing on the higher bits of the board. It "undermines your authority".
  2. Always erase using vertical (up and down) strokes. Horizontal strokes "make your butt wiggle".

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