Green Decorative Wheat

Establishing Authority in Your Course

Establishing authority is hard. And teaching is scary. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not doing you any favors.

Most new professors and GTA's have received little or no training in the nuts-and-bolts of teaching. Even professors with degrees in education rarely learn much about the university classroom in their programs. But the academic life requires regular teaching, and that means most new professors have to figure out how to teach while in the classroom.

But how do people learn to establish authority before they feel in charge? Can there be a kind of temporary authority a person can borrow before the organic kind takes hold?


Well, maybe. New professors can certainly practice habits that will make establishing real authority possible. But the process is a challenge: there is no one-size-fits-all answer for authority because authentic authority comes from being the authentic you in your classroom.

Yet while there is no single path to good classroom management, there are good maps. Here are three that might help you. Feel free to pick-and-choose from them to fit your needs.

Authority according to the National Education Association

The National Education Association (NEA) provides guidance for K-12 teachers on its website. A recent article summarized much of the standard classroom management advice given to new teachers. According to the NEA, teachers can establish authority by:

  1. Looking the part: Come to class looking like a professional. Business casual clothing might be appropriate, although how you define "professional" in your field might vary from that norm.
  2. Beginning to forge connections immediately: Work to establish meaningful and genuine connections with your students from the moment you meet them, even if that's before the first day of class. Students find it easier to take direction from teachers they can bond with.
  3. Setting clear and high expectations of the students: Students will always "live down to low expectations," so it is critical to establish a norm of excellence in your classroom.
  4. Picking their battles: Not every "battle" in the classroom can, or should, be won by the teacher. Respect students for their individuality and accept that micromanagement and authoritarian rule are ineffective strategies.
  5. Finding good role models: No one can be perfectly successful at the start. That is why it is important to seek relationships with seasoned teachers who can provide guidance and advice along the way.

The underlying theme of this list is that teachers and students must form a community. The teacher is the clear leader, but the relationships between the teacher and the students is important and dynamic. Successful teachers encourage good behavior through the strength of these relationships.

Authority and a power model

While authority is not the same thing as power, the concepts are related. Schrodt, Witt, and Truman (2007) discuss five sources of professor power in the university classroom:

  1. Reward Power: The instructor provides tangible or intangible rewards such as points, grades, or prizes.
  2. Coercive Power: The students will be punished if they do not comply with the professor's requests.
  3. Referent Power: The student complies because of a friendship with the professor.
  4. Expert Power: The instructor has information, knowledge, and/or wisdom that means he or she "knows best."
  5. Legitimate Power: The students must comply because they are required to by the instructor, department, or the university.

The higher ed environment is well-adapted to the power model of authority, so this model is likely to seem familiar. Students do what they "have" to do to get good grades, good recommendations, and good jobs. Disobedience undermines academic success at all levels.

Authority and the voice of experience

I have been a college professor since January 4, 1992, and I've taught at least one class every spring, summer, and fall term since then. Perhaps you will allow me to be your mentor for a moment. I believe that establishing authority is the critical cornerstone to good classroom management, student satisfaction, and student success. Let me be blunt: it's my observation that people who are good at running a classroom have a more satisfying career, have students who learn more, and get better teaching evaluations. It's worth it to learn how to exude authority. Here is my advice:

  1. Buy into it: You have to believe that authority is legitimate, does not have to be coercive, and will lead to the best outcomes for everyone.
  2. Come prepared: Authority in the higher education classroom cannot be separated from knowledge, understanding, and mastery. If you don't know your stuff, learn it. And keep learning it. The books you read last year or ten years ago are wearing off. Stay interested and engaged in your teaching fields.
  3. Learn students' names: This is tough. But there is nothing quite like a name both for establishing contact and for communicating discontent.
  4. Set strict rules, and be willing to loosen the grip over time: It's always easier to back off a bit after you have set the bar than it is to raise a bar that was once low. Many professors get this one backward. They will give full points for a first assignment just for handing it in on time, and then they "expect more" as the semester goes on. Don't go down this path. Set the bar as high as you can, and if you find it's too high, you can do your class a "favor" and back off a bit down the road.
  5. Admit ignorance: This one is hard. After all, "imposter syndrome" is both real and painful, and admitting ignorance feels like saying "I shouldn't be here. I'm not good enough." But you must get over yourself. Not only do you not know everything there is to know about your field, you don't even know everything about the subject your are teaching on any given day. Admit ignorance immediately, and then fix your it. "Teaching" isn't the same thing as "information sharing" and "learning" isn't the same thing as looking up a fact. If your students are engaged enough to ask you meaningful questions you can't answer, you owe it to them to learn what you must to teach them what they need. Don't disregard them or tell them to Google it.
  6. In online classes, answer student questions yourself: This is another principle I see disregarded by other professors. Instead of monitoring "ask the professor" discussion threads, for example, they encourage students to answer each others' questions. But to me, this practice is a mistake. Not only are students likely to give incorrect information, but allowing that to happen communicates that you can't be bothered by student needs, or don't know the answers.

In summary, classroom authority can be reduced to one adage: you must care. You must care enough to show up with your genuine self every time you teach. That's tough. And it's tiring. And its a journey, not a destination. The good news is the journey is your own. Take what advice you find useful, and disregard the rest.