Power, Authority, & Leadership in the Classroom

Power, authority, and leadership are terms that are used frequently. In this post, we will look at these three terms in the context of the classroom.

Power

Power is the ability to get something done despite resistance. In other words, a powerful person can get what they want. The assumption in education is that the teacher is the primary source of power in the classroom. However, a powerful person may not necessarily be in a leadership position. For example, a problematic student can be extremely powerful through disrupting class. Their behavior can grind instruction to a halt while the teacher looks for ways to remove the distraction.

There are several forms of power that a teacher or even a student can tap into in the classroom. Coercive power is the ability to make someone comply with orders. Such as when a parent makes a child do something they do not want to do. Normative power is a form of power that implies that the people in the organization or classroom should act a certain way. An example of this would be peer pressure which can get even adults to do crazy things.

Utilitarian power is a form of give and take. In other words, a student might cooperate to gain or avoid losing a privilege. These forms of power are derived from a teacher’s expertise, ability to reward, and there role as a teacher. What this means is that if a teacher knows their material, it can be a source of power. If Teachers can grant or take away, privileges students will notice this as well. Lastly, the position of the teacher ensures that whoever is the teacher will by their title have a specific power in the classroom.

Students can also tap into some of these forms of power. FOr example, athletic students have shown expert power in sports which is often an appreciated skill in school. Older students often have a form of legitimate power due in part to their age and, in some cases, size.

Authority

Authority is the context in which power can be exercised. For example, a teacher has the authority, or permission, to tell a student what to do. However, it is a rare situation in which a teacher can tell an administrator what to do. The same applies to students. Generally, students lack authority. Yet, there are situations in which a teacher will obey a student, such as when they are having problems with technology or their cellphone.

A common mistake teachers and students have is understanding the boundaries of their authority. There are times when a teacher has the right to exercise power, times when they can exercise power and shouldn’t, and times when they cannot exercise power. For example, teachers have the authority to give out assignments and homework. However, generally, a teacher has the authority but probably should not fail all the students on a given assignment because it indicates that the students were not adequately prepared for the assessment.

In addition, teachers have less authority over students who are not directly in their classes. As such, when one of these students is disruptive, the teacher should typically communicate with the disruptive student’s teacher. Crossing disciplinary lines like this can become confusing due to the lack of a prior relationship with the problem student.

Leadership

One definition of leadership is the ability to get others to do things willingly. Leadership is more of a measure of a teacher’s soft skills when compared to power or authority. When students are choosing to cooperate because they want to, this is an example of leadership. When a student stops misbehaving of their own volition, this is another example of leadership.

Leadership is another tool along with power and authority that can mix to make each teacher’s unique approach to classroom management. It is impractical to say that power and authority are not acceptable tools for student compliance. The only mistake a teacher can make is to use any single approach exclusively. A one-tool teacher is always going to alienate students who do not respond well to the only tool the teacher has. Some students need coercion, while others need inspiration. A good teacher identifies the needs of the students and makes adjustments appropriately. This is yet another form of leadership.

Conclusion

This post look at power, authority, and leadership in the classroom. Each of these are practical ways to work with students. It is also important to realize that all of these tools work together to help students succeed in the classroom.

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