“Stop Putting Cheetos in His Hat”: Establishing Proper Authority in the Classroom

Classroom management is a part of teaching that we as teachers often dread. Despite five years of running an ordered classroom, I still have nightmares about teaching students who won’t listen to me. Inevitably, my dream-self begins shouting to be heard above all the ruckus; inevitably, the dream ends in anarchy and failure. 

I am grateful that I never experienced such disasters in real life. It is true, my classroom was not always a peaceful haven of prim and proper youth; there were good days and bad days, and there were times when I thought of the right thing to do about thirty minutes (or a week) after any relevant action could be taken. However, I did learn to operate my classroom on some basic tenants of order and peace that I think may be useful to other teachers and even to parents, as many of the same principles of discipline are likely applicable at home. 

To that end, I am sharing here some of what I learned about how to keep the chaotic impulses of twenty to thirty young teens from derailing their education—and my sanity. 

Understanding Authority

Authority is often misunderstood. We tend to associate the word with authoritarianism and therefore with imaginary scenes of militaristic regimentation, painfully straight lines and voices hushed in trepidation, grim-faced instructors with grey clothing and even greyer dispositions. 

This is not what authority means in the classroom, however. Authority, properly understood, is a beautiful gift to the students because it grants them freedom within bounds of what is good. No one is free in the anarchic classroom, for the teacher is oppressed by the caprices of the students, and the students are prohibited by their own disorder from pursuing their own good through learning.

(Those who suggest that students will, of their own accord and with no external prompting or requirement, pursue that which is best for them and their education, would do well to observe more carefully the impulses of teenagers.)

Thus, there must be order. The teacher’s responsibility is to enforce order; the students’ responsibility is to exercise self-control in accordance with the given parameters. 

The question then remains—how is such order to be brought about? What can the teacher do to establish healthy authority in the classroom? 

Establishing Invisible Authority

The best teachers are in complete control of the room without seeming to do anything at all. This type of mysteriously invisible authority is not suffocating to students; in fact, they find it liberating to subsist under a set of clear and enforced, yet generous, rules.

Yet how can teachers be in control of the room without doing anything? The answer is, of course, that they are doing a lot, but that they need not make a show about it.

Be Confident

First, the teacher must be incredibly confident. Teachers cannot be rattled by little personal insults (such as, “Teachers don’t know how to have fun” or “Before you turned around, I thought your hair was a cat” or “How old are you, anyway”). Teachers cannot be rattled by circumstance, either. So Timmy burned his popcorn in the microwave and the fire alarm went off? Ok, let’s proceed outside, please. So Jake and Laura are arguing about who put Cheetos in John’s hat? Ok, no problem; give me the hat. Nothing is unexpected; nothing is disturbing; we are always at ease and always sure of what to do. Even when we aren’t sure of what to do, we must draw on our acting skills—all the world’s a stage, after all—to give the impression that we are still at ease and in control. The act is not intended to deceive, but to prevent the chaos that will ensue when we let circumstances get the best of us.

However, confidence should not be mistaken for arrogance. The teacher who presumes to know everything, or is too proud to admit mistakes, will be loathed by the students and lose all authority by means of losing all respect. In fact, admitting mistakes or lack of knowledge is a sign of great confidence because it shows us to be unafraid of seeming weak. 

Expect Compliance

Part of our invisible authority as teachers also arises from our unequivocal expectation of compliance. We should be polite and respectful, certainly, but we need not ever ask for behavior in a way that leaves any question as to the acquiescence of our students. “You will take your seats” spoken in an inexplicably certain voice is more effective than, “Will you take your seats now” and decidedly more effective than begging, “Will you all please just take your seats?”

Enforce Consequences

Expecting compliance does not mean we will have a one hundred percent success rate, of course, and therefore, we must have a clear system of consequences which we are willing and able to implement when behavior is egregious enough. Consequences should not be punitive, but kind: they should exist to teach students that negative behaviors in fact cause harm to self and to others. Even a single act of implementing a consequence will continue to promote order in our classrooms for days to come. 

Think Ahead

The most effective teachers also follow the rule of cross-examination laid out in chapter 17 of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don’t already know the answer to. . . Do it, and you’ll often get an answer you don’t want, an answer that might wreck your case” (237). We must be at least one, though preferably two or three, steps ahead of our students at all times, or we may find ourselves in rather uncomfortable and weak situations. 

If, to the boy who slides out under his desk to stand up (rather than pushing back his chair), we say, “do you know how dirty that floor is,” out of some idea that filth will scare him from the behavior, he is likely to say, “not as dirty as my backside is now” and incite the whole class to laugher at our expense. Even if we go on to implement a consequence for his insolence, we shall have lost; the favor of the class is now with him for providing a bit of entertainment and for making the teacher look silly. We should have been smart enough to see that dirt would not intimidate a teenage boy, and we certainly should have known that a question as open-ended as the one we asked would produce in the teenage mind a plethora of humorous, though disrespectful, retorts. We would have done better in the given situation to say something more pointed (assuming that the child is doing this for attention and can take a bit of a jab): “Oh, Jack, you don’t need to do that. The chair does move when you push on the ground with your feet.” Or, perhaps we could have let the incident pass unnoticed (that was the course I took when such behavior occurred in my room). Until repeated or emulated by others, many actions themselves are relatively harmless and probably done for attention. Giving them no attention at all might be the best way for them to fizzle out peaceably on their own.

Know the Material

What is more, we can achieve the aforementioned invisible authority best when we know our material well. My worst-behaving classes have been the ones in which the subject was outside my area of expertise. Too much of my minute-to-minute mental energy was consumed with thinking about the material for me to be able to give the social dynamics of the classroom the attention they needed. Moreover, my confidence was rattled by having to say “I don’t know” or pause too many times, and the students felt the weakness. 

Understand the Students

Another characteristic of invisible authority is reading and understanding people well. We will not always be able to placate our classes by giving them what they want, but we certainly must know when they are displeased if we wish to maintain their respect. If we get to the point of eye-rolling, we have missed many preliminary signs: the blank stares of boredom, the slight widening of the eyes when the assignments are given, the exchanging of glances, the dogged copying into planners, the increased slouching. Perhaps even more critical, though, than reading student responses to our class, is reading their responses to us. Students tend to write off those who misunderstand them and outright despise those whose attempts to be funny, kind, or motivating come across as dorky, condescending, or ruthless. Students should learn to be gracious, but our classroom management will improve if we are able to maintain their good favor even when they are harsh.

Be Kind

One of the best ways to obtain that good favor is just to be genuinely kind. Of course, we should be kind simply because it is right. However, it is worth noting that kindness will also improve our classroom management. There is always a bit of tension in the classroom, because students do not like to be told what to do, and they will grate against the existence of any kind of authority. Kindness helps to bridge the divide. If students know that at the end of the day, we care about them, they will listen to us a thousand times better than if they believe that we are out to get them.

Avoiding Pitfalls

Establishing these behaviors and mindsets will help us establish healthy authority in our rooms. We would do well, however, also to be aware of a number of tempting pitfalls that can divert our attention from establishing propitious order.

First, there is a temptation to think that micromanaging our students is the best way to establish our authority. We mistakenly think that if we do not govern every little detail, the whole room will spiral out of control. We must schedule when kids can go to the bathroom; we must limit what they can bring to class; we must say no food at any times; we must put an end to all talking. Unfortunately, such thinking is mistaken. An excellent way to ensure that our classrooms will spiral out of control is to exasperate our students with nitpicking and minutia. As soon as we start to mandate inconsequential things, our students will begin to discount our voice even on consequential matters. Soon, we will have lost all authority and respect because we were too concerned about pen color and shoe style.

Second, we may be tempted to think that authority demands that we be unkind. Somehow, we get caught up in a misconception that generosity and care for our students weakens our control of the classroom. This is ridiculous; we do need to know when to be generous and when to tow the line, but underneath it all, our selfless care for our students must be evident to them, or they will only fear us and never grow to respect us.

Third, and conversely, we may think that all authority and consequences are synonymous with unkindness. Here, we must be careful to understand the definition of kindness. It is not kind to let those who are in our care do things which are to their detriment. Indulging our students in their whims and transient desires is actually doing them an unkindness, for they need to learn discipline, and they need an ordered environment for their education.

Fourth, there is a temptation to see emotion is a sign of authority. The teacher who falls to this temptation seeks to establish authority through volume and intensity of voice, degree of frustration with misbehavior, and expression of displeasure with students. However, emotional responses to misbehavior do not contribute to invisible authority at all; they undermine the student/teacher relationship; they show weakness on the part of the teacher to be so affected by student behavior; and they tend to escalate, rather than deescalate, conflicts. The teacher who is able to remain calm and even smile regardless of student behavior is the teacher who is truly in control of self and of the room.

In conclusion, we should see our authority not as an affront to student liberty, but as a protection of student liberty. We must be in control of ourselves before we can be in control of the room, and we must understand our students. Ultimately, we should seek the best for them, even when what is best is not what they want, for discipline itself is a means by which we can show Christian charity to those who have, for a moment, been granted into our care.