The delicate balance of authority

13th October 1995 at 01:00
I applaud Mike Newby's letter (TES, September 22) emphasising the need for research into the assumptions underlying our society rather than just those questions which come under the problematic heading of "social usefulness".

Is there any research for example being done on that most pernicious phenomenon "authority"? I cannot think of a single more potentially damaging issue to the relationship between class and teacher than an unclear understanding of the role of authority.

Whenever a teacher oversteps the extent to which a class has accepted the need for it, a backlash is expressed in forms of "poor behaviour" and withdrawal (truancy being the ultimate expression of the latter). Teachers often find themselves having to uphold a mushy notion of authority and do not even realise they are exerting it. As a result they cannot recognise reactions to it and resort to more in order to restore "discipline". Some teachers even believe that irrational use of authority is "good" for their charges because they will come across it in the big wide world so they might as well get used to it now.

To give children in schools the respect they deserve, all teachers should be able to explain to them satisfactorily any use of authority they resort to. Once research has raised it to the status of an educational issue it could become the subject of a course providing a forum in which trainee teachers could try to articulate and discuss their understanding of authority and its place in a world where all children learn because they want to, not because they are told to.

The course would also weed out those trainees who could not see the connection between unnegotiated use of authority and the consequent damage to that delicate seedbed of real learning, the unique relationship between every teacher and class.

Much research is devoted to establishing "good practice" in the classroom but good practice stems automatically from a teacher's honest relationship with a class. If research can lead a teacher to look again at his own assumptions on the wider issues as they influence his role in the classroom what could be more "useful".

SIMON BURTON Alberts Cottage Upwaltham Petworth West Sussex

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